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Craig Kapitan, News Service (650) 724-5708;

Recognizing racism matters, says Stanford administrator LaDoris Cordell

One night shortly after the birth of her first child, LaDoris Cordell was driving through Palo Alto with her then-husband and a friend. Without warning, they were pulled over by a pack of patrol cars lights flashing and sirens blaring.

"We were ordered out of our car by a police officer who yelled at us through a bullhorn, and we were told to stand with our arms and legs outstretched facing the wall of a market there on the corner," Cordell, Stanford's vice provost for campus relations, told a silent crowd Oct. 24. "When I quickly glanced around, I could not believe what was happening. I saw officers frantically searching our car while others stood barricaded behind the doors of their patrol cars pointing their .357 Magnums and shotguns at our heads. I turned to face the wall and prayed that I would not die that night."

It turns out the stop was a mistake officers were looking for three black men who had fled on foot after robbing a Baskin-Robbins ice cream store. "I was once again reminded that the bureaucracy saw me first and foremost as black certainly not as an attorney, nor even in that case making the fine distinction between three black men or two black men and a black woman," she said.

The incident, recited inside Memorial Church during a presentation for the "What Matters to Me and Why" series, was not Cordell's first run-in with racism. She recalled being verbally assaulted with a racial slur at age 6 or 7 after accidentally bumping a white man's car with a shopping cart, a classmate in grade school using the same term for her father, who was the first black president of her school's PTA, and high school counselors never encouraging her to apply to Ivy League schools despite her straight A's.

And, unfortunately, the incident was also not her last. In 1978, after attending Stanford Law School and having practiced law for three years, Cordell returned to the Farm as assistant dean of the Law School.

The school had embarked on a major minority recruitment effort and gave her plenty of leverage in developing the program. Within a year of her arrival, Stanford went from last place to first among major law schools in enrollment of African American and Hispanic students. So when she was called into the dean's office one day for a meeting, she was totally unprepared for the reception she received, she said.

"Instead of accolades, I was berated for doing too much," she told the crowd. "I was devastated, I was hurt and I was furious with what I felt to be the dean's racist attitude toward me." Now looking back on the situation, Cordell said there were probably factors at play other than intentional racism. For one, the dean probably felt threatened by her success at only age 28. But racism involves a complicated set of variables psychological, economical, political and sociological, she said.

"If racism were always examples in its purest form, combating it would be fairly straightforward," she said. "It is rare, however, to confront people in white sheets hatefully hurling racial epithets."

She decided to leave the position because, "for me, the price of staying at Stanford was not what I was willing to pay." The decision ended up being a good one. Shortly thereafter, she served on the Municipal Court of Santa Clara County and became the first African American female judge in Northern California. Then in 1988 she won an election to become the first African American Superior Court judge in Santa Clara County.

However, even with all the respect accorded to a seasoned judge, still she was not able to escape being seen first and foremost as "black."

"Those who have big money to give are generally successful businessmen, and most of them are white," she said, explaining that a large part of her campaign for the Superior Court was to raise money. "The difficulty for me was putting up with the insulting comments the products of obliviousness to racial sensibility."

She told the story of a successful lawyer who, drunk at a banquet, pinched her chin and said, "We need a pretty black girl like you on Superior Court." There also was the wealthy businessman who insisted that one of her parents was white; then, after telling her that the song "Yellow Rose of Texas" was about "a high yellow woman" like her, he presented Cordell with a big campaign contribution.

"I took the check, then I went home and took a shower," she said.

Perhaps Stanford should have classes aimed at teaching racial tolerance, Cordell suggested. In her new position at Stanford, which also includes being a special counselor to the president, she could help develop such an initiative. Recently she helped in initiating a campus-wide protocol for responding to acts of intolerance on campus.

However, the problem with requiring such classes is that while racial sensibilities can be learned, they cannot be taught to people who are convinced they aren't racist, she said. The police officers who detained her, the wealthy businessman who insulted her and the Stanford administrator who berated her all most likely would scoff at an accusation they were motivated by racism. The same could be said for most other community members if it was implied they might harbor racist thoughts.

"Before we can begin to address prejudice, we must become aware that we just might be prejudiced," Cordell said. "The system must examine its biases and we must examine ours."

The "What Matters to Me and Why" series encourages reflection within the Stanford community on matters of personal values, beliefs and motivations in order to better understand those who shape the university. The next speaker in the series, Jennifer Trimble, is scheduled for Oct. 31 at noon in the Memorial Church side chapel. Trimble, an assistant professor of classics, specializes in visual imagery in the Roman Empire. She has worked with the Stanford Digital Forma Urbis Romae Project.


By Craig Kapitan

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