Last summer, a profound racial reckoning swept the United States and, to some extent, the world. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans killed by the police, coupled with a pandemic disproportionately afflicting Black Americans, made the persistence of racism undeniable, says Stanford legal scholar Ralph Richard Banks.

Stanford Law Professor Ralph Richard Banks and Associate Dean for Public Service and Public Interest Law Diane Chin have established the Stanford Center for Racial Justice to address racial inequality and division in America. (Image credit: Courtesy Stanford Law School)

“It seems hard to argue against racial inequality in society. I think that has motivated people to want to do something and to ask, ‘Is this the society I want to live in?’ The question is, how long will people continue to have that sense of the urgency to do something?” said Banks, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School (SLS).

That’s where the Stanford Center for Racial Justice (SCRJ) fits in. While situated within the law school, the aim of the SCRJ is to leverage the resources and capabilities of the broader university to further racial justice in ways that strengthen democracy.

Banks and Diane Chin, the associate dean for public service and public interest law and center’s acting director, launched the SCRJ in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement to help do the hard work of dismantling the policies and practices that perpetuate systemic racism and to identify solutions that could bring forth a more equitable world.

“Our goal is to create systems, policies, structures that ensure that racial barriers no longer persist,” Chin said, “and that each of us has a way to pursue and feel supported in pursuing the work that we want, living where we want, the schools we want for our children, healthcare access that is not racialized.”

Since the center launched in June 2020, Banks and Chin have been working tirelessly with faculty, students and outside organizations. To start, SCRJ is focusing on three areas where systemic change is urgently needed: criminal justice and policing, educational equity, and economic security and opportunity.

Some of those efforts are already underway.

This quarter, the SCRJ is working with the Graduate School of Education (GSE) to examine how to dismantle structural racism in the U.S. public school system and put an anti-racist education in its place. In a policy lab, The Youth Justice Lab: Imagining an Anti-Racist Public Education System, students from both the GSE and SLS are working with two nonprofit groups to develop specific policy and research interventions that can counter the racial disparities perpetuated by school programs, such as racially segregated academic placements (e.g. special education or advanced placement) and exclusionary school discipline policies.

Policy labs are a way for students to examine how such structures and systems can block or boost opportunity. In the practicums, students and their clients aim to craft new policies that policymakers can realistically roll out and fund because, as Chin observed, “That’s where the rubber hits the road. We can draft beautiful policies that are based on our values and our ideals – and that’s important – but they also have to be very practical to be implemented.”

Another recent policy lab explored at the intersection between law enforcement and race, specifically the role of policing in the local communities.

Last fall, students who took Selective De-Policing: Operationalizing Concrete Reforms (a collaboration with the Stanford Center for Criminal Justice) examined the various responsibilities of police, including their involvement in dealing with nonviolent issues, such as mental health, school discipline or homelessness. Students worked with the African American Mayors Association, a Washington D.C. organization that represents Black mayors across the country, to identify how cities might move some of their work away from armed, uninformed officers to other agencies and organizations that are better prepared to handle those situations in nonviolent ways. A report with their recommendations is set to publish later this year.

Tackling problems that transcend race

Because racial injustice crosscuts myriad problems in society, Banks said he hopes that the work the SCRJ does will also address issues that trouble people from all backgrounds and demographics.

“We’re using race to figure out how to address problems that transcend race. Racial injustices are emblematic of so many other problems we have,” he said.

Take policing for example, which Banks said is not working well for Black Americans nor for people of all races. “It raises questions about how we address not only crime but other problems like mental illness and homelessness because police officers have been used as a frontline for all these different problems.”

Banks acknowledges that it will take more than just a change in policy to inspire meaningful change; culture plays an important role too.

“The problems we confront are not problems that are going to be solved by the government alone,” said Banks. “The hardest thing, I think, is to recognize the ways that we are all implicated in the brokenness of our society.”

He added, “No matter how well-intentioned we are, we are all kind of the problem. The problems wouldn’t be as big as they are if we weren’t all contributing to them.”

Society cannot work without addressing the racial disparities that undermine the functioning of its democratic and social institutions, he added. “The challenge of racial justice is actually the challenge of democracy because we can’t make society work unless we can address racial division, distrust, inequality and racism.”

SCRJ is hosting periodic lectures over Zoom – titled “Tuesday Race Talks” – that are open to members of the public. The next event will be held Feb. 23 at 12:45 p.m. and will feature Steve Philips, a national political leader, civil rights lawyer and podcast host, who will talk on the state of Black politics.