j  leggett

Racial Injustice: Equity in the Classroom

Methodology: Critical Participatory Action Research grounded in Radical Epistemology and Black Feminist Thought.

Why: I teach legal classes in which power is a central theme and social change is a common goal of students. And yet, the Myth of Rights (Schiengold, 1974) progeny, as well as the lived experiences told through narratives of injustice, teach us law can be used by social groups as a tool for discrimination, violence, cultural  supremacy, and an economic base of relations founded and maintained as racial capitalism. To share power (or de-center, de-naturalize, de-construct, give up power) within this context must be practical-pragmatic: the actually sharing of powers: what will be dialogue about, what is important to us, how will we distribute the work, and what are some sources of knowledge.


Mapping Black Historical Sites in New York City: A Collaboration.




Writing Intensive Critical Participatory Action Research


KCC Reads Collaboration: Henrietta Lacks.

Video Game Design:

Immigration Policing as Cultural Supremacy:

A Podcast about Equity in the Classroom:


A long essay: Teaching about Race in a Segregated Environment

In the spirit of the late Derrick Bell I hope to utilize a narrative approach to tell my story about teaching Brown v. Board of Education in a Criminal Justice Course (Constitutional Law)  and how that evolved to speaking about racism more broadly.


Teaching and Learning Resources:

Beverly Tatum provides a structured framework for classroom design: click here for an overview.



Teaching About Racism in a Segregated Environment

Jason Michael Leggett*

“The committee, apparently upon great deliberation, have come to the conclusion, that the good of both classes of schools will be best promoted, by maintaining the separate primary schools for colored and white children, and we can perceive no ground to doubt, that this is the honest result of their experience and judgment. It is urged, that this maintenance of separate schools tend to deepen and perpetuate the odious distinction of caste, founded in a deep-rooted prejudice in public opinion. This prejudice, if it exists, is not created by law, and probably cannot be changed by law.”



On the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education I was a college student volunteering at an elementary school in South Seattle named after Thurgood Marshall. Although I had grown up in South Seattle and thought I knew the area well, I had not seen this segregated enclave, tucked behind Beacon Hill, beyond which lie what was poetically termed, “the Emerald City.” The school librarian asked the children to choose a book from a selection organized nicely in a small bookshelf dedicated to the anniversary of Brown.  The young student I was tutoring, an energetic seven year old, chose a picture book about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We turned to a page together, his little hand over mine, and he looked up at me and asked, “Why couldn’t he play with the other kids?” As his little hand left mine and traced the dark complexion of Martin as a child and slowly began to work across the page, he stopped just short of the light skinned children happily playing on a merry-go-round. I couldn’t help looking down at my own hands, light skinned, and choked up. “Sometimes people suck,” I said, not knowing what else to say. I knew after that day I wanted to move beyond sentiment and have something far more important to say. But more, I wanted to do something.

A year later I volunteered as an AMERICORPS VISTA and worked at another elementary school in the same segregated South Seattle school district. At a training I heard the words of what I later learned to be paraphrased from Derrick Bell’s interest-convergence thesis from one of the trainers, “white people only help if in their own self interest.” I had recently been given a collection of Maya Angelou poems and was further stunned to read,

“So, I’ll believe in Liberals’ aid for us

When I see a white man load a Black man’s gun.”

I left my service that year with an empty feeling. Had I loaded the metaphorical gun?  I needed to do more. I enrolled in law school, as a privileged white male, formed by my recent experiences, determined to focus on the rights of children broadly, in the interest of moving beyond desegregation. Instead I found a world far more segregated than the small enclave in South Seattle. I knew I had a lot of learning to do before I would be of any help in a long, entrenched battle against racism.  Through the first two years of law school I found myself in a constant state of contradiction amidst injustice. “How could this be so extensive?” I thought to myself. Even the affirmative actions of my law school drew a sharp line between the white students, mostly wealthy and many times willfully ignorant, focused on getting the top jobs, and a cadre of non-white students shuffled into back rooms, trying to bridge the equality gap. Frustrated with the lack of options for meaningful change and unsure of my role I asked that I be allowed to apply as a visiting student to CUNY Law School, then in Flushing, Queens, New York. I was accepted and in my third year I found my voice, my opportunity, and ultimately a path that brought me to one of the most segregated public schools in the country though very few on campus dared mention it.

The day before I took the NY Bar Exam (and passed) I was offered an adjunct teaching job at Kingsborough Community College, a last resort for many students with an open admissions policy in the CUNY network. I took the job and started a week later. From day one I heard the phrase: “these students” don’t know how to learn. I was told I would get “sick of those students” and that previously “good students” had attended the college. In my gut I knew what they meant but I wasn’t brave enough to be sure or to push back, yet.

As a VISTA I had the privilege to work with multiculturalist and educational philosopher Dr. Margery Ginsberg. She and the elementary school principle, Cathy Thompson, had been patient and kind with me, a young white man who was most often clueless but ready to work for educational and social change. Most importantly, I learned to practice the “motivational framework” which presents a multicultural and culturally responsive education for all students.  It took some time to develop an ease of use in the college classroom. And at the time I felt most lost, most alone, and discouraged I turned to Dr. Ginsberg. She shared an article written by Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum that provided a framework for understanding student resistance to race related issues in the classroom and strategies for overcoming resistance; I was compelled to use this framework in my classroom when I read, “we cannot have successfully multiracial campuses without talking about race and learning about racism.”

When I began teaching about segregation I took this advice to heart but struggled to implement a course of study.  I found myself in a very conservative, traditional teaching environment and unfortunately fell into process described by other educators of slowly adding more “radical” texts to an otherwise traditional syllabus. It wasn’t until I placed myself within the context of the study of democratic education that I accepted fully that “[e]ducation is political because it is one place where individuals and society are constructed.”


I teach in a criminal justice program within the Department of History, Philosophy and Political Science within a larger liberal arts community college system. As an non-practicing law graduate I focus on legal research within what is known as law and society. I am drawn to legal exclusion, or those that are excluded from the law, historical slaves, contemporary convicted felons, undocumented persons, to name a few, despite the theoretical inclusion of the rule of law and due process, especially as it pertains to the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Yet, as a white male I do not encompass this particular legal set of persons.

As the only community college in Brooklyn, Kingsborough hosts students from over 100 national backgrounds, one of the most diverse institutions in the country. According to the 2016 Annual Report from the Committee on Inclusion and Equity at Kingsborough, 2,514 freshmen enrolled in the fall semester of 2014. 1,169 of those students came form non-white backgrounds, or roughly 46%. Those who were identified as “black” or “African American” lost financial aid eligibility due to unsatisfactory academic progress in the same semester totaled over 43% while white students totaled 21%. Further, in 75% of cases where students reported that they had negative or unresponsive interactions with professors, the student chose to withdraw from the course rather than pursue any other avenue for resolution. Along with my own observations and anecdotes from students it is clear that the campus continues to produce separate educational outcomes like those documented in Brown. In the next section I will outline how I approached teaching about educational and social inequality in an unequal structural environment.


The decision to teach Brown was not initially one about examining segregation directly. We do not have a common curriculum in our department and I was given wide latitude in developing my courses. In the Constitutional Law course I wanted to present a critical view of the constitution as a source of rights as well as to begin the process of creating a sense of civic agency among underrepresented students. I imagined a classroom where an understanding of civil rights and the ability to apply that knowledge in the real world were the learning objectives. I determined that teaching about the 14th Amendment provided such an opportunity and proceeded to begin a multi-semester course redesign.

I initially focused on the case as a way to teach about equal protection. In these early semesters there was a staleness across a majority of students that I could not quite understand. After discussing the apparent lack of interest in the case I received feedback I choose to cast into two typologies: 1) those students who had exposure to the case in previous course work, often in high school, thought there was little left to talk about beyond the main point, the phrase, “separate is never equal” and a primer to stare decisis; and 2) the students who had little or no exposure said they just didn’t want to talk about “that stuff”.  At first I wasn’t quite sure what to do. This particular problem of resistance reached a peak during a summer six-week intensive course with three white male students who echoed an overwhelming barrage of sometimes offensive and other times undermining rhetoric not dissimilar from the rhetoric of the alt-right seen in the media presently. Through role play activities it was evident those three students had not read the case and were simply relying on their charm and more often their ability to loudly shut down other students. At the time I had no recourse, no training, and was not confident exactly how to respond. When I asked a colleague they responded, “if Hitler is in the room, can we not let him speak?” I ended the course determined to build a more inclusive environment.

Resistance and the Stages of Racial Identity Development: course re-imagination.

To encourage more voices in the class, like many educators, I began by teaching how I learned. Since I had just graduated law school the socratic method was pervasive in my earlier class discussions which did not always allow students who were not comfortable sharing intimate opinions and experiences. However, I also taught the subject matter as purely an examination of documents, the federal constitution and state constitution in a comparison with the South African Bill of Rights and later with the Declaration of Human Rights.  My learning outcomes in the second iteration responded to what I perceived as a lack of understanding of the subject matter; only later did I begin to question the process of examining the subject matter itself as the problem. My  initial learning outcomes were:

For you to better understand the structure of your Constitution;

For you to better understand the nature and significance of the “Supreme Court”;

For you to better understand how the Supreme Court impacts your life;

For you to engage and actively participate in discussions regarding Fundamental Rights;

For you to develop skills necessary to effectively write at the college level.


I used a somewhat progressive set of competencies to measure learning: discussions, case briefing, a point-counter point dialogue with me as a midterm, and a final exam with a journal component. It is not my intent to analyze the efficacy of these teaching tools but rather to expose the underlying problem of the mismatch between learning outcomes and assessment tools within the context of a segregated learning community generally. Specifically, I used “Supreme Court” in quotes, indicating an importance on the vocabulary of that term while using the phrase “your” Constitution in the learning outcome preceding the phrase. I see now the dominant and oppressive nature of both in the syllabus and as a method of grading. “Your constitution” seeks to provide a concrete relationship with the learner with what is generally an abstract term with many meanings. A constitution can mean a state of mind for example, but more importantly, in the legal historical sense we legal educators are often really speaking of a meeting of the minds that many of the students simply have not and do not share. In sum, I had failed to identify the social implications of the content presentation evidencing my own bias. However, from 2010 to 2015, I had redesigned three courses using three methods that, in reflection, I found useful for re-thinking how to teach Brown within a segregated system:

      1. Public legal education;
      2. High Impact Practices;
      3. Humanities across cultures (global citizenship).

I define public legal education as  a critical theory that provides a framework to evaluate the prospect of civic change as an individual in a complex system. I draw from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s concept of unjust laws: “A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority…that has been denied the right to vote and had no part in enacting or devising the law.”  At the heart of this “beloved community” is a belief that “non violent acts can reestablish the wholeness of a community”, to “reconcile the oppressor with the oppressed.” In sum, public legal education provides a safe space where conflict resolution, through non violent dialogue, provides new points of access to a democratic system and participation in the creation of the democratic community, a reconciliation of factions.

High Impact Practices(HIPs) are those teaching and learning practices that have been widely tested and have been shown to be beneficial for college students from many backgrounds and include: 1) first year seminars; 2) common intellectual experiences; 3) learning communities; 4) writing intensive courses; 5) collaborative assignments and projects; 6) undergraduate research; 7) diversity/global learning; 8) service learning/community based learning; 9) internships; and 10) capstone courses and projects.  While not all HIPs are accessible I have found that diversity/global learning, undergraduate research, and collaborative assignments and projects are easily infused into a course re-design and are effective in “establishing inclusion and engendering competence.”

The infusion of humanities as a generative theme can appeal to motivation across cultures invoking the kind of global citizenship that Martha Nussbaum urges is needed in education today. Specifically, by using non-legal texts as ways of making meaning students are able to consider their own influences and inspiration. This opens the classroom to sharing using songs, poems, films, artwork, and more. These usually include a range of cultural backgrounds because of the vast diversity in the Brooklyn classroom.

I have found these three practices help mitigate the transition students experience from acceptance of other cultures to resistance of integrating this new awareness into their own knowledge base; these contradictions are inherent in learning about injustices that force the individual to acknowledge the impact of racism in one’s life.  Public legal education provides a “safe classroom atmosphere” that “establishes clear guidelines” for dialogue and opportunities for “self-generated knowledge” that is valued by the group of learners. High-Impact practices put differentiated, individualized learning at the forefront of the assessment process invoking inclusion and relevance as learning outcomes within the learning process itself. Finally, diversity and global learning provide many ways of knowing and provides an equal opportunity to co-create knowledge as a group studying a segregated learning environment. In the next section I will sketch how these three practices represented my existence in the classroom as my efforts to be “reborn through and with the oppressed.”



I was hesitant to present Brown as a basis for placing the learners as segregated subjects. In fact, it was only after using the NYTimes Mapping Segregation Interactive Tool in late 2015 that I was able to see the despair on the faces of many students in the classroom for the first time. Many simply did not want to talk about segregation because of the emotional impact or previous trauma. But there was also a naive concept deeply embedded among students who were vocal that because the schools they went to were not one identity, one ethnic or racial group, that this alone deemed their particular school “diverse” or not segregated, even though there were very few white students. I was baffled. My efforts that semester to analyze the oral arguments in Brown coupled with the use of Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration” did not prove fruitful. This was in no way a reflection of the content but rather an indication in the need to enter into dialogue and away from the banking model altogether and to enter into dialogue with students about how to construct a safe classroom to talk about race.

A colleague, who is an artist and worked in our e-learning office jested, “what if you did nothing?” when we discussed the difficulties I was facing. We both are fond of aesthetic education in the way that Maxine Greene uses this term as well as relational aesthetics as artistic expression and saw an effort to do nothing as really an act against the status quo, of doing more. I wondered about this artistic performance aspect of the classroom throughout the summer and brought it up with my students. We settled on two practices I found to be revolutionary: 1) developing learning outcomes together, and 2) developing a common assignment together to use as the method of valuing (grading) the learning process.

We used four different sources for learning outcomes to get the process started: 1) our criminal justice program outcomes as they were listed on the transfer college site (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) because most of the students intended to transfer; 2) our departmental learning outcomes; 3) a competing private college (NYU); and 4) my previous syllabi.

This representation of the course as a problem of integration allowed me the space to re-enter the classroom environment as a co-learner going through white racial identity development with learners going through their own individualized racial identity development.  Given that 87% of educators are from Anglo American homes, an effort to critically examine dominant or higher status environments, such as the classroom provides a safe place to explore identity while keeping a focus on agency, the ability to navigate difficult environments.

Because most people are in several stages of racial identity development simultaneously sharing models of identity and agency provides a way of reflecting with others while also keeping the focus on individual liberation. This understanding helped me re-design the course using the generative themes of identity, agency, and advocacy. Through this framework I could place Brown in a historical and contemporary sense in such a way as to tell a narrative that does not suffer from “narration sickness”, what educators commonly present as a reality somehow outside of us, despite our status as co-learners.

This examination then placed Brown into a larger narrative that required a constitutional exegesis, an interpretation that is unique to each individual. I have students first read excerpts from the late Justice Antonin Scalia putting forth his argument for Originalism as a “method of constitutional exegesis.  We then apply this method to analyze the case, Scott v. Sandford, with a discussion question to link identity with constitutional interpretation: “when Scott and other freed slaves were told they could not become citizens of the United States, what identity or identities do you imagine they embraced to integrate into a changing society?”


This question has produced many answers but one that we settled on in two different classes involves a point of view that emphasizes difference as deficit.  As students read the majority opinion and the Originalist explanation that, “[t]he unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property…” they are able to make the connection that segregation in New York City, visible on the NYTIMES Segregation Map is not accidental, random, nor without historical explanation.  I am thinking more and more that perhaps this counter-intuitive notion, a historical narrative of segregation, provides a way of making sense of an otherwise contradictory notion to justice as purely theoretical and fair for all.  This allows learners to overcome resistance when discussing segregation because it links individual identity to the process of critically analyzing the Constitution in light of this new information as a historical process that continues today. This sets Brown up to be more about how to analyze the evolution of constitutional cases from an individual point of view and how that evolution helps or hinders social change and agency.

Advocacy is a synthesis of identity and agency. We examine the use of the “doll studies” in Brown and discuss how separation harms individuals and society as a whole. This allows for learners to gradually integrate newly defined beliefs and values as we unpack how segregation produces inequalities in our classroom and across the campus. Although we are only in the second iteration of this method I found consistency across students in multiple courses. Students begin to embrace the notion of learning, consciousness, as freedom or liberation. This is not universal but there was a dramatic change in reactions to talking about segregation and Brown. Many more students now have something to say about the case, segregation in New York City, and even share deeply personal stories that discuss racism from their own point of view.

Beyond looking as a specific case, through this approach I have found that I can present the 14th Amendment Due Process and Equal Protection clauses more effectively. Learners are able to see the legal operation of the Amendment as a remedy to injustice within the constitutional structure while also seeing it as one method of conflict resolution subject to individual interpretation.  We close the semester out with Plessy v. Ferguson so we can examine alternative ways of viewing segregation to cement the fact that some still view difference as deficit, an ongoing challenge of modern society.


To promote revolutionary dialogue in which individual liberation against the status quo is the learning outcome establishing mutual agreement among learners is foundational, necessary, and sufficient to overcome resistance. I made a concerted effort to “de-center” the United States Constitution in response to Teaching to Transgress and in response to another educator who was going through a pattern of discrimination at the college. Both sources suggested a need to push past the accepted myth-lore of the constitution as divinely inspired for white men. This fact was not lost on students; when asked who the framers were referring to when they drafted the document claiming all men are equal nearly all responded “white men.” The gender and racial discrimination awareness highlights a need to include “intersectionality” in both the course design process and the dialogue itself as a process revisited over and over again.

As we reflected one student mentioned that many students were practicing “voice” for the first time, something I had taken for granted. I realized in the same spirit of de-centering of course content, I had to de-center myself as well.  Accepting my racist role in history and as educator is sobering. Giving up, or more accurately, sharing privilege has been more of a growing experience and labor of love for me than a purely educational practice. My intent and focus is that each learner evidence what might be loosely termed personality. I harken back to my experience working with young children as a tutor and VISTA and that journey toward the development of this ever-evident personality. I believe the similarities in confronting racism and segregation are striking: what begins as a distant and unfamiliar subject is integrated into the being of the learner and is perfected in a process toward some self improvement, there is no knowledge outside of this reality. When philosophers speak of this external knowledge they embrace a split in the mind-body dialectic that while convenient is as absurd as the theory that world is flat and devoid of scientific basis, particularly modern physics. I like to mention Einstein in class and the development of  the theory of relativity because a human subject is placed within a larger effort to understand what appears to be an external reality all around us but through scientific reasoning becomes an accepted wholeness, only relative to our understanding of observation. This is how I present the law in the face of discrimination, like a river all around us, we find ourselves fully immersed and must make meaning of the processes before we can emerge as critical analysts.

It may be convenient to separate knowledge as abstract from the role of educator but it is harmful to those who do not hold this specialized knowledge. It is also evident and thus material in a claim of segregated education that those who do not hold the knowledge are harmed so long as the educator maintains this dichotomy. I imagine a classroom armed with this knowledge and the paperwork ready to sue. An understanding of an abstract right with the process in motion is what encourages the law to confront the anti-democratic problem of negative rights, the fact that a vested legal right has been violated nonetheless.

In Separate, Unequal, and Seeking Support, Dr. Meera E. Deo (2012), writes, “Through continued commitment to student organizations, law schools can help students receive the social, cultural, emotional, and academic support they need. Otherwise, we are left without integration and without equality – not far from where we started.” This is also true at Kingsborough. While students of color do have access to support groups and often do take advantage of services at the Women’s Center, Men’s Resource Center, and student clubs, the support for faculty and staff is alarmingly absent at our college. This absence is another form of exclusion that devalues efforts to teach segregation, racism, and social change. But it also separates dominant and targeted roles and values within the institution that furthers inequality and segregated classrooms. Without the opportunity to reflect white educators are likely to take for granted the important lessons I discovered in the classroom with students. In closing, I want to relay two stories that I think frame the difficulties in today’s environment.

In my first year at the college I saw a flyer about “how to deal with difficult students” and based on previous comments from a wide variety of educators on campus I was furious. I mentioned to a student that I was in for trouble but as I walked into the room where the meeting was held I stood silent, I was one of two white educators. As I sat down with a worried look on my face a colleague whom I had little opportunity to work with or talk to placed his hand on my knee and said, “you are in a safe place.” I was able to discuss with others the difficulties we faced and was asked to role play numerous negative experiences suffered by non-white colleagues in the room. Unfortunately this group no longer exists for a variety of challenges at the institution.

To move beyond convergence theory, which I now believe is critically important, those with white privilege must confront the often devastating realities, the narratives of pain and persecution, before a reduction of white privilege has any meaningful context. I do not wish to be understood as this being a logical sequential process; I believe in my own experience, and those I have witnessed at our college, it is more of a transformative and ongoing experience akin to the christian notion of repentance I learned as a child. The Rule of Law and Due Process can be difficult to make meaning without concrete, practical experiences. To work within a system or to try to work against it is of course and unnecessary dichotomy. But it does exist in the current discussion. The process in which we undertake the route of knowledge is also a form of knowledge itself. Whether the babel becomes immediately clear is the praxis of love as Freire put it. This approach has another implication going into my next iteration: mass incarceration, justice in criminal justice, and revolutionary praxis have a place in meaningful educational theory. To be able to study with students who are often marginalized themselves is an action of revolutionary pedagogy. As I walked a colleague to their car this past semester because they had been a target of discrimination and were among a vulnerable group I wondered if taking a bullet might be necessary in the future. The full weight of Maya Angelou’s poem is beginning to settle in.

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