LAW Speaker Series Named for Trailblazing Congresswoman and Alum Barbara Jordan
Focus on Race, Law and Inequality fits the late Texas representative’s mission
It would have been hard for an African American child growing up in Texas to not know about Barbara Jordan (LAW’59, Hon.’69), says Houston native Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of the BU School of Law.
“She was the first African American woman elected to Congress from the South, and she was a really outspoken advocate for justice,” Onwuachi-Willig says. “She was one of the names my mother always invoked around the house as someone I should look up to, to see all the possibilities I had here in the United States.”
That’s why Onwuachi-Willig proposed naming the law school’s new lecture series after her childhood hero. The announcement of the Barbara Jordan Lecture Series on Race, Law and Inequality will be made Thursday, when Issa Kohler-Hausmann, a Yale Law School professor of law and a Yale associate professor of sociology, will deliver the second lecture in the series, Detecting Police and Prosecutorial Discrimination, via Zoom, from 12:45 to 2 pm.
Jordan, the first African American woman to represent Texas in Congress, beginning in 1972, was a member of the House Judiciary Committee and today is best remembered for her powerful 1974 speech to the Committee supporting the impeachment of President Richard Nixon and later, in 1976, for being the first African American, and first woman, to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention. Afflicted with multiple sclerosis and eventually leukemia, Jordan died in 1996, at age 59. President Bill Clinton awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1994.
“She broke a glass ceiling at a time when it was completely unheard of,” Onwuachi-Willig says. “I can’t imagine what it was like when she was growing up, but when I was growing up it wasn’t the most enlightened place. It wasn’t uncommon for people to use the N-word in my high school. When I look back on it now, I think about how courageous she had to have been.”
Rose Mary McGowan, Jordan’s sister and only surviving relative, gave her blessing to the School of Law honor. McGowan, who lives in Texas, told University officials that naming the new lecture series for her sister is a fitting tribute given Jordan’s work, her connection to the School of Law, and what’s going on currently in America. Despite the progress that’s been made, much work remains to be done in addressing issues of race and inequality, and McGowan says she supports BU Law’s efforts to help by hosting lectures that address the topic.
“Part of what it takes to dismantle racism in this country is a real bravery, both internally and externally,” Onwuachi-Willig says. “Externally, to challenge the people and institutions around you, but also internally, to look at ways you externalize racism or facilitate racism in your daily life. That takes courage too, and that’s the kind of work we want people to be doing when they participate in this series.”
Kohler-Hausmann’s talk today will be far more fundamental than the title makes it sound; her work focuses on how “equal protection under the law” is understood and enacted at the most basic level. As she wrote last year, our current model of discrimination “is based on a flawed theory of what the category of ‘race’ references, how it produces effects in the world, and what is meant when we say it is wrong to make decisions of import because of race.”
She offers this analogy: a law that forbids sleeping under the bridge may be found nondiscriminatory if it applies equally to people categorized as rich and poor. But in fact, it only targets those who lack resources to provide proper shelter. What does that mean for the law and society, the very concept of equal protection?
“I am very, very honored to be part of the inaugural class of speakers, and Angela’s work is really amazing in this area,” Kohler-Hausman says. “She’s always been someone that has thought that the true sociological meaning of the category is essential for the law to get these questions right, piercing the false formalism of restrictive legal thinking on these questions. She’s been an important and influential voice.”
Supporting the series with a three-year gift is alumnus Gary Tischler (LAW’87), the cofounder and managing partner of Vanbarton Group LLC, a commercial real estate advisory firm based in New York City.
“For me, it was a timely and unique opportunity to partner with Dean Onwuachi-Willig and the School of Law to support a program that would shine a light, inform, educate, and weigh in on the issues around racism and inequality,” Tischler says.
Tischler became increasingly involved with the School of Law after Mark Pettit, one of his LAW professors, passed away in 2018, when he provided a substantial gift alongside the Pettit family to create a scholarship to honor the late professor. “He was my first-year contracts professor, and he had a profound impact on me,” Tischler says. “I have a very clear vision and recollection of my time in his class and the way he brought out the best in me. He was brilliant, witty, kind, and generous in every way as a professor.”
Part of what it takes to dismantle racism in this country is a real bravery both internally and externally.
In 2019, Tischler and Onwuachi-Willig discussed their shared concern and desire to help students from underprivileged backgrounds. Tischler made a significant contribution that allowed the dean to establish the Access Fund, which can level the playing field for students of limited means by providing help ranging from plane tickets to internship stipends to professional attire. “To think students don’t have the basic financial wherewithal to take the next steps to pursue their careers, it was really an extraordinary opportunity for me to provide this seed gift and support the student body,” he says. He continues to be a lead contributor to the Access Fund with a new three-year commitment.
“As for the speaker series, I thought it was an impactful way to get people educated and motivated to take on, and fight against, racism and inequality in our country,” says Tischler, who notes that he grew up in a community outside New York City with a lot of diversity. “I just got very excited about this particular subject matter, and immediately wanted to support the dean and the law school with the inauguration of this program. I believe it is an important time for people to step up and stretch themselves to consider supporting any number of socially conscious organizations.”
In his support of the dean’s efforts, Tischler says, “the through line is a shared vision that creates awareness and then goes beyond it to provide direct, meaningful support for programs and ways we can build a better, kinder, more socially responsible and moral student body that will go out into the world and achieve enduring, positive social returns on these programs.”
The lecture series launched in October with Jim Crow in the 21st Century: The Impact of Crime Free Housing Ordinances and Mass Criminalization on Racial Segregation by Deborah Archer of the NYU School of Law. Future 2020-2021 series speakers are Trina Jones of Duke Law School, on March 25, and Devon Carbado of the UCLA School of Law, on a date to be determined.
The Barbara Jordan Lecture Series on Race, Law and Inequality continues Thursday, at 12:45 pm, on Zoom, with a lecture and discussion by Issa Kohler-Hausmann, Yale Law School professor of law and Yale associate professor of sociology.?
View excerpts from Texas Representative Barbara Jordan’s keynote address at the 1976 Democratic National Convention here.