Excerpted From: Angela Onwuachi-Willig and Anthony V. Alfieri, Racial Trauma in Civil Rights Representation, 120 Michigan Law Review 1701 (June, 2022) (289 Footnotes) (Full Document)


OnwuachiWilligAndAlfieriOn July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer of white American and Peruvian descent, was acquitted of the murder charges against him for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager who was walking back to his father's girlfriend's house in the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood in Sanford, Florida, on the night of February 26, 2012. That very same day, 100 activists and organizers ranging in age from eighteen to thirty-five were meeting in Chicago, Illinois, “to discuss movement building beyond electoral politics.” After hearing the Zimmerman verdict, the activists banded together under the organizational title, Black Youth Project 100, to draft a collective statement that was “[a]ddressed to 'the Family of Brother Trayvon Martin and to the Black Community.”’ The statement read in pertinent part:

As we waited to hear the verdict, in the spirit of unity, we formed a circle and locked hands. When we heard “not guilty,” our hearts broke collectively. In that moment, it was clear that Black life had no value. Emotions poured out-- emotions that are real, natural and normal, as we grieved for Trayvon and his stolen humanity.

Through this statement, members of the Black Youth Project 100 revealed for many the collective pain that Blacks have frequently experienced from police killings and quasi-police, vigilante killings of other Blacks in the United States, as well as the collective pain that often stems from the repeated acquittals and non-indictments of the officers and quasi-officers involved in these killings. Indeed, the group's statement articulated for the Black community a specific form of collective trauma that sociologists have termed “cultural trauma.” According to Yale University sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, cultural trauma is a group-based trauma that “occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.” It is a socially mediated process, one by which an injured group not only identifies its trauma or injury but then also describes the very nature of that pain to itself and the public, along with the source of that pain, the perpetrators responsible for inflicting the pain, and the impact of the injury and trauma on the group.

Critically, the statement by the Black Youth Project 100 did more than offer a view into the cultural trauma that Blacks have borne in relation to the police and quasi-police killings of other Blacks and in response to the disappointing legal outcomes that tend to follow such tragic slayings. In fact, the statement also delved into the world of individualized or psychological trauma, offering a glimpse into the long-term effects of repeated “exposure to multiple persistent sources of violence, loss, and other adverse childhood [and adult] experiences” for members of an identifiable group--in essence, what psychologists have defined as “complex trauma.” Although the Black Youth Project 100 statement spoke of turning “anger into action and pain into power,” it also opened a window into the long-term effects of repeated violence, devastation, and loss for Blacks in the United States, regardless of whether one is directly impacted. In so doing, it aired a distinctive form of repeated and enduring collective trauma for Blacks. For example, the statement referred to “the hopelessness of a generation that has been broken trying to find its place in this world,” and it identified its drafters as “young leaders standing on the shoulders of our ancestors, carrying the historical trauma embedded in a legal system that will NOT PROTECT US.”

Narratives of trauma like those told by the Black Youth Project 100 have inspired an increasing number of civil rights and antiracist lawyers and academics to call for more trauma-informed training for law students and lawyers. These advocates have argued not only for greater training that “recognizes the impact of trauma on systems and individuals” to ensure “access to trauma-focused interventions” for clients and the rights asserted on their behalf but also for greater awareness of the risks of secondary or vicarious trauma for lawyers who represent traumatized clients and communities.

In this Article, we join this chorus of attorneys and academics, deploying the recent civil rights case of P.P. v. Compton Unified School District as an example of how trauma-informed lawyering can both advance civil rights and provide healing for affected communities and individuals. In so doing, we center our analyses on the use of racial trauma evidence in the Compton school litigation specifically and in contemporary civil rights representation more generally. Building on our prior work on race, cultural trauma, and civil rights lawyering, we investigate the meaning of racial trauma for individual, group, and community clients and for their legal teams in civil rights and criminal cases while detailing the importance of establishing a trauma-informed practice for today's civil rights lawyers. As a starting point, we examine and analyze the use of racial trauma evidence that the legal team brought forward in P.P. v. Compton Unified School District under the Americans with Disabilities Act on behalf of students in the Compton Unified School District in California. In that case, lawyers argued that the school district violated the students' rights by failing to offer a whole-school, trauma-sensitive approach to education and learning.

Our Article proceeds in three parts. In Part I, we explore why it is important for civil rights lawyers to be engaged in a trauma-informed practice. Thereafter, we examine the specific concepts of individualized racial, cultural, and complex trauma, providing the foundational background for understanding our subsequent analyses of the primary civil rights case study in which racial trauma evidence was employed. In Part II, we map the litigation of individual and community racial trauma in civil advocacy through an examination of P.P. v. Compton Unified School District. We assess the racial trauma-sensitive practices of the litigation team in navigating toward a landmark settlement. Finally, in Part III, we highlight the struggle to accommodate community violence-centered racial trauma advocacy in contemporary civil rights cases by applying our case study of the litigation in P.P. v. Compton Unified School District more broadly to the lawyering process and legal ethics. Often overlooked, that ethical and professional struggle affects the form and substance of lawyer decisionmaking and discretion in contemporary civil rights cases.

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This Article builds on our previous work on race, cultural trauma, and civil rights to address the lawyering process and the legal ethics of emerging community violence-centered racial trauma litigation. By tracking the lines of the pioneering litigation in P.P. v. Compton Unified School District, parsing its student and teacher trauma histories, revisiting its strategy and outcome, assessing its investigation of community violence, and studying its factual contentions and legal claims, we have been able to discern the outline of a broadly applicable theory of community violence-centered racial trauma in civil rights advocacy. Driven by the search for an alternative, race-conscious vision of the lawyering process and legal ethics in civil and criminal justice systems alike, the theory of community violence-centered racial trauma in civil rights law advocacy opens a new path for our common work.


Dean and Ryan Roth Gallo & Ernest J. Gallo Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law.

Dean's Distinguished Scholar, Professor of Law, and Director, Center for Ethics and Public Service, University of Miami School of Law.