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Excerpted From: Anneke Dunbar-Gronke, The Mandate for Critical Race Theory in this Time, 69 UCLA Law Review Discourse 4 (2022) (56 Footnotes) (Full Document)


annekedunbar gronkeI went to law school because I wanted to contribute to Black liberation organizing with legal tools. Before law school, I had spent a number of years in radical organizing spaces for and with other Black people. I worked alongside antigentrification organizers in New York; with a membership organization of unemployed and underemployed Black workers based out of the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ) called Stand with Dignity; and with the New Orleans chapter of Black Youth Project 100. In those spaces, legal expertise was a tool that organizers sometimes wanted to use, but it was often largely inaccessible. In the rare instances legal expertise was accessible to organizers, obtaining it tended to require relying on lawyers with diverging experiences or values. As a result, I chose to go to law school to fill the need I saw in my organizing work but had no intention of becoming a lawyer for its own sake. Instead, I imagined emerging from law school and continuing to organize, but with legal tools in my back pocket for our collective use when necessary.

Given my intentions behind going to law school, I was drawn to both Critical Race Theory (CRT) and movement lawyering scholarship as a student. Lessons from the CRT canon have been instrumental to my development as a legal thinker, provided key perspectives on the fundamental flaws in the law, and served as a necessary respite from the daily gaslighting of first year law classes wherein most (but fortunately not all) of my professors would present deeply racist and classist caselaw as objective legal truths appropriate for direct application. Movement lawyering literature, additionally, helped foster my thinking about developing my skills as a lawyer by identifying “social movements at the center of legal and political transformation.” The literature dictated that legal interventions should be used as a tool to “build capacity to engage in collective action” and generally countered the narrative I was receiving in the rest of my law school education that legal practitioners are (1) solely litigators, (2) to be heroes of any legal story, and (3) that the attorney-client relationship is to be sterile, serious, “objective,” and individualized.

As I began my career, I wanted my work to be in alignment with the collective vision for Black liberation that the organizing formations I am accountable to are working towards. I have found little, however, in either CRT canon or movement lawyering literature to help guide my legal work specifically in service of that political vision. On the one hand, while CRT reflects many of the values that underlie Black liberation organizing, I have struggled to find much guidance for legal practice in that literature. Movement lawyering, on the other hand, provides ample and critical instruction for navigating legal practice in movement spaces, but does not provide a roadmap for implementing legal interventions specifically in support of organizing aligned with the foundational values underlying Black, and necessarily collective, liberation.

Accordingly, I believe the future of CRT must involve a profound expansion of the scope of the literature. As it stands, CRT “provid[es] an analytical toolset for interrogating the relationship between law and racial inequality” while “eschewing” the reduction of “racism to matters of individual prejudice or a byproduct of class.” It is my hope, however, that CRT can evolve to both identify a theory of lawyering and a set of values that serve movements for Black and collective liberation more broadly by “provid[ing] an inventory of ... critical tools” that are contextualized within, subordinate to, and of use to overarching, present day liberation movement strategies.

The suggestion that CRT scholarship should include practical guideposts for applying theory to practice is not new. Articulating Black and collective liberation as the appropriate project for which to craft those guideposts, however, is less explored and precisely the guidance that I have been seeking as a practitioner. Accordingly, in this Essay, I intend to provide newer lawyers, law students, and legal workers with some lessons from my early career efforts to develop as a legal practitioner explicitly dedicated to Black liberation organizing.

[. . .]

These lessons, which I am building on every day, have been critical to my development of a lawyering approach that is supportive of the Black liberation organizing I am accountable to. I implore any attorney or legal worker reading this to take away from this Essay, if nothing else, that it is necessary to articulate radical values of movement, show up to the fight, and also ensure that the movement's values inform your legal practice--all at the same time--if we hope to win with our values and our communities intact.

anneke dunbar-gronke is a Skadden Fellow at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law as part of the organization's Fair Housing and Community Development project.

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