In this report, we offer an assessment of how much progress had been made — and how much work remains to be done — in a part of the American economy President Obama knows well: the legal profession. We do so by examining the careers of the black graduates of President Obama’s law school alma matter in the 16 years since the beginning of the new millennium.
On January 10, 2017, President Barack Obama delivered his formal farewell address to the country in Chicago, the city that had given him his political start. In reflecting on the achievements and challenges of his two terms in office, the president paid special attention to an issue that he knew would, for better and for worse, define his presidency: Race. In the simple, yet elegant, language that even his harshest critics have come to respect, the president said this about the state of race relations after eight years of the Age of Obama:
After my election, there was talk about a post-racial America. Such a vision, no matter how well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, 20, 30 years ago — you can see it not just in the statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we are not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do.
In this Report, we offer a preliminary assessment of how much progress had been made — and how much work remains to be done — in a part of the American economy President Obama knows well: the legal profession. We do so by examining the careers of the black graduates of President Obama’s law school alma matter in the 16 years since the beginning of the new millennium.
Harvard Law School provides an important lens through which to study these issues. One hundred and fifty years ago this year, the Law School enrolled George Lewis Ruffin, who would go on to be the first black person to graduate from any law school in the United States. In the intervening years, Harvard has graduated more black lawyers — over 2,700 — than any law school in the country with the exception of the great Howard University School of Law. Among their ranks are some of the most powerful and influential lawyers in the world, including the 44th President of the United States and the country’s former First Lady, Michelle Obama ’88.
Making progress on these and other issues relating to the problem of the color line for black Americans will require that African American lawyers who have had the opportunity to graduate from Harvard Law School redouble their efforts to bend this line toward justice.
In 2000, the Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession released a Report on the State of Black Alumni: 1869-2000 chronicling the achievements and continuing challenges of this remarkable group of lawyers on the basis of a comprehensive survey of the careers of over 650 of the school’s African American alumni. In this new Report, based on a second survey of the school’s black alumni, including those that graduated in the new millennium and matured during the Age of Obama, we both bring that history up to date and offer new perspectives for this new era.
Collectively, we hope that these two reports will provide the “common baseline of facts” that President Obama identified in his farewell address as key to a civil dialogue in a functioning democracy, for a profession that will always have a central role in guaranteeing the freedom and equality that are the cornerstones of our democracy.
David B. Wilkins
Lester Kissel Professor of Law
Vice Dean, Global Initiatives on the Legal Profession
Faculty Director, Center on the Legal Profession
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