Leonard M. Baynes

Share Your Thoughts with the Dean
Learn more about Dean Baynes
Follow on Twitter at @UHLawDean

Dear Colleagues:

 Over the past few days, we witnessed senseless racial violence engulf our nation. Like many of you, it brings me a great deal of sadness and distress.

 The U.S. is a very complex nation that was founded on equality principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence. But for the vast majority of our history, those equality principles were limited to white men. When adopted in 1787, our U.S. constitution lacked a provision affording its inhabitants equality under the law. Equality did not become part of our constitutional legal canon until the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.

 At our nation’s inception, slavery was legal and prevalent. It took a Civil War between the Northern and Southern states to end it. Slavery was not outlawed until the 13th Amendment was adopted in 1865. At that time, people of African descent were technically free, and no longer could be owned, bequeath and sold to others. But even then, people of African descent were legally treated as second class citizens until the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 and the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. Legal notions of racial equality are a very recent aspect of U.S. modern history, and, even with this progress, how equality is implemented remains a very hotly contested issue.

U.S. Theologian James E. Wallis Jr.  has described racism as our nation’s “original sin.” It started at the time of our colonial settlements, through our founding as a nation, until today. Despite this history, the beauty of the U.S. is that it has worked to overcome its original sin. As a nation, we have made great strides towards equality, diversity and inclusion. But our gains are fragile, and our civic bonds are very weak. We are a nation of very diverse individuals from very different backgrounds. Unlike other nations, which may be comprised of people of one predominant race, ethnicity, or religion, the U.S. does not have those specific bonds that tie us together. Instead, we have our constitution; we have our law; we have our norms; we have our values; we have our ideals; and we have our civic creed of patriotism and service. Those are our ties, and these ties need to be regularly developed and nurtured. Over the past few years, these fragile ties have been shorn, and the wound has opened and manifested itself through protest and senseless acts of violence.

As a nation, although we have made considerable progress, for many that progress is elusive. For instance, the COVID-19/coronavirus pandemic has exposed the inequalities and friction points in our society. The virus has infected over 1.84 million U.S. residents of which over 106,000 have perished. A disproportionate percentage of people of color have been infected and have died from the illness. Over the past few months with the stay-at-home orders, over 40 million U.S. workers lost their jobs. Again, people of color have disproportionately suffered these job losses. In addition, many workers of color hold positions where they are unable to work from home. They are more likely to be our front-line workers who often have little protection and earn low salaries. These exposed inequalities make disadvantaged groups feel even more vulnerable.

Most importantly, there have been several recent videotaped acts of violence against unarmed black men and women. Houston native and Minneapolis resident George Floyd died in police custody after a police officer knelt on the back of his neck. Louisville resident Breonna Taylor was killed by police officers when they mistakenly raided the wrong apartment. Georgia resident Ahmaud Arbery was killed while jogging by two white men, one of whom was a former county police officer. In New York City, an African American man asked a white woman to leash her dog which was running loose contrary to Central Park rules. The white woman called the police alleging that the African American man threatened her.

In each of these incidents, African Americans lost their lives or were threatened for doing nothing wrong; And to the extent they did something wrong, their alleged crime did not justify the loss of life. These incidents cause many African Americans, no matter their education level or economic status, to wonder whether that could be them next.

But that is where law can help us; it’s the beauty of law. It is a vehicle to expand the rights of those who are unrepresented and help afford justice for those who are discriminated against. That’s why many of us have gone to law school and have become lawyers. Going forward, I ask all of us to recommit our efforts to eradicate the scourge of racism. For the Law Center, I first ask that our faculty and staff recommit ourselves in our work, in our scholarship, in our service, and in our teaching to explore and continue to analyze and expose the injustices that still exist in our society. Second, I ask the Law Center clinics to think of additional ways to further racial and social progress. Third, I ask the Prelaw Pipeline Program to continue to mentor and develop the next generation of students from underrepresented backgrounds. Lastly, I ask the Law Center Diversity and Inclusion Committee to continue its dialogue on these important issues among students, faculty, alumni, and staff during the summer and the next academic year.

I invite all UHLC law alumni to participate in a video we plan to release soon. Please wear a Law Center or Cougar red shirt and take a photo of yourself  with a sign that says “UH Law Stands Against Hate.” You can also send a short video less than 1 minute in length if you would like to add your thoughts. Please email to UHLawCom@uh.edu by June 12, 2020. By working together, we can do our part to build a more diverse, inclusive and just society. We can assure that Black lives do matter! I look forward to working with you on this project.

Leonard M. Baynes
Dean & Professor of Law
University of Houston Law Center