Oscars So White

#OscarsSoWhite – As law students, why are we so surprised?

The lack of diversity in the recent Oscar nominations has prompted use of #OscarsSoWhite to express outrage. However, should the legal community be surprised of such lack of diversity, given its similar demographics with the film industry?

On January 14, 2016 the nominees for the 88th Academy Awards were announced. While there was indeed some diversity in those presenting the nominees – directors Guillermo del Toro and Ang Lee with Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and actor John Krasinski – there was a notable lack of diversity among the nominees. In fact, this is the second year in a row that the Academy did not honor any actors of color. Consequently, for the second year in a row the Twitter-verse began trending #OscarsSoWhite while a wide range of celebrities from Jada Pinkett Smith, to Whoopi Goldberg, to Mark Ruffalo, weighed in on the controversy. Yet, as a white male student at one of the nation’s top law schools, I couldn’t help but wonder what parallels can be drawn to the legal community.

There is no denying that there is a lack of diversity in the legal profession. If you look at the American Bar Association’s 2015 Lawyer Demographics Report, Whites make up 88-89% of the number of licensed attorneys in the country. The similarities are striking when you compare the number of Biglaw partners with the number of Hollywood executives. In both cases, 92% of the demographic is White. These numbers are staggering, yet it seems that the conversation is pushed under the rug until it is so obvious, as in the yearly nominations of the Academy Awards or the first weeks of one’s 1L year.

For instance, it was not so long ago that Berkeley Law students in particular started a conversation that could essentially have been labeled “#ModsSoWhite.” This conversation was in response to Berkeley Law’s “critical mass” policy that left some first-year sections (mods) without any African-American students. The policy attempted to create a more positive experience for underrepresented minority students by putting them in a class in which they would form a “critical mass.” However, many students expressed their disappointment with the lack of diversity at the school and viewed it as segregating the students. The solution to this problem is clearly one that needs to be done on a macro-level and cannot necessarily be resolved immediately. However, conversation amongst students of all backgrounds and ethnicities is definitely a step in the right direction.

As for the Academy Awards, a more tangible solution has at least started to be put into effect. On January 21, 2016, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences unanimously voted for changes designed to make the Academy’s membership and its voting members more diverse.  The Hollywood Reporter describes the A2020 initiative as a program “intended to encourage and to push the industry to examine its hiring practices and to begin to make changes.” This includes a number of changes in the structure and membership of the Academy, such as changing member’s voting status to 10-year terms that can only be renewed if the member has been active in the motion picture industry during that time. The hope is that the Academy will become more representative of our population and thus organically diversify the nominations.

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