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The Daily Tar Heel

Racist incident during UNC law class raises questions about diversity and inclusion

Zachary Boyce, a first-year law student poses for a portrait in front of the Law School. Boyce had racist comments directed towards him by a fellow law student via zoom chat during class.

An incident of racism that occurred in an online classroom discussion with UNC School of Law students has evoked law students, alumni and professors to speak out against white supremacy and the racist values that UNC as an institution has perpetuated. 

The situation prompted members of the law school's class of 2023 to write a letter to the school's administration, asking for the administration to condemn the words and actions of the student. But calls for holding the School of Law accountable started well before this incident. 

The letter and an accompanying petition were presented to the administration and gathered over 360 signatures from current students, alumni and professors in the law school. 

The incident happened in a Zoom chat during a class on Jan. 14, where one student was accused of making racist, offensive remarks toward a student of color during a discussion between classmates. 

The Daily Tar Heel obtained a transcript of the Zoom chat, where a student sent a message directed toward Zachary Boyce, a first-year law student and Graduate and Professional Student Federation law senator, during a class discussion around the historical theories of property law in the United States. 

“You are an American attending an elite law school in the 21st century,” the student said to Boyce in the Zoom chat. “If you are looking for a good cause, you can always travel to Cameroon and fight the colonizers there.” 

Boyce said the case being discussed during class was about how colonial settlers disenfranchised Indigenous sovereignty over their ancestral lands.

After the incident occurred, Boyce said he filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office that began an investigation. Boyce said that as of March 1, the EOC office responded that nothing said in the chat was exclusionary or harmful to people of color and no policy was broken.

Boyce said the comments directed at him by the accused student were a form of macroaggression.

“The investigation shielded the administration from accountability or for having to hold themselves accountable for not taking the steps to protect students of color within the law school from debates of their humanity,” Boyce said. 

Response from the law school  

Martin Brinkley, dean of the UNC School of Law, said in an email statement to the DTH on Feb. 19 that the administration and professor involved had been working hard to address the situation with involved parties. 

“Because this matter has been upsetting and hurtful to many in our community who were not directly involved, I have written to our community today to make it clear that discourse at our school should be made in the spirit of tolerance, openness, and that most fundamental of virtues — humility,” Brinkley said in the statement. 

On the same day, Brinkley said in an email to the School of Law community that the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevented the school’s administration from disclosing information about the incident, and that he had to wait several weeks to speak on the matter. 

“That email was kind of vapid, and it just shows that he was hiding behind the protection of FERPA that was invoked by me starting the investigation,” Boyce said.

Adreanna Sellers, a second-year student at the law school and president of the Black Law Students Association, said students wanted a clear statement from the administration in response to the incident. 

“FERPA doesn’t disallow you from saying that, and that shouldn’t be a hard thing for the administration to just come out and say,” Sellers said. 

Boyce said students were not asking for Brinkley to call out the accused student directly, but rather for the dean to take direct action to restructure the School of Law in a way that provides restorative justice to communities of color and enhance the diversity of the learning community.  

“I refuse to out this student because I refuse to feed into the narrative of cancel culture,” Boyce said. “That is a very small issue, and the bigger issue is the enduring social inequities of white supremacy that benefit rich, able-bodied white men.”

Sloan Taylor, a third-year student at the law school, said students were looking for a statement from UNC Law administration in response to the incident that condemned the rhetoric of the accused student. 

With many students feeling isolated due to online classes, when an incident like this occurs, Taylor said that students of color might feel like they have no support system to which they can turn.

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“That calls for a heightened response and heightened sensitivity, care and attention — and that was absent,” Taylor said.

A lack of adequate progress

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others, the UNC Black Law Students Association sent a set of expectations for the law school's administration and faculty to acknowledge in June. The expectations included calling for more diversity inclusion efforts among hiring and students, and expanding the reach of the school's curriculum. 

On Jan. 8, Boyce introduced a resolution as Graduate and Professional Student Federation senator of the law school, calling for the University's administration to condemn the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, as well as the racist values that UNC Law continues to uphold. 

In a letter obtained by the DTH, Guskiewicz responded to the passed resolution, condemning the acts of violence.

But Boyce said that Guskiewicz deferred the responsibility of confronting the culture of white supremacy condemned in the resolution to Brinkley — who has yet to acknowledge or address it directly to Boyce.

UNC spokesperson Joanne Peters Denny said in an email to the DTH that Guskiewicz has made it clear that racism and discrimination have no place on campus. 

Under the University’s shared governance model, the Chancellor delegates authority over the schools to the Deans, and he entrusts them with the responsibility of embedding the values of diversity, equity and inclusion within their school's curriculum and overall mission and to work directly with the student body to cultivate that environment,” Peters Denny said.

In response to a request for comment about the lack of administrative response to the resolution, Brinkley said in a statement that the law school condemns white supremacy and its role in the legal profession. 

Brinkley also said in a statement that the School of Law is committed to addressing the issue of institutional racism that impacts students of the legal profession. 

The statement also cited actions that the UNC Law administration has taken to increase diversity and inclusion efforts, including hiring two new faculty members specializing in anti-discrimination law and ethics, race and the law; hiring a student wellness counselor embedded at the law school who specializes in racial trauma; and holding an event that addressed the expectations in BLSA's letter.  

“We also remain steadfast in our commitment to creating an environment that encourages open dialogue about these systems in an effort to help ensure everyone feels valued and heard,” Brinkley said in a statement. “Carolina Law is committed to doing this important and very necessary work.”

Boyce said the bigger issue is that the University has consistently failed to tackle problems around racism and social inequities. Because of this, he said part of the campaign toward restorative justice involves permanently abolishing GPA at the University and implementing pass/fail. 

“I don’t feel that students of color should be qualified on a standardized curve in their performance against students who are backed against generational wealth in their lives and who have never known economic instability,” Boyce said. 

Sellers said that one of the first demands from the BLSA expectations was for an Office of Diversity of Inclusion to be created and a dean of equity to be appointed within the School of Law. 

“We haven’t gotten any answers and we haven't seen any movement on that expectation alone,” Sellers said.