Whistling Vivaldi: Legal Education and the Politics of Progress


In his autobiographical account of life as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Brent Staples describes one of his early ways of coping with racial stereotypes. As a large African American male living in a high crime neighborhood, Staples became aware of the anxiety he triggered among white residents. To avoid problems, he began “going out of his way onto side streets to spare [couples] the sense that they were being stalked.” When that proved too inconvenient, Staples discovered anothersolution: whistling Vivaldi.

So too, many men of color, and women of all races, have developed the metaphorical equivalent of whistling the classics in the hope of fitting more comfortably in law school. Faced with lingering, largely unconscious stereotypes, and a climate that often feels unwelcoming, students have adopted various strategies of acculturation. Yet the price of these approaches is often to perpetuate the problem. True progress will require changes in the legal academy rather than in the groups that it traditionally has excluded.

Of course, the increased presence of those groups reflects partial progress that should not be taken for granted. When I was in law school some two decades ago, diversity-related issues were not subjects of discussion. I had no course from a woman professor, and none that addressed gender inequality. And what seems most striking to me now is how little of this was striking to me then. Sol Linowitz, a prominent Washington practitioner, similarly recalls that although there were only two women in his class at Cornell Law School, neither he nor his male classmates questioned the skewed ratio. However, they did feel somewhat uncomfortable when the women were around. And, Linowitz ruefully acknowledges, “it never occurred to us to wonder whether they felt uncomfortable.”

Now, at least, many more students–and faculty–are wondering. But those who are most concerned are not always those who most need to be. The problems for women and men of color in law schools are partly attributable to people who believe that the problems have been solved. Partial progress has created its own obstacles to further change.

This symposium aims to remind us of the distance we have yet to travel. With that end in view, each contributor explores issues of diversityfrom a somewhat different angle. My focus is on gender, and my hope is tohighlight problems that remain for women in legal education. Areas of particular concern involve the underrepresentation of women in positions of greatest academic reward, the marginalization of “women’s issues” in the core curriculum, and the devaluation of women’s capacities and interests in educational contexts.

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