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UCI Law Dean Aims For Improved Race Relations

When it comes to improving U.S. race relations, University of California-Irvine School of Law Dean L. Song Richardson says this time may be different.

“In this particular moment, I feel that things are changing little by little,” Richardson said.

“We have a long way to go.”

Richardson spoke against the backdrop of protests and clashes that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day.

His death spurred numerous companies and leaders in Orange County and across the country to re-examine their policies toward African Americans and to step up the quest for racial equality.

Those equality issues extend to the OC’s academic world, she said.

“I’m the only dean of color at UCI,” she said. “I feel a special responsibility to help the university embrace meaningful diversity in this moment.”

She aims to help the university’s “commitment to address all forms of anti-Blackness and racism across the board.”

Unconscious Bias

Richardson, who is also a university chancellor’s professor of law, is a leading legal expert on the science of “implicit bias,” a type of unconscious bias that influences judgments about race and gender.

The work has proven to be especially timely in light of national events.

Much of her studies into implicit bias are directed toward its impact on how African Americans are treated by police and in the criminal justice system, although those same issues can also play a part in hiring and other decisions made in the business world.

Richardson’s work also covers unconscious bias that often favors men over women in business and other matters.

Her bio notes that she’s frequently invited to speak to “law firms, district attorney and public defender offices, police departments, universities, judges, bar associations, and private industry.”

Actions Taking Root

“What is new, at least at this limited moment in time, is that actions are happening,” she told the Business Journal on June 15, speaking on the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement.

One example: the push for significant reform of heavy-handed and sometimes deadly police tactics.

She hopes that the momentum for change that’s been built up will keep going rather than just moving on “to something else tomorrow.”

Richardson is a proponent of changing the structure of the criminal justice system, and reevaluating the role of the police in society, with an emphasis on expanding social services.

“We ask our police to do too much. We ask them to be social workers, mental health experts,” Richardson said.

Surroundings Matter

Richardson is active in numerous other academic areas including Asian American studies and biotechnology. She is listed in the Business Journal’s latest OC 500 roster of influential Orange County leaders.

Her suggestions for some ways to seek equality in society: “In our workplaces, collect diversity data to determine areas for improvement and to identify barriers to diversity, create performance metrics that measure and value diversity, and learn about implicit biases and how they may impact our decisions, perceptions, behaviors, and judgments.”

Richardson’s background gives her a unique perspective on race issues; her mother is Korean and her African American father was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army.

She said the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South still existed in her father’s lifetime, barring him from using the same water fountains as whites and keeping him out of classrooms with white kids when he lived in Georgia.

Her work on such implicit or unconscious biases focuses on our surroundings—“those that we learn in our society” and its structures.

“We have these unconscious biases. I’m a Black woman, I’m a Korean woman, I’m female, and I still have the same biases that other people have,” she said.

She said biases about race can influence jurors in trials.

“How is it that we have ended up today where our brains unconsciously think of Black individuals as being criminal and white individuals as being innocent?” she asked.

No. 27 in US

She is only the second dean of the young law school, taking over at the start of 2018 from founding Dean Erwin Chemerinsky.

UCI Law accepted its first students just 11 years ago and is ranked No. 27 among the country’s top law schools by U.S. News & World Report in the 2021 edition of Best Law Schools.

Among the law school’s many innovations is an in-depth study of the use of artificial intelligence, from its impact on bail decisions to product liability and privacy.

Like other top academics at UCI, Richardson is also juggling the enormous challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, which will likely lead to a mix of online learning and in-person groups at the law school starting in two months (see story, this page).

Pianist

Richardson’s legal career has included partnership at a boutique criminal law firm and work as a state and federal public defender in Seattle.

She was also an assistant counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.

She received her undergraduate degree from Harvard College and her JD from Yale Law School. Her scholarship has been published by law journals at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Duke and Northwestern, among others. Her co-edited book, “The Constitution and the Future of Criminal Justice in America,” was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

She is currently co-authoring a book focused on “the history of anti-Black racism.”

The one-time concert pianist played with the Boston Symphony Orchestra twice in the 1980s.

Now that a long and successful road has taken her to the top of the legal academic world, how does her mother feel about her achievements?

“It’s very hard for a Korean mom to ever say that what their children have accomplished is enough,” Richardson said with a laugh, adding her mother “definitely would have wanted me to pursue music.”

“Now that I’m a law school dean she’s satisfied with that,” Richardson said. “She is very proud.”

UCI Law Preps For Fall Semester

Like university administrators everywhere, UCI School of Law Dean L. Song Richardson is wrestling with ways to continue top-level teaching and learning during the coronavirus pandemic when the fall semester starts in two months.

The likely solution: a mix of some classes online and some in-person in “small groups with social distancing and all the other requirements that might be set in place.”

“We had already started planning pre the shelter-in-place order for online classes,” she said.

That includes a weekly workshop for faculty to learn “the best practices of online education” including ways to help students develop relationships with one another and with faculty.

The innovations are especially important for first-year students, who face an academic rigor somewhat akin to joining the Marine Corps.

“In some ways, some of the relationships are stronger now than pre-COVID because of the amount of time and effort and attention that we’re putting on these issues.”

The first class of students started in August 2009, and the school prides itself on innovation in legal education for the evolving practice of law.

The skills include learning how to represent a client on camera and how to “develop a relationship with a client that you’ve never met in person.”

“This moment allows our law school to shine,” Richardson said. “This is what we do. We’re not mired in tradition.”

She said while pandemic era is a “terrible time that we’re living in, at the same time you can innovate.”

—Kevin Costelloe

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Kevin Costelloe
Kevin Costelloe
Tech reporter at Orange County Business Journal
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