Irene Jiang

On Oct. 14, President Peter Salovey announced the creation of the Center for Law and Racial Justice in an email sent out to the Yale community.

The center, which is set to open next fall, will be headquartered at the Yale Law School and directed by law professor James Forman, Jr. LAW ’92. Salovey’s announcement also highlighted steps that the University is taking to address racism through research, scholarship and action. The center is action-oriented and will consist of students and faculty working to address criminal and racial justice issues in the U.S., with a specific focus on New Haven.

“In addition to the established units committed to the study of race and ethnicity, we will develop a new center this year: The Center for Law and Racial Justice,” Salovey wrote in the email. “The Center for Law and Racial Justice will be a hub for teaching, research, and policy work on legal aspects of racial justice, oriented around a successful pedagogical model of turning classrooms ‘inside out’ and enabling students to learn by doing.”

Forman told the News that he and Yale Law School Dean Heather Gerken had multiple conversations about possible steps they could take to address racial equity and criminal justice issues such as police brutality and mass incarceration over the past five years. This past spring, Gerken and Forman determined that there were enough ideas and potential projects to sustain a center, so Gerken approached the University about creating what will be the Center for Law and Racial Justice. 

According to Forman, the University has been “pretty quick” about establishing the center — Salovey’s announcement comes only a few months after his initial conversations with Gerken.

“I’m really excited about [the center] because there’s a chance to put together a lot of ideas and projects that I’ve been thinking about, and that students have been coming to me about, over the last few years,” Forman said. “And there’s an urgency that comes as a result of George Floyd’s murder … [and the] consciousness raising around these issues –– around historic racism and present-day racism and institutional barriers that Black people have faced and continue to face in this country.”

Before opening the center in the fall of 2021, Forman said he will focus on solidifying the list of projects that the center will pursue. He told the News that one possible project would help imagine and build alternative structures to keep communities safe without police forces. The center’s projects may also include working to expand opportunities for marginalized communities in New Haven and investigating restorative justice programs as an alternative to incarceration. 

He emphasized that he will work with the greater New Haven community to determine the final list of projects. Forman also added that he will gauge student interest when finalizing the center’s projects. 

“As a professor, you are constantly having the opportunity to teach and learn from the next generation of civil rights advocates, the next generation of students and young people who are going to be fighting for social change,” Forman said. “Every year that goes by, I basically get my education updated because I get to meet a new set of students to understand their concerns, and understand their passions, and students have absolutely changed the conversation in so many of the topics I think about.”

Salovey’s email also highlighted the work of the Law School’s Justice Collaboratory, a social science research center that brings together an interdisciplinary group of faculty and scholars to fuse theory and research to make America’s criminal justice system more effective and fairer. According to his email, the organization continues to generate “excellent scholarship” and “inspiring teaching.” 

According to Executive Director of the Justice Collaboratory Caroline Sarnoff, the Collaboratory also functions to bring leading scholars from around the world to work on issues such as criminal justice reform, implicit bias, social psychology and racism.

According to Sarnoff, the Collaboratory also acts as Yale’s central hub of information and study with regards to criminology, given that the University does not offer any criminal justice policy program. 

“Everyone feels like the moment is now,” Sarnoff said. “Not only do we have historically low crime rates in America right now, we also have an appetite for change. It is so rare that those two coincide in a way in which you can make impactful policy change, and we’re there.”

Sarnoff told the News that, while she was satisfied with the initiatives that Salovey outlined in his email, she felt as though he did not include an accurate representation of all the work going on at Yale to address racism and equity.

She pointed directly to the work of School of Medicine professor Emily Wang, law professor Miriam Gohara and Director of the Yale Prison Education Initiative Zelda Roland ’08 GRD ’16 as examples of people she believed Salovey should have included.

“[Salovey’s email] highlights some of the work happening, but it also forgot about a ton of other faculty and scholarship at Yale that have been here and have been doing this work for a long time,” Sarnoff said. “And that’s too bad.”

The Justice Collaboratory was founded in January 2015.

Julia Brown | julia.k.brown@yale.edu