Michelle Alexander, Other Scholars Celebrate 40 Years of Clinical Education at Access to Equal Justice Colloquium


Washington University School of Law recently celebrated 40 years of clinical education and community collaborations in the pursuit of justice at the 13th annual
Access to Equal Justice Colloquium. The colloquium—which was free and open to students, faculty, staff, and the public—drew more than 300 participants. 

The keynote speaker was Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, associate professor of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, and former director of the Civil Rights Clinic at Stanford University School of Law. Her talk was also part of the Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series.  

Winner of the NAACP’s award for best nonfiction book in 2011, The New Jim Crow argues that by incarcerating African Americans at rates much higher than whites, the U.S. criminal justice system is perpetuating a system of rules, laws, and customs that lock African Americans in a second-class status. The result is a "caste system" that exhibits the same discrimination as Jim Crow did over a century ago, but with a new language—the language of incarceration. 

“In the era of colorblindness, it is no longer socially permissible to use race, explicitly, as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt,” Alexander said, quoting from her book. “So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.” 

As a result, “once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal,” Alexander said. 

Among those in the audience were dozens of middle school students from Pamoja Prep Academy at Cole Elementary School and high school students from Northwest Academy of Law, a public St. Louis magnet school with a law-related curriculum, moot courtroom, and law library.   

Washington University law faculty and students have been partnering with Northwest for a number of years through mentorship and access to justice opportunities, including projects coordinated by Professors Kathy Goldwasser, John Inazu, and Jane Moul. With assistance from Senior Lecturer C.J. Larkin and Professor Karen Tokarz, Civil Rights & Community Justice Clinic law students Noble Freeman, Carol Jansen, Katy Swiss, and clinic alumnus Ilunga Kalala, JD ’13, recently worked with Northwest students on an open letter to various public officials, published on the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s website. 

In her talk, Alexander referenced the letter, which invited police and public officials to an Urban Peace Summit, organized at Northwest, to facilitate community dialogue about crime, its causes, and its solutions. “I think we can all applaud their efforts to play a leadership role in ending mass incarceration,” Alexander said. 

Other speakers at the Access to Justice conference included Jane Aiken, Georgetown University Law Center; Sarah Jane Forman, Detroit Mercy School of Law; Josh Gupta-Kagan, University of South Carolina School of Law; Cortney Lollar, University of Kentucky College of Law; Michael Pinard, University of Maryland School of Law; and Sue McGraugh, JD ’88, Saint Louis University School of Law. All are former Washington University law faculty or alumni.  

The conference featured two plenary sessions, “Increasing Access to Criminal Justice: Innovative Criminal Law Reform Initiatives and Collaborations,” moderated by Professor Peter Joy, and “Increasing Access to Civil Justice: Innovative Civil Law Reform Initiatives and Collaborations,” moderated by Professor Karen Tokarz. Peter Ruger, JD ’69, former longtime adjunct, former director of the Intellectual Property & Nonprofit Organizations (IP/NO) Clinic, and former Washington University general counsel, received the Access to Justice Award for his exemplary and longstanding contributions to the law school and community. 


The school’s nationally recognized Clinical Education Program, consistently ranked among the top 10 clinical educations programs in the country for more than 15 years, offers 16 distinct clinics and externships, including the IP/NO Clinic; the longstanding Congressional and Administrative Law Program in Washington, D.C.; the International Justice & Conflict Resolution semester externship; and the new Semester-in-Practice externship. The latter gives second- and third-year law students the chance to gain hands-on experience at an agency or firm of their choosing anywhere in the country. 

The school also guarantees that all students will have a clinical or externship experience during their second or third year. Click here for more information about the Clinical Education Program.