Some law profs don't want to teach the Dred Scott case because it's traumatic

Steilen, who wrote the initial tweet about teaching the Dred Scott case, doesn’t disagree with these principles and has worked to add more content on slavery and the Civil War in his course. But, he told me, “George Floyd has changed everything. . . . I wasn’t sure I could muster the moral authority to stand up there and teach this case.” He explained that omitting it entirely would be “a bridge too far,” but he thought it best to assign just “two paragraphs and move on.” He said, “Taney is making the case that Black people who were enslaved were never part of the people of the United States and could never be citizens. . . . It’s just painful. I’m white and I’m going to stand up there and talk with the students, including Black students, about this stuff? I would be dragging them through stuff that was hurtful to them. . . . It just felt indefensible.” Steilen feels that Taney’s language “gratuitously traumatizes” readers: “I wasn’t comfortable giving his words to my students because I was afraid it would hurt them and destroy the kind of community I want to foster in class.” This year, Steilen also skipped teaching Plessy v. Ferguson, which held that segregation did not imply Black people’s inferiority, and instead only mentioned its ideas in discussing Brown v. Board of Education, which overruled it.

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Carolyn Shapiro is a professor and co-director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States at Chicago-Kent College of Law. When teaching the case, she lectures to her students rather than requiring them to participate in a class discussion as she would throughout most of the course. She wrote on Twitter that she didn’t “think any student should be forced to recite or describe what Taney says about black people.” Shapiro told me, “It is so deeply offensive that I don’t think it’s appropriate.” In her teaching on race discrimination, she includes historical materials intended to show that “how we’ve grappled with the history of slavery is relevant to today.” As part of that, she used to include a clip of “The Road to Brown,” a documentary about Brown v. Board of Education that features historical photographs and footage, to help set the stage on Jim Crow. But, recently, she came to think that the photographs of lynchings that were shown in the video made it traumatic in the classroom, given today’s levels of violence against Black people. Instead, she prefers describing those historical events to her students. (Both Steilen and Shapiro came to these conclusions without pressure from students; they said they had not heard concerns or complaints.)

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