UB Law’s Higginbotham takes on the lingering effects of Jim Crow

[Note: This article originally appeared in the Daily Record here. ]

In May 2004, University of Baltimore School of Law professor F. Michael Higginbotham gave a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court’s historic ruling that found segregated public schools were inherently unequal.

Despite the dismantling of the Jim Crow laws, “people need to clearly understand that there are separations that still exist in society,” F. Michael Higginbotham says.

“I started to think about how far we have come and how much progress we have made, but also how much further we needed to go,” Higginbotham said.

That was the spark that led to an almost nine-year journey culminating with the publication of his new book, Ghosts of Jim Crow: Ending Racism in Post-Racial America.

At the core of the book is the existence of what Higginbotham called a “racial model” — created during slavery and nurtured by the segregationist Jim Crow laws and practices after the Civil War — that still exists in our society, with many people of both races still desiring isolation.

“What I am trying to do is get those individual people with those views to begin a conversation about how to recognize those views and how to end this racial model,” Higginbotham said.

There is also an element of racial victimization — both internally, among African-Americans, and externally, in laws and practices that discriminate against them, said Higginbotham, who served as the law school’s interim dean last year.

“It’s a failure of blacks themselves to value education and other upward-mobility vehicles and they turn to crime because of these perceived notions,” Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham has been at UB Law for about 25 years and teaches a class on race law. He grew up in Ohio and Beverly Hills, Calif., and attended Brown University for his bachelor’s degree before Yale Law School.

Some of the ideas in the book stem from his childhood in Beverly Hills. In the book’s preface, he recounts an evening riding his bike home as a 13-year-old when he was stopped by police. He was told he was out after curfew, but later discovered from friends that there was, in fact, no curfew in the neighborhood.

Higginbotham published his first and only other book in 2010. The textbook, Race Law: Cases, Commentary, and Questions explores race in the legal process from 1787 to the present.

“The difference in writing this one was I was able to put more of my own opinions into Ghosts,” Higginbotham said. “[Ghosts] was more of a reflection of what I believe from a personal standpoint, whereas a textbook must be a reflection of others.”

In the first part of the book, Higginbotham maps out these ideas, supported with historical and recent examples.

“I thought we had dealt with this,” Higginbotham said. “People need to clearly understand that there are separations that still exist in society that reflect what we think [happened] in the Jim Crow days,” Higginbotham said.

Once he decided to write the book, what followed was extensive research: reading cases, legislation and historic documents, Higginbotham said.

The writing, he said, he tried to make clear and concise, steering away from complicated legal prose. Higginbotham said he wrote mostly during winter and summer breaks and on weekends during the school year.

“I tried to break cases and legislation down so that anyone interested in race relations today and racial inadequacies, whether it’s junior high students, high school students or simply people who personally enjoy reading, that this would be something they could enjoy,” Higginbotham said.

Higginbotham went through several drafts, which he had colleagues read and edit, then sent it to publishers in early 2008 — about eight months before the presidential election. A publisher who was interested told Higginbotham the company liked the book, but told him he needed to factor in then-presidential hopeful Barack Obama.

Higginbotham spent the next several years weaving the effects of Obama’s presidency on race relations into his book, which was published by NYU Press and released on March 18.

The last part of the book focuses on Higginbotham’s ideas on how to shepherd in a new era of racial relations. Higginbotham suggests that people need to recognize there is a problem, empower the black community and equally integrate society.

“I’m not suggesting I have all the answers,” Higginbotham said. “I am saying the solutions I put forward would help eliminate the racial paradigm.”

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