A Letter to the 33 Black Law Students at UCLA

Writer Wil LaVeist writes a tough love letter to UCLA's black law students in response to their video about their struggles.

Dear 33 black law students at UCLA,

I saw the video you made Feb. 10 — apparently in honor of Black History Month – about how “stony the road” has been for you all while trying to earn your degrees.

The video is well done, has gone viral, and is apparently generating substantial sympathy from several black people and probably some whites. As somber piano music plays gently in the background, you all are shown one by one pleading your cases about how “bitter the chastening rod” has been.

“I have to plead my humanity,” one of you says.

“I feel like I’m from another country – a European Country,” says another

“A lot of pressure… A lot of weight…Feels like I don’t belong…Unwelcoming and hostile.”

“It’s so far from being a safe space, that staying at home would be better for my mental health…”

“I have to police myself.”

“I’ve never felt the burden to have to represent my community until I came to law school.”

Lonely? Pressure? Burden?

You all are enrolled in one of the most prestigious schools in the country, which means you are among the best and brightest. Most of you are hopefully preparing to enter the criminal justice system, where your black perspective is sorely needed. Certainly you are all familiar with the book, “The New Jim Crow,” where attorney Michelle Alexander shows how prison has become the new plantation for black and brown people. You witnessed George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin. And now “stand your ground” has deadlocked a jury on whether to convict Michael Dunn of murder in the shooting death of Jordan Davis. But instead of “facing the rising sun” and marching on, you turn a video camera on yourselves and whine?

Don’t misunderstand me. I actually get where you all are coming from. You see, growing up in the late 70s and 80s in Brooklyn, NY, I went through a traumatic academic experience. I was bussed away from my black low-income neighborhood to predominantly white middle class public schools. In middle school when we “bus kids” (that’s how they labeled us) stepped out onto the streets, we faced a gauntlet of screaming mad grown white folks spewing hateful threats of death for attending their school. We bus kids had to plead our humanity. We felt that we were in another country. Our parents told us that we had better police ourselves because we were representing our entire race. And to think, we were only children.

Have you all had it so good up until now perched upon the shoulders of previous generations that have sacrificed for you that you are now rejecting your birthright? How can your feet already be weary at “the place for which our father’s sighed?”

Sorry, but you’re not facing pressure. You’re facing your duty. Pressure is sneaking into the plantation down the road to set your wife free. Pressure is going to war for America in the hopes that your death will enable generations of black children to live free. Pressure is raising five children on your own in poverty because your deadbeat husband split.

What pressured W.E.B Dubois at Harvard into becoming the first African American to earn a Ph.D.? What burdened Paul Robeson while being an all-American athlete, multitalented artist and scholar at Rutgers who went on to earn a law degree at Columbia University? What loneliness drove Jane Bolin to not only become the first African American woman to graduate from Yale Law, but the first black woman judge in the United States?

“We have come over a way that with tears has been watered
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered…”

Here’s some advice that helped me when I was “the only one” while earning a master’s degree at the University of Arizona and even now as I pursue a doctorate at Old Dominion University in Virginia. Look to the past for inspiration. Read essays by African-American Jeremiads such as Maria Stewart and David Walker. Read poems like “I too Sing America” by Langston Hughes and “We Wear the Mask,” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar. Sit down and really digest “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a.k.a The Black National Anthem) by James Weldon Johnson, who, by the way, was also a lawyer:

“…Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.


About the author, Wil LaVeist

Wil LaVeist is an award-winning journalist, professional speaker, and author of Fired Up: 4 Steps to Overcoming a Crisis, Including Unemployment. Contact him at www.WILLAVEIST.com, and listen to The Wil LaVeist Show Wednesdays at Noon to 1 p.m. on 88.1 WHOV in Hampton, Virginia.
  1. Not one of us is seeking your unsolicited advice—and it’s never been a logical argument to compare “pressures” and rule out the definition of such if one trumps the other. In that case all the great African American first you just listed did not undergo pressure because it was also a CHOICE for them to attend those universities while there are starving single mothers in India and Africa battling HIV and still trying to provide for her 7 kids who cant afford basic necessities and dodging human feces on their 3 mile walks for fresh water each day. You see how that is MORE pressure but yet doesn’t negate the very real realities we face daily? Their will ALWAYS be someone who has/had it worst but that in NO way invalidates someone elses current perception of struggle so you can KEEP your open letter. We dont need it.

  2. I am a non-African American minority. I come from L.A. I was born and
    raised there in an all-white neighborhood. I was raised in an apartment
    surrounded by wealthy white people and what I learned is that I could
    work just as hard to have what they had; and, I did.
    Today, I live in
    Virginia and I attend a Historically Black College University. I am a
    minority amongst minorities where they consider me to be white. SO WHAT! you may say to me and you’re are right. So what. But, what this experience
    has taught me is that African Americans are just as racist as the whites
    and they dish it out the same, if not, harder sometimes. I have the right to say this
    because I have been educated under both environments.
    I am currently
    prep-ing for law school and I am at the top of my class. I am honored
    to be graduating from an HBCU because what this experience has forced me
    to do is to connect with my Hispanic Heritage. In fact, living in a
    racially divided South has forced me to chose because the common belief here is that you
    are either black or white, its quite funny. Seeing the video made by these 33 African American Law Students and reading this article makes me feel pity. Being different isn’t about the
    color of your skin or your race/ethnicity. It is about who you are as an
    individual, the opportunities you make for yourself, and what you do
    with those opportunities. After all, you don’t see foreigners panhandling on streets do you? As an individual you can either re-live the
    oppression that America has labored through or you can take the past and present and grow from it.
    Holding yourself back….that is your choice. We all have that choice.
    Life is what you make it and the institution that you attend does not
    define YOU. YOU DO! I would be honored to attend UCLA Law School to represent the minority class. I would take the experience and allow it to make me better, stronger, and a force to be reckoned with when I go out there an litigate, why? Because that is what diversity does for a person.