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Nelson uses critical race to go above and beyond the law.

When Camille A. Nelson begins her appointment as dean of the American University Washington College of Law in July, diversity will be a departure point--not an end.

"I like to talk about diversity, inclusion and the third step no one is talking about, which is empowerment," Nelson said in a recent phone interview from the Netherlands, where she is finishing a sabbatical.

For Nelson, that means not only "bringing more voices to the table and making the implicit explicit," but also "making sure those people around the table are representative of the community we say we are, making sure we value and treat people in the ways we want to be treated."

Such are just a few of the principled views of Nelson, a former Suffolk College law dean whose scholarly pursuits are rooted in critical race theory--a theory that holds that racism is endemic to American life and has contributed to contemporary forms of group advantage and disadvantage.

With American Bar Association statistics showing that women represent under a third of all law school deans and African-American women represent just 11 in total--or 19 percent of all female deans--observers say that Nelson's appointment as law dean with a background in critical race theory signifies American University's commitment not only to demographic diversity but diversity of thought.

"We don't have a lot of deans," said former FAMU law school dean and current law professor LeRoy Pernell, who has written about issues that face law school deans of color, speaking in reference to law deans with a background in critical race theory, or CRT.

"We have a few that have written in that area, but to have a school at this level [appoint a dean with a background in CRT] I think is a sign that American is willing to be much more progressive and much more diverse in their thought," Purnell said.

Indeed, in announcing Nelson's appointment earlier this month, American University touted prominently Nelson's expertise on the "intersection of critical race theory and cultural studies with particular emphasis on criminal law and procedure, health law, and comparative law."

Nelson--who has taught law at Saint Louis University, Washington University in St. Louis and the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University, as well as in Canada and France--was born in Jamaica to parents who were also born on the island nation. She was raised on the outskirts of Toronto.

Her father, who moved the family to Toronto after he received a scholarship to go to the University of Toronto, taught classes to children who were then referred to as "juvenile delinquents" at a treatment center in a psychiatric hospital. Her mother was a secretary at the same hospital. "So maybe that's why I'm really focused on mental health," Nelson said.

Nelson earned a bachelor's in administration from the University of Toronto and a Baccalaureate of Laws--the Canadian equivalent of the J.D.--from the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law. She also served as a clerk for then-Canadian Supreme Court Justice Frank Iacobucci.

After clerking for Iacobucci, Nelson went into private practice.

Nelson says that it was critical race theory that moved her to leave private practice in Toronto and enter graduate school at Columbia University in the City of New York.

Specifically, she said she wanted to study under Columbia's "powerhouse" of critical race scholars that included Kendall Thomas, Patricia Williams and Kimberle Crenshaw, whom Nelson referred to as "leading lights" of the critical race theory movement.

"One of the big draws to go back to grad school and leave private practice was the possibility of studying at Columbia for my master's and having the chance to interact and learn from those critical race scholars," Nelson said.

Nelson began her studies at Columbia in 1998 and obtained a Master of Laws degree from the school in 2000--a period when she said CRT was focused largely on criminal law with an emphasis on defense.

Over the past decade and a half, Nelson said she has been exploring the "identity dynamics that are just below the surface when we're talking about law and society.

"I consider myself a legal anthropologist as it were. We're digging and bringing to the surface things that others don't know exist or frankly don't want to deal with. I think that has clearly broad reach not only in criminal law but beyond."

Nelson says that she plans to pay close attention to the U.S. News & World Report rankings of law schools, although she doesn't believe the rankings capture the "full excellence of the school."

In recent years, American University has plummeted from 49th in the nation to its current spot of 78th.

Nelson emphasizes that the school's specialty programs enjoy high ratings. Indeed, U.S. News ranked the law school as No. 2 in clinical training, No. 9 in intellectual property law, No. 5 in international law, No. 8 in trial advocacy and No. 1 in part-time law.

She also touted the fact that U.S. News ranks American's law school highly in terms of diversity--ranking it a 0.59 on a scale of 0.0 to 1.0.

"I think it would be helpful if they merged that index because it separates diversity from the core of what we do at law school," Nelson said. D

By Jamaal Abdul-Alim

--Jamaal Abdul-Alim can be reached at
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Title Annotation:noteworthy news; Camille A. Nelson of American University Washington College of Law
Author:Abdul-Alim, Jamaal
Publication:Diverse Issues in Higher Education
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1U9WA
Date:Apr 21, 2016
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