Q&A with Prof. Christopher Roberts
In celebration of Black History month, Minnesota Law students interviewed Black faculty and alumni about their experiences and thoughts about Black History. 1L Job Okeri recently spoke with Professor Christoper Roberts.
JO: Thank you so much for having this conversation, Professor Roberts. Let’s start with a little background on your law school career. Can you start by telling us what motivated you to go to law school?
CR: For me, law school was a way of thinking about the world and the society around us, in a way that allowed me to know more about so many of the moving parts within it; how the courts work, how congress works, how the executive branch works, how people’s lives are shaped by the legal system. The list goes on and on. A law degree definitely does make you an all-around thinker in a way that is good for a host of endeavors.
JO: How did you end up teaching at the University of Minnesota?
CR: I'll answer this question in narrow, operational terms because most people don’t know about the entry-level, legal academic market. I entered the legal job market for an academic position, through the American Association of Law Schools recruitment conference. The Association has an annual conference in which all the hiring law schools get together at the same hotel in Washington D.C. every year. All the interviewing candidates on the market go to that hotel and meet with the different appointments committees in the bedrooms of the hotel. I know this sounds strange, but it’s actually not; they take out all the beds and the furniture and put in tables and desks, and they become, for three days, little mini offices. You meet with some fascinating people whom you will get to call colleagues if you are successful
I didn't think for a moment when I was in law school that I would eventually become a law professor and I didn't know anything about the process. But I think it's a great thing for students to put this path as a possibility in their back pocket.
JO: Can you tell us what Black History Month means to you?
CR: When we're talking about Black History we're talking, certainly about history. Too often history is only associated with the past. And yes, history is a thing of the past. But it's also a thing of the present, and it's a thing for our future. If we don't look at history as past, present, and future, we miss a lot of what is going on in our present day life and the possibilities for the future.
I think that history is a crucially important site for civic struggle in any society. Black history—and Black History Month—is a site of civic struggle in the U.S. Look, for instance, at the textbook wars in our country: whether there's going to be recognition of our slave-owning history and the deplorable past that we've had—the racial subjugation that our country was founded on. Now there are fights and battles of all sorts going on over “critical race theory.” We need to recognize that history paves the way for us moving forward.
JO: In recent years, Minneapolis has been in the headlines for the snatching of Black lives by the police. Black History month this year started off with the senseless murder of Amir Locke in Minneapolis, and a few weeks later, Kim Porter was sentenced to only two years for the murder Daunte Wright. How are you processing these recent events?
CR: Every time I hear about another senseless death, I get a pit in my stomach. That pit in my stomach tells me that we as a country are in a place in which we shouldn't be. Some people, just by walking out of their home and doing what any citizen should have the freedom to do, end up risking their life. This happens over and over. When this same condition appears over and over and over and over and over again, maybe it’s time to look more seriously at the preconditions that give rise to it; the sort of the environment in which these things are happening. We need to get better at focusing and identifying the many pre-conditional factors that lead to the senseless deaths. For me it comes back down to fear, to racism, but then also to the fact that this country is awash with guns. That cannot be taken out of the equation. Police officers must always be thinking that somebody has a gun. And when that's coupled with ignorance, or racism, or implicit bias, or poor decision making, it is a powder keg waiting to go off. It just happens so much.
What really, I think, contributes to that pit in my stomach is the feeling that I think so many Americans have: that we know there's a problem, and yet it doesn't seem like we can do anything about it.
JO: How do you think law students and young lawyers can leverage their legal education to respond to the challenge of systemic racism that you just described?
CR: Well, I think, first we never leave our conversation, or that pit in our stomach at a place where we think we can't do anything about it. So that is the first thing, and we can recognize that many people may feel that way. But we must do something about it. Not doing something about it isn't an option. We really need to rethink the way that we understand some of the basic, foundational ideas that this country was founded on. For example, one of the things that I've been doing quite a lot of is talking to students about how we think of rights. In this country, we often think about rights as being rooted within the individual. We think about rights as being something like a possession that one can carry or somehow have. A right, I think, is better conceived as a relationship between a person and other people, or between people and the broader society and government.
If we look at rights in a way that focuses, not on a right being owned by a person, but as a kind of relationship between people, we can really begin to think differently about some of the structures of law and policy that we have based our system on for not decades, but centuries. When we are dealing with systemic problems, we often steer between the tendency to say it's all corrupt—let’s take the whole thing down and start over, on the one hand. On the other hand, we often just try to double-down on what we know and how things have been in the past. There's a middle ground somewhere in there, where we can really begin to reconstitute ourselves anew and look towards changing the contours of our own civic model. Our civic model needs to be updated; it needs to be we reworked and reframed. This is not something that can be done simply or lightly. We must go deep and look to the deep structures of our government and our society. It must be done with keen intention; we must do it with care and respect. And we must do it by rethinking some of the basic concepts upon which our system depends. And for me, rights is one of those concepts.
JO: Can you share a favorite memory or two about being a law student?
CR: Some of my greatest memories happened in the classroom but others happened far beyond the classroom. I will take you back for a moment to the Thanksgiving break of my second year of law school. Five friends and I took two cars from Los Angeles where I went to school at USC and drove them down several hundred miles into Mexico to the Sea of Cortez where we took a boat out to an island called Isla La Ventana and stayed there for three or so days.
It was a wonderful experience. To do it with friends meant a lot to me—getting out of the thick of law school for a moment and taking a break to return replenished. I recommend all law students schedule times to get away at certain points like that. When you come back, it makes you appreciate it all. You feel restored, rested, and renewed.
JO: Can you tell us one thing that we will not find on your resume?
CR: A fun fact about me is that from time to time, for reasons unknown, I am captured by an insatiable urge to make something in wood. I really like to do woodwork. It's not something that I do all the time but there are moments when I do. I remember when I was in college, and in law school, I became taken with making boomerangs out of wood.
Most recently during the pandemic, I made a cajon. It's a Peruvian wood-drum with a remarkable history. Cajons were first made by the slaves that lived on plantations, who weren't allowed to sing and dance and make music. They would do so surreptitiously, using the wood from the boxes of the produce that they were to packing.
JO: What is one parting piece of advice for law students who aspire to be lawyer-leaders in our society.
CR: Don't be afraid to entertain a contrary idea.