Incivility insights: Professor teaches using her own life experiences

Moya Bansile-Williams

As a law professor, I draw on upon my own encounters to educate students, of all races and creeds, about the importance of treating all people with decency and respect. I stress that people are individuals, and we are to be judged by the content of our character and not to be judged by broad, sweeping perceptions of the groups to which they belong.

A teachable moment

When a student does, says, or writes something that’s offensive or inappropriate, I immediately respond by educating the student about the error of what they said, did, or wrote. I do that in the context in which the incident occurred so other students can learn from that student’s error. I also do this with compassion and understanding so the student doesn’t leave feeling berated but enlightened.

One semester, in an evening business law course in which several working adults, including at least one White male law enforcement officer, were enrolled, we were discussing a case about the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable searches and seizures. The case involved the arrest and handcuffing of an Arizona man whose car was searched. Cocaine was found by the arresting officers while the man was sitting handcuffed in the back of the police cruiser. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s reversal of the man’s conviction for cocaine possession.

During the classroom discussion, a male student of mixed race said in anger, “I hate cops!” right after the law enforcement officer had made a comment about the case. I immediately responded that hating police officers isn’t the answer, that while some officers may not be exercising their discretion in a fair and just manner, other officers give their lives to protect the innocent.

I added that while we may hate the unfair application of laws, it’s wrong to hate people. I also explained that perhaps education, training, and proper screening of an officer’s fitness to serve, in addition to accountability for bad acts, may be critically important to deterring undesirable behaviors by law enforcement officers.

Then I emphasized that the classroom was a learning environment. I stressed that every student’s voice is equally important and valuable to the overall learning experience of all students. I also noted that open debate is the best way to educate and persuade people we may disagree with rather than silencing their voices.

I believe the class was relieved when I addressed the issue immediately rather than pretending it hadn’t occurred. I think that would have brought down the morale of the class.

Speaking from experience

I often draw on my personal encounters when teaching college students. For example, I was negotiating an employment discrimination case in which I was successful in obtaining a handsome settlement for my client. My adversary—a White, male senior litigation partner from a New York–based firm with offices in major capital cities of the world—said I was “saber rattling” when I pointed out the strengths of my client’s case to him.
I responded: “Is that what you call zealous advocacy these days: ‘saber rattling?’”

Later, the firm sent their only Black female associate into the negotiations. She made it a point to inform me of her salary and to suggest that the firm was looking to hire someone just like me.

I also share with students other examples.

Is your attorney here? In one case, it was about 8 a.m., and I was first in line outside a courtroom, with my client standing next to me. The sheriff’s officer assigned to that court ushered all the attorneys into the courtroom, who all happened to be White. As I approached the door, the officer blocked my way and said, “Is your attorney here?”

At the time, I was dressed in a business suit and carrying my briefcase and my court file. I responded: “I’m attorney Bansile, and this is my client. The judge is expecting me to be called first on the calendar; I already called ahead because I have to appear before another judge in another county this morning.”

Stating the law isn’t a procedural game. While arguing a motion in family court, I informed the judge, who was a Black male, that he was incorrect in his application of a court rule. I read the text of the rule verbatim from the New Jersey Court Rules on the counsel table. The judge responded, “Counsel, I will not be playing these procedural games with you.”

I responded, “Judge, with all due respect, these aren’t procedural games but mandatory rules of law you must apply in this case. The rule states, judge, that you shall conduct an in-camera hearing with the child in question. Your honor, you don’t have discretion to do otherwise.”

The group sat silently by. I was one of several attorneys newly admitted to the bar at a luncheon with seasoned attorneys. One of the seasoned attorneys repeatedly made racist jokes about Black people. I was the only Black person at the table and only one of two female attorneys in attendance. I was too shocked to respond as the attorney went on and on, mimicking the dialect of a Black man yelling at a Mexican man running down a hill after a block of cheese.

With these and other examples, I teach students that laws are to be applied fairly and equally and that justice in its application is supposed to be fair, impartial, and blind to all the things that make us different and unique.