An Interview with University of Virginia Law School Dean Risa Goluboff

By Mariel Priven ‘19, Abby Fisher ‘19, and Sofie Braun ‘22


On March 13th Risa Goluboff, Dean of the University of Virginia School of Law, addressed the high school community about America’s racial climate following the August 2017 Nazi march in her hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. She described the event’s aftermath as a period of mourning, and explained the stages of grief and reckoning she worked through with her community. Originally intended as a Martin Luther King Jr. Day program, Goluboff’s remarks explored issues of race through a constitutional and communal lens. Following the talk, three members of the Helios had the opportunity to sit down with Goluboff and delve deeper into some of the topics she raised.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Heschel Helios: An ongoing conversation we have here at Heschel is how to maintain values of pluralism while still balancing that with inclusion and equality. How do you, personally, think about the potentially competing values of allowing everyone to be ideologically diverse without sacrificing equality and security?

Risa Goluboff: I think asking that question is exactly what my students are thinking about and what a lot of your generation has been thinking about. My law school, like your school, is very ideologically diverse. We are diverse religiously, racially, and geographically. One of the significant ways [we are diverse] is the politics of our students, faculty, and staff.

In the Law School, I talk a lot about the kinds of things I said in my speech – that we can all connect with each other, and it’s really hard to have a free exchange of ideas when you’re not in a community of trust. Your school, like my school, already has the makings of a community of trust. You are a community of trust. You already think about other people’s feelings when you hold the door for them, or when you share their lunch when they forgot it. There are all these ways in which we treat people as humans. And then, somehow, we separate out this thing we call politics. When it comes to talking about politics, we start to say “I’m allowed to have my belief, and I get to tell you what your belief should be,” and all that humanity falls away.

I think if we were to approach political conversations the way we approach all the rest of our interactions, we would be able to hear each other more, and share with each other more. We’re not going to get to agreement – there are pretty fundamental ideological disagreements – but we might get a little further along towards understanding where we split paths and what the reasoning is, and not assuming that it’s coming from a bad place, and not assuming that you’re a bad person because you hold these particular views. I think one of the keys is to understand that a person who disagrees with you is not your enemy, they are just a person, in your community, who disagrees with you. You have an opportunity to persuade them, and they have an opportunity to persuade you. Just the fact of engaging in that dialogue is actually what we mean by free speech – talking to one another and listening to one another. It’s hard to do that unless everyone feels equally entitled to be a part of the conversation and equally part of the community of trust that you live in. I think that’s where a lot of institutions go wrong, because something might seem like it devalues your humanity if it’s said either in a certain way or in a context in which you already feel like your humanity is devalued. I think that in the United States today, a lot of people feel that way all of the time. So, it’s hard to isolate an institution from that larger societal problem, but I think that’s what we have to try to do.

HH: Could you elaborate on how being a Jew, a woman, or a part of any minority group influences your commitment to civil rights? Simultaneously, do you receive any pushback for being a white person who may appear as a face of civil rights?

RG: My upbringing is one that emphasized the social justice aspects of Judaism, and that has definitely influenced how I look at the world. Certainly, being a woman, I experience my own forms of discrimination, though there are many forms of privilege that I’m also entitled to and benefit from.

One of the things that our students have done at UVA, and in our Black Law Students’ Association in particular, is talk about the role of allies. When it comes to a movement for civil rights of African Americans, whites are allies. You’re not the prime mover, and shouldn’t be the prime mover, but you can and should be allies. We have multiple meetings a year where the Black Law Students’ Association talks about what it means to be an ally and hundreds of students come. When they ask about what it means to be an ally or how you can be an ally, the black students have very different answers; they don’t all think being an ally means the same thing. Some of them would say, “Don’t ask me what to do and don’t ask me what to think, just act,” while others would say, “Don’t act, then you’re replacing me with yourself.” One of the biggest lessons that they share is to educate yourself – don’t rely on us, the black students, to educate you, go out an educate yourself. Read about Rabbi Heschel and Martin Luther King, and read about institutional racism, so that you come with some knowledge that you can share, and a context with which to understand their experiences.

Being an ally certainly affects how one interacts with these issues, because you don’t want to assume you know what people want, but I also think you can’t assume that people want the same thing. It can be very complicated, but it can’t mean that you don’t act. It means you have to figure out the ways in which you can interact that use your own benefits, advantages, and intelligence which are appropriate to the situation.

HH: What is your opinion on the line between white privilege and white supremacy? A lot of people seem to believe that they are the same thing.

RG: I would say that white privilege is a state of things, and white supremacy is an ideology and an attitude. We live in a world where there is white privilege, but that doesn’t necessarily make us white supremacists. White supremacy is a belief system.

My sense is that the reason people say that there is not a difference between white privilege and white supremacy is because a lot of people who benefit from white privilege are ignorant that this is happening. If you benefit from white privilege without being aware of it, you’re perpetuating white privilege, and in perpetuating white privilege, you may be promoting some form of white supremacy…  but I don’t think that means you’re intentionally promoting white supremacy. Rather, we’re all complicit in the institutions in which we live; we’re all complicit in the history of the nation; we’re all complicit in the current state of inequality.

I think that the outcomes are very important – who has what, and how people are situated in relation to one another; that said, I also think the intentions are important. The person with white privilege who is unaware of it is not the same as the white supremacist. I think that person can and should be educated about the privilege that they benefit from, and how to be an ally, and how to not be complicit. That’s a really hard thing, but it is what distinguishes that person from a white supremacist.

HH: What are your views about recent tensions in coalition-building amongst civil rights activists?  For example, with the Women’s March and Black Lives Matter, some Jews are hesitant to support the broader coalitions because of their stated support for the Palestinian cause. How do you negotiate, for yourself, issues of intersectionality and coalition-building?

RG: I will say, one of my greater frustrations has been watching potential allies alienate one another. I understand where that comes from, but I fear that we’re in a moment of totalization; in a moment where one statement, one instance, one action, one attitude, comes to stand for the whole in a way that I don’t think is appropriate or right, or true to how people are. That totalization leads to thinking like, “You’re the enemy,” and “I need distance from you,” and “If we don’t agree on everything, then it doesn’t matter that we might agree on some things.” That kind of thinking is really pernicious, but you can see it all over the place. We’ve got to look for where the common ground is, and I believe that there’s actually a lot more common ground than people might think. However, we’re in this moment of polarization, and people aren’t looking to agree; they’re looking to disagree, and I think that’s a huge problem.


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