Scholar on dismantling systemic racism joins MLaw faculty

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By Sharon Morioka
Michigan Law

Elise Boddie spends a lot of time thinking about how to disable systems that drive racial inequality. 

“These systems are dynamic and adaptive,” said Boddie, who is joining the University of Michigan Law School faculty as the James V. Campbell Professor of Law. “We need tools in law and policy that will break them.”  

She is especially interested in how other disciplines wrestle with systems failure and whether the same strategies could apply to racial inequality. 

“Sometimes systems fail because they include policies and practices that are too tightly linked,” she said. “If one thing goes wrong, the whole system suffers.” 

One example from her previous colleagues at Rutgers University concerns absenteeism in public schools in low-income communities. 

“Students were missing school because their parents had to work and needed them to take care of younger siblings. A problem that initially presented as students ‘skipping’ classes was really about access to quality childcare.”

She emphasizes the importance of centering the voices and experiences of communities who are the most affected when studying problems: “I learned that it’s often more important to listen than to speak.

“The Court essentially said that this provision [of the Voting Rights Act] was no longer necessary because it was outdated—that voting discrimination was a thing of the past. What it missed is how racial discrimination mutates into new policies.”

Boddie, most recently a law professor at Rutgers, points to blind spots in law that perpetuate racial inequality. She is critical of Supreme Court decisions that have blocked the use of racial remedies and what she describes as the Court’s misuse of time in its decisions.

One example is the Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that required places with a history of racial discrimination to preclear voting changes with the federal government. 

“The Court essentially said that this provision was no longer necessary because it was outdated—that voting discrimination was a thing of the past. What it missed is how racial discrimination mutates into new policies, like voter ID requirements and other practices that limit access to the polls.”

A second aspect of her systems work focuses on how racialized spaces shape interactions among people—an idea that sprung from an article written by her friend and soon-to-be-colleague Michelle Adams. 

The article begins with a description of how Adams’s nine-year-old niece, who is Black, was visiting her on Long Island from Detroit. It was a hot summer day, and her niece had been excited to swim in the local public pool until she saw that only white children were in the water. Then she refused to get in.

“Reading that article set me on a journey,” Boddie said. ”I began to explore how race maps onto even the most seemingly insignificant spaces and the social consequences of that dynamic. I realized that the pool in that moment had racial identity and meaning, even though the children who were swimming hadn’t said or done anything wrong. It’s a story about how space shapes perceptions of belonging and exclusion in ways that people may not realize.”

While at Rutgers, Boddie taught constitutional law, civil rights, and state and local government law, becoming an expert who is widely published in law reviews as well as mainstream publications. She has also been a commentator on news programs including MSNBC, NPR, and other outlets.

Her tenure at Rutgers included the position of founding Newark director of the Institute for the Study of Global Racial Justice as well as founder and director of the Inclusion Project, where much of her work focused on educational issues in New Jersey. 

“New Jersey public schools are among the most racially segregated in the country,” Boddie said. She helped facilitate litigation that is challenging that segregation and also galvanized diverse communities of students, researchers, faith leaders, and educators to work on the problem. “We need law to anchor systemic change, but we also need public pressure and support to make it happen.”  

Before joining the Rutgers faculty, Boddie was the director of litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., where she faced some of the most challenging experiences of her career—but also learned the most. She litigated cases involving employment discrimination, affirmative action, and public education, and supervised cases that sought to protect access to housing and voting rights.

Her new position at U-M will serve as a homecoming of sorts: while the Harvard Law School grad never lived in Michigan, her mother now resides in the southwestern part of the state and her father grew up in Detroit, a city she is looking forward to getting to know better, perhaps through her work in the Law School. 

In planning her move to U-M, Boddie hopes to create a classroom environment that encourages students to think about problems from different perspectives and that is also nurturing and welcoming. “This generation has come of age in a time of very pressing social challenges. It’s important to acknowledge that reality and to enlist students in thinking about how to address it.”


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