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What Meaningful Survival Requires

Law students are threatened neither with death nor the whip, but modern society has imposed quite effective facsimiles in the form of competitiveness needed to get into law school, the ambition and determination to do well, and the sense that success will be aided by accepting attitude toward whatever does or doesn’t happen to you during the process of learning law.

The goal is to get a degree, to avoid all confrontations with persons of authority, and to defer service activities and good works until you are established in your practice. Of course, in most cases the avoidance and deferment become a life-time pattern that, as with slaves, continues naturally and without thought long after the original motiviation is forgotten.

Your fear is not of death but of failure. Your chains are forged, not of iron, but of the magnetic force of money, status, and professional acclaim. These fetters can be as effective a restraint on liberty as was the slave’s desire to live and avoid the lash. But wealth and recognition are not the modern equivalent of the freedom sought so fervently by African slaves. Meaningful survival – as slaves like Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, Gabriel Prosser, and Frederick Douglass learned – requires risk, confrontation, and revolt.

– Derrick A. Bell Jr., The Law Student As Slave