UMKC law school is as segregated as ever,
but now for different reasons

By Carmen Cardinal
April 16, 2004

Law is the profession that will predominantly prepare our youth for future positions as judges, prosecuting attorneys, lawmakers and corporate heads.

One needs only to look at the graduating classes at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) Law School and most law schools in our nation to see that there is a crisis in the making.

At UMKC, this year’s graduating class of 140 will include only two Hispanics and five African Americans. In two years, the graduating class will have even fewer African Americans and Hispanics.

Rogelio Lasso, a professor at the UMKC School of Law believes we, as a community, must ask, “In 20 years, when Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans and Asians make up nearly fifty percent of this nation’s population, who will be the judges, lawmakers, and business leaders?”

Mostly, the answer will depend on who attends and graduates from America’s law schools today.

“As a society we need to think about who will be the decision-makers for our country?” he said. He predicts that we are in danger of creating de facto apartheid, the social and political policy of racial segregation and discrimination enforced by the white minority governments in South Africa from 1948 to 1994.

Lasso believes that in the near future, although whites will be a racial minority in America, they will not give up their predomination of the justice system and the halls of the state and national legislative branches.

“We have a formula for disaster in the making,” he said. The imbalance would create a dangerous “disconnect” between the government and the governed.
A stable society demands that access to legal education, and thus to the legal profession, be inclusive of talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity. “In a very real sense,” Lasso contends, “the health of the nation and of our communities depends on how much access we give the growing population of color to higher education and professional schools.”

Because of the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. the Board of Education of the City of Topeka, public schools across the country were ordered to integrate to create equality for all students. The Court ruled in Brown that it was discriminatory to have “separate but equal” school districts.

“It is sad that 50 years after Brown, we are nearly as educationally segregated as we were then,” Lasso told Dos Mundos.

With the school district in Kansas City being more than 70 percent black and Hispanic, seven graduating minorities at UMKC law school is hardly a representative number of the population.

Because most minorities live in the economically disadvantaged inner city, their children will not get the educational advantages of the white youth whose families have left the cities for the more affluent suburbs.

Because of low income levels, most minorities who are able to graduate and continue to college will attend local junior colleges. However, most of the nation’s law schools select their candidates from the more competitive four-year universities.

Already we see the results of too few graduating minorities in the legal profession. Although minorities make up one third of the nation’s population, there are only a handful of minorities in Congress and in the nation’s courts. And, despite a dramatic growth in population, law schools are actually admitting fewer Black, Native American, and Latino students today than they did thirty years ago, according to Lasso.

Part of the problem is that most of the law schools decide who to accept based on a student’s performance in the Law School Admission Test, or LSAT. The LSAT is a mediocre predictor of how well a student will do in the first year of law school, and many students do very well in law school despite low LSAT scores.

“With so few black and Latino law graduates, the number of black legislators, judges, public defenders will be negligible,” Lasso said.

“It is the particular role of lawyers to guard the rights and liberties of all members of our society,” contends Lasso. Lawyers become prosecutors, public defenders and judges; and today, most of these decision makers are white.

“Judges and prosecutors are only human,” Lasso said, “I know that I am more comfortable with people who look and are like me. White prosecutors and judges will see themselves in young white offenders and are more likely to ‘cut them a break.’ To the white judge or prosecutor, a black or Latino offender is more alien, more likely to be perceived as guilty.”

Lasso believes that the social, political, and economic conditions today are similar to the 1960s, right before riots broke out in communities across the nation.
“As during the riots of ‘67 and ‘68, while many whites enjoy comfortable middle class lives, a number of blacks and Hispanics today are living lives of quiet desperation, with no jobs, poor schooling and little hope,” he said.

“Those conditions created a tinderbox then. Today, we must take action to keep conditions from becoming the same.”

Society must recognize that the road to law school starts when a child is three years old. There is a direct correlation between socio-economic background and LSAT scores.

“We must have programs that comprehensively address the shortcomings of our education system. Most young children growing up in school districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area will not be well prepared for law school.”

Some Latinos who have educational and economic advantages will do well on the LSAT. Because all law schools are seeking those high-scoring Latinos, those candidates will be offered scholarships to attend elite schools such as Harvard.

Most of these students will not go to UMKC.

Lasso believes that law schools must put less emphasis on LSAT scores and more on determining whose background reflects a likelihood of success, despite long odds. Lasso knows of at least one law school that has done away with LSATs for admissions, and they are graduating increasing numbers of students of color who go on to become successful lawyers.

Lasso has designed a program that would increase the number of Latinos and African Americans at UMKC. The program, which he calls the Legal Education Access Program, or LEAP, expands access to legal education to individuals who have experienced educational, economic, social, familial or physical hardships that have limited their access to the resources generally considered indicators for a successful law school career. A particular goal of LEAP is to enroll a critical mass of students who have had limited access to academic opportunities and resources because of their race or ethnicity. Unfortunately, Lasso does not believe UMKC will voluntarily implement the LEAP program. “UMKC claims to be committed to the concept of diversity, but they have a harder time with the reality of diversity.”

“Changes will not occur to address this issue until the community goes knocking at UMKC’s doors,” he said. “This is your public school; take ownership of it,” he urges the Latino community.

Lasso, 55, has lived in this country for 35 years. He was born in Panama and has lived in Venezuela, Minnesota and Illinois. He began teaching at UMKC last fall. “I chose to come to UMKC because I see it as a great opportunity to make a difference. With a growing Latino population in Kansas City, UMKC has the potential of becoming a role model.”