Tuesday, February 28, 2017
It has been 27 years since the first black man, an older student by the name of Barack Obama, was elected president of the prestigious Harvard Law Review. It has been even longer — 41 years — since the first woman, Susan Estrich, was elected to the position. Since then, subsequent presidents have been female, Hispanic, Asian-American, openly gay and black.
Only now, for the first time in the history of the venerable 130-year-old journal, is the president a black woman.
ImeIme (pronounced “Ah-MAY-may”) Umana, 24, the third-oldest of four daughters of Nigerian immigrants, was elected on Jan. 29 by the review’s 92 student editors as the president of its 131st volume....
“It still feels like magic that I’m here,” Ms. Umana said in an interview, though her fellow students said it was not magic at all but her sharp legal mind, intense work ethic, leadership ability and generosity of spirit that catapulted her to the top.
Ms. Umana’s emergence now has raised questions about why it took so long for a black woman to reach the pinnacle of the review and how her perspective may influence a publication that has for most of its existence been led by white men.
When Ms. Umana talks about the law, she speaks through the prism of her race and gender. Not far from her mind are the black women who in recent years died after encounters with law enforcement.
Unlike the vast majority of graduates of the nation’s top law schools, Ms. Umana says she has no interest in joining a high-paying corporate firm. Her dream for now is to become a public defender, a goal she set after an eye-opening internship last summer in the public defender’s office in the Bronx. She plans to work this summer with the public defender in Washington.
“A lot of the clients I worked with that summer and since have looked a lot like me,” she said. “They are disproportionately represented on the unfortunate end of the legal system, so it struck a little closer to home.”***
So why did it take so long to elect a black woman?
In Ms. Umana’s view, the lag reflects a wide gulf between black women and law school — and the law in general, a profession in which minorities have historically been underrepresented.
“We’ve been systematically excluded from the legal landscape, the legal conversation, and we’re just now making some important inroads,” she said in her office at the law review, which occupies Gannett House, a creamy 19th-century Greek Revival building that amid the law school’s imposing brick and concrete edifices looks like a New England cottage.
A 2014 study found a wide gender disparity at many of the nation’s top law reviews. It suggests that women do not apply in the first place for a host of reasons: They prioritize other parts of their lives, do not want to put in the extra hours that law reviews demand and are less interested in conventional markers of success like law review membership.