The tone of Erika Wilson’s class feels almost subversive. In an era of soundbite judgment and
social media vitriol, her law students are
positively Victorian in their restraint. They
speak cautiously, in whole paragraphs,
adding generous caveats and concessions.
They decline to take offense. They do not
shout or interrupt. They listen.
If cable news has an antonym, this is it.
Their practiced civility serves a purpose.
These students have volunteered to spend a
semester tackling one of the toughest issues
in American public life: race and the law.
“They’re going to be the ones who
make things better or not,” Wilson said.
“So we will have a respectful dialogue,
even when they disagree with one another.
That’s our job as educators — to find a
way to facilitate those hard conversations.”
Wilson has spent her career in discus-
sions like this, figuring out how to address
tense questions with open-handed honesty.
As an assistant professor in UNC’s School
of Law, she divides her time among teaching, research and an active practice at the
school’s Civil Legal Assistance Clinic. At
any time, she may have multiple clients
working with her students on employment
or housing discrimination cases, adding
real-life urgency to the issues covered in
But on this Monday morning early in
the semester, she is guiding her students
carefully through some of the ugliest
pieces of American legal history. She lets
long silences hang in the air as students try
to parse the legal definitions of race and
explain how they’ve evolved.
She often asks her students to reflect on
their personal experiences or predict the
future. It’s a way of getting them to ease
into tough subjects, to lay their cards on the
table and build trust with their classmates.
It takes patience, but it works. From
“What did you take away from that?”
a corner of the cramped seminar room,
a student, who is white, says that her
small-town high school taught the Civil
War as the War of Northern Aggression,
emphasizing states’ rights and Southern
grievances. A classmate, who is black, nods
with real interest, making eye contact to
encourage the memory.
The white student thinks for a moment.
“It really does matter what you learn, or
don’t learn, about this kind of history,” she
says. “That’s why I’m here.”
That’s exactly why Wilson is here,
too. As a first-generation college student,
the daughter of parents born into the
segregated South, and now a professor and
civil litigator, she has seen firsthand how
the weight of history bears on the present.
Part of her determination to go to
college, she recalled, came from watching her mother and father struggle against
entrenched barriers. “I remember the
frustrations my parents felt,” Wilson said.
“Race was really a central factor in deter-
mining where they could go and what
opportunities were available to them.”
They pushed Wilson and her siblings
to go further, to excel in school so that a
college education might open doors.
Wilson studied at the University of
Southern California, in part because it won
the Rose Bowl when she was a senior
in high school. “I used to watch college
football and basketball with my dad every
weekend, and we would look at the
different schools that were playing. I picked
most of the schools I applied to based on
how good their team was that year.”
She became a public policy major
because it offered the chance to read and
learn across a wide range of disciplines
— political science, sociology, history,
media. It helped frame the broader forces
that Wilson saw at work in the lives of her
parents, her siblings and her classmates. An
internship in the Washington, D.C., public
defender’s office convinced her that law
was the most promising route to make a
And even now, that’s the metric Wilson
For Wilson, that work has to begin with
uses to measure her days and divide her
time. “What impact can I have? What
opportunity do I have to offer an important
perspective on something that matters?”
Should she focus on legal scholarship
that might influence colleagues in the acad-
emy? Or spend time preparing a speech on
school equity to an audience of teachers?
Or make time to counsel the struggling
student who shows up at her office door?
“There’s this stereotype that professors
don’t …” — Wilson takes a lawyerly pause
— “… that professors don’t work very
hard, to put it bluntly. I work seven days a
week. Every single day.”
It’s not a boast but a flat statement of
need — a measure of how much work
remains to be done untangling the long
legacy of legal discrimination.
an honest look at how the law has been
both used and misused. She isn’t aiming for
consensus in the classroom, but she does
Erika Wilson: How the Law Has Been Used
‘We can stick our heads
in the sand and pretend
we’re on the right path,
but I think recent
events have shown
that we’re not.
On the left and the right,
I think there’s consensus
that we still have