Professor Olati Johnson takes on civil rights issues through a trifecta of scholarship, teaching, and institutional work
Sitting in her office on the sixth floor of Jerome Greene Hall, leading civil rights scholar Olati Johnson points out that when she was born 41 years ago, the election of an African-American president was simply inconceivable. “Having the first Latina Supreme Court justice is also an amazing moment,” says Johnson, whose parents, an economist with the International Monetary Fund and a school teacher, settled in the Washington, D.C., area from Sierra Leone in 1976. “It’s a testament to what our civil rights laws have done, and how we’ve come a long way as a society.” Here, she pauses to add an important caveat: “But there’s always more to do.”
Johnson notes, for example, that anti-discrimination laws have helped a generation of minorities enter the middle and upper classes, but the unemployment rate in New York City is still higher for African-American males than for any other group. “We still have severe structural racial inequality, and we need to be rethinking issues of civil rights,” she says.
Johnson’s area of expertise involves the overlap of housing, race, and poverty. “I spend a lot of time on integration in housing and schools,” she says. Currently, her efforts are focused on writing a paper about ways in which federal spending from the stimulus bill can be tracked and used to help those in society who are most disadvantaged. “When you talk about integration, a lot of people say, ‘Are we still segregated?’ Not by law, of course, but with housing, there’s a city-suburb divide,” Johnson explains. “There is a close relationship between racial segregation and the concentration of poverty.”
In an attempt to remedy such inequities, Johnson has worked with Professor Susan P. Sturm on various projects for the Center for Institutional and Social Change. “The idea of the center is to be interdisciplinary, to draw from not only the law, but also the social sciences to understand what needs to be done around civil rights issues,” explains Johnson. The difficulty, she adds, is that issues such as housing, access to good schools, and transportation all contribute to poverty and inequality. There is no magic-bullet solution.
In addition to her scholarly pursuits, Johnson devotes herself to teaching the next generation of legal advocates. Her students, in turn, named her this year’s Public Interest Professor of the Year.
Johnson’s efficacy as a teacher is tied to her success as an advocate. Her lectures present real-life problems drawn from time spent working with historically important nonprofit organizations such as the Children’s Defense Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the American Civil Liberties Union. After law school, Johnson clerked for Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and from 2001 to 2003, she served as counsel to Senator Edward Kennedy.
“I’m a big advocate of doing government work,” Johnson says. “Policy work rounded out my skills as an advocate. It gave me an understanding of the legislative process and about how to frame complex legal and social policy questions in a way the public can understand.”
For the time being, Johnson is grateful to have the opportunity to write, teach, and strategize new ways in which to address racial equality. “I am trying to shed
light on the issue in a way that will be interesting to people in the real world,” she says. Johnson’s ultimate goal is clear: “I want to continue to promote change
in a real way.”