Michelle Adams, renowned expert on race discrimination and school desegregation, joins Michigan Law faculty.

Though the majority of Michelle Adams’s research centers on race discrimination and the struggles of school desegregation, she is the first to admit she did not experience either growing up in Detroit. Adams—who has joined the Michigan Law faculty as the Henry M. Butzel Professor of Law—instead recalls an idyllic childhood.

“I had a very different upbringing than lots and lots of Black folks did,” she said.

She described the racially mixed Palmer Woods neighborhood where she grew up; the support and education she received at The Roeper School, an independent school in the suburbs; and the many mentors in her life, from teachers to her parents’ friends, who were doctors, lawyers, and educators.

“I experienced very little direct racism,” said Adams. “The white people in my school life were very good to me. But when I got to college, I learned most of my Black friends had experienced a very different childhood.”

It is because of her upbringing—and its uniqueness compared to that of many in the Black community—that Adams has committed her academic career to unveiling the struggles of desegregating schools and advocating for school integration.

She knows how much she benefited and all children benefit from learning in a diverse environment. 

Widely published on affirmative action, housing discrimination, and school segregation

With 15 years’ experience as a professor at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Adams knows it is impossible to create a world where there is no racism but believes we can and should create a world “where you have something approaching a true multiracial democracy.”

[Milliken v. Bradley] is the end of Brown v. Board of Education being a kind of broad, enhanced sword that can be used with the 14th Amendment to give Black children real equal educational possibilities.

Her research on these subjects, as well as affirmative action and housing, has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, as well as popular media, including The New Yorker and The New Republic.

In addition, she has appeared as an expert commentator in the Netflix series Amend: The Fight For America.

Currently, she is finishing a book called The Containment: Detroit, The Supreme Court, and the Battle for Racial Justice in the North that will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

The book looks closely at the 1974 case Milliken v. Bradley, which concerned the planned desegregation of public school students across more than 50 districts in metropolitan Detroit.

In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the school systems were not responsible for desegregation across district lines unless it was proven that they had deliberately engaged in a policy of segregation. The ruling confirmed that segregation was allowed if it was not considered an explicit policy of each school district

As Adams said she argues in her book, “That decision is the end of Brown v. Board of Education being a kind of broad, enhanced sword that can be used with the 14th Amendment to give Black children real equal educational possibilities.”

Furthermore, the case demonstrated that the North had its own form of Jim Crow.

“We did the same thing as the segregationists of the South but used a different means to achieve the same ends,” said Adams. “Segregation in the North was more hidden and with more subterfuge.”

Orchestrating difficult conversations about race in the classroom

For Adams, who was co-director of the Florsheimer Center for Constitutional Democracy at Cardozo, Michigan Law offers her a unique opportunity to interface with the African American studies, political science, and history departments within the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts.

“Also, there are a ton of faculty writing books at Michigan, so there are more resources for me,” she said. “To be able to put my book out in the market as a Michigan Law professor is huge.”

Adams, who earned Best Professor of the Year honors from the Class of 2022 at Cardozo, is also excited to bring her teaching skills to Michigan. “I love teaching and am deeply committed to it,” she said.

Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, Adams sat on a committee at Cardozo that made it a requirement for every law student to take at least one class that seriously deals with race. The result was Race and the Law, a class Adams taught for the first time this past spring at Cardozo.

Adams said that even when dealing with difficult topics like race, “I have figured out a way to make the Socratic method humane and useful. If you do it right, it’s like being an orchestra conductor. You’ve got your violins, your woodwinds, and all the different horns, and you get them all playing together.”

—Jennifer Conlin