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Home / Supplements and Special Sections / WJA 2019 / Woman of the Year: Kimberly J. Norwood

Woman of the Year: Kimberly J. Norwood

kim-norwoodIn the year to come, the City of Ferguson is expected to launch a major reform effort: the tamping down of bias in its police force and municipal court. And Kimberly Jade Norwood will be watching — and facilitating.

Ferguson’s campaign against bias is part of a reform package the city promised after one of its white officers, Darren Wilson, fatally shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in 2014, triggering months of unrest — as well as accusations that its municipal and law-enforcement practices were unconstitutional. When Ferguson pledged to improve by entering into a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice, a federal judge appointed a team of independent monitors to ensure compliance. The monitor who will oversee the push against bias is Norwood, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law at Washington University School of Law.

She is especially well-suited to the task: She has given presentations on implicit bias — or unconscious assumptions that favor or disfavor groups — to various entities, including law firms, bar associations, schools and even Starbucks Coffee Company. She has also taught courses on how implicit bias intersects with the law.

“We can’t get rid of it,” she said. “But we can slow it down.”

Norwood’s interest in implicit bias is but a single thread in the bright tapestry of her legal career. She grew up in Harlem in the ’60s and ’70s. According to family lore, she was the kind of child who would visit the pediatrician’s office and try to read books to the other kids — an early sign of the teaching impulse that now animates her at the law school.

“I am doing a job that I’ve wanted to do since I was 2 years old,” said Norwood, who arrived at Wash U in 1990 after earning her J.D. from the University of Missouri School of Law and working for several years at what is now Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. “This is absolutely a dream come true for me.”

Her favorite course to teach, for example, is torts for 1Ls in their first semester, because the students arrive like “sponges,” eager to absorb the material. Many students at that point say they’ve never had a black professor, she’d observed, so she especially enjoys engaging with them.

“She’s beloved by her students,” said Karen Tokarz, another law professor at Wash U. “She goes above and beyond.”

Norwood also pushes students to venture outside their comfort zones. She has supervised public-service externships in Ghana, for instance. She also has created a course on education law, part of which requires her law students to mentor high school students — though oftentimes, the former get more of an education than the latter when they learn, for example, that youth at under-resourced schools may have no food to eat in the morning or no internet at home.

“All these things my students take for granted — they’re seeing this for the first time,” she said.

Norwood has traveled widely as a professor: She has lectured on torts in Japan and on comparative products liability in the Netherlands. On one teaching trip to Shanghai, China, she read an article about pistachios that crystallized her long-standing desire to pursue a line of research — and resulted in a ground-breaking international event.

In the article, which appeared in China Daily, she learned that China was the world’s largest consumer of pistachio nuts, and that before they go to market, they are bleached. The reason: For Chinese consumers, whiter is better.

“From that day on,” Norwood later wrote, “I began to experience my surroundings while traveling in China through colored lenses.” She noticed that professionals depicted in TV commercials, magazines and billboards were lighter in skin tone than laborers.

She thought about other world regions. In Africa, she knew, many women used skin-lightening creams out of the conviction — residual from the colonial period — that lighter is better. Norwood also thought about her own childhood and how her mother had the complexion of Halle Berry while she herself had the complexion of Michelle Obama — and how that difference played out on the street.

“People who looked at my mother physically responded to her as if they were looking at a work of fine art,” Norwood later observed in an academic article. When they looked at her, however, their expression soured, she recalled. “I eventually came to understand that those looks of contempt and pity related to the color of my skin,” she wrote.

She resolved to write a book on “colorism,” a term believed to be coined by the writer Alice Walker that denotes the prejudicial or preferential treatment of same-race people based solely on their color. In 2014, Norwood published the book “Color Matters: Skin Tone Bias and the Myth of Post-Racial America.” That book led to the first international colorism conference on U.S. soil, hosted by Wash U in 2015.

By that time, the St. Louis area was still reeling from the events of Ferguson. In response to calls for reform from many corners, the Missouri Supreme Court created in 2015 the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Fairness, tasking it with “identifying challenges, researching solutions and making recommendations for improvement” in the state’s justice system. The court tapped Norwood to join the commission, where she has served on its Municipal Court and Practice of Law subcommittees.

The court also that year created a Municipal Division Work Group to take a hard look at the municipal courts in Missouri and recommend ways to overhaul them. Norwood was among nine individuals assigned to the team by then-Chief Justice Mary Russell. In March 2016, the group issued its report, concluding — among other things — that the state’s high court did not possess the authority to mandate the consolidation of municipal courts.

In a 32-page dissent, Norwood staunchly disagreed, writing that “nothing in the Missouri Constitution forbids the court” from making that move.

“Nothing less than bold, assertive, aggressive and immediate corrections to this flawed system of justice are imperative and critical to restoring the public faith and reestablishing the integrity of the municipal court system,” she added in her dissent. While the high court never did end up mandating consolidation, many of the smaller municipal courts in St. Louis County consolidated on their own — apparently coming to the same conclusion as Norwood about what the remedy should, in effect, look like.

In the same year Norwood penned her dissent for the work group, she also saw the publication of “Ferguson’s Fault Lines: The Race Quake that Rocked a Nation,” a collection of essays she edited. She also contributed her own essay, “From Brown to Brown: Sixty-Plus Years of Separately Unequal Public Education,” in which she called for more funding for early childhood education, wrap-around services for students in need, diverse teachers and, most importantly, a unified school district for the St. Louis metropolitan area.

“It is the only way to ensure that every taxpayer, every teacher, every politician and every parent is invested in the education of all,” she wrote.

That won’t be her last word on Ferguson: During the summer, she said, she will travel to a conference in Greece to give a lecture on what has occurred since the protests erupted five years ago.

“I don’t think that Ferguson has made the progress that it could have made,” Norwood said. “I think five years out, there’s still so much to be done.”

Yet given her role as the federal monitor to Ferguson’s upcoming effort to fight against bias, one thing appears certain: If there’s still work to be done, and she believes in it, Kim Norwood will do the work.