21H.319 | Fall 2014 | Undergraduate
Race, Crime, and Citizenship in American Law

Instructor Insights

Course Overview

This page focuses on the course 21H.319 Race, Crime, and Citizenship in American Law as it was taught by Prof. Malick Ghachem in Fall 2014.

This course looks at key issues in the historical development and current state of modern American criminal justice, with an emphasis on its relationship to citizenship, nationhood, and race/ethnicity. We begin with a range of perspectives on the rise of what is often called “mass incarceration”: how did our current system of criminal punishment take shape, and what role did race play in that process? Part Two takes up a series of case studies, including racial disparities in the administration of the death penalty, enforcement of the drug laws, and the regulation of police investigations. The third and final part of the seminar looks at national security policing: the development of a constitutional law governing the intersection of ethnicity, religion, and counter-terrorism, and the impact of counter-terrorism policy on domestic police practices.

Course Outcomes

Course Goals for Students

The course is designed to help students become comfortable in talking about and analyzing a major area of contemporary debate over our legal system. Although not a general introduction to legal studies, the course will teach students how to read case law and statutes, engage in oral advocacy of different positions on controversial issues, and write persuasively about law. In terms of the substantive materials, there is about an equal mix of theoretical and historical writings on the intersection between the criminal justice system and issues of race/racial discrimination, on the one hand, and concrete case studies of that relationship at work (e.g., felon disenfranchisement, police brutality, the death penalty), on the other. The goal is for students to grasp both the underlying structural issues and to gain some knowledge of the specific controversies at work in this area of the law.

Possibilities for Further Study/Careers

  • Further education at law school to study legal reasoning and writing.
  • Further studies in history and political science focusing on law.

Instructor Interview

"‘Getting one’s feet wet’ does not always sound comforting, but to a certain extent that is the idea."
—Prof. Ghachem

Below, Prof. Ghachem describes various aspects of how he taught 21H.319 Race, Crime, and Citizenship in American Law.

The Impact of Ferguson

The course was already designed to address the kinds of issues involving race-inflected police-citizen interactions that figured in Ferguson and elsewhere, but since these events were unfolding at the very time of our course, the “Black Lives Matter” movement led me to add several readings and to hold ongoing discussions that spoke directly to the issues of the day, including developments relating to “Black Lives Matter” activism on the MIT campus itself.

Teaching through Debates

Debates are an important part of the course experience, not so much because they prepare students for legal advocacy (though that is a goal) but rather because they help to deepen students’ understanding of the material. Moreover, if they work well, the debates help students to appreciate what it is like to argue as part of a team, which is the form that most legal argumentation takes. How to focus on certain points, when to stop speaking, making the most effective use of your limited time—these are all important parts of the experience, as is the skill of thinking on your feet and responding in real time to the arguments of the opposing team. Moreover, the debate experience teaches a certain ethics of respect for the opponent: a duty of understanding, of responsiveness, and of engagement. Sometimes these debates can get heated, and the instructor may need to step in and reorient the discussion towards engagement with the underlying material and away from the inner dynamics of intellectual combat. But in general, students seem to do a good job of policing these boundaries for themselves.

The Role of Case Studies

The case studies are a reminder that in law, as in all areas of knowledge, some amount of actual knowledge about what could be loosely termed “doctrinal details” is important. You do need to have a basic grasp of constitutional text, relevant statutes, and the major cases in order to understand why the problems of race in the criminal justice system recur as often as they do and seem to change so little over time. But in order to generate some “movement” out of those doctrinal materials, the students need also to know how people who have spent time analyzing these problems think about them, and that is the role of the theoretical and historical materials. The case studies can be substituted with others (e.g., prison reform might take up a larger part of the readings and discussions), while still addressing the overarching issues.

Incorporating a Fieldtrip

We took a fieldtrip to the federal court in Boston to witness a few hearings in criminal cases (mostly drug sentencings). The students seemed to feel that this experience gave concrete meaning to their learning, and many were surprised by what they saw. I highly recommend incorporating such a component. It would be ideal if the field trip could also include a discussion with the judge or other officers of the court; such interactions can sometimes be arranged, but the calendar of the federal trial courts is not scheduled very far in advance, so the timing needs to be somewhat flexible. State and local court proceedings are also a way to accomplish this goal.

Curriculum Information



Requirements Satisfied



This was the first offering of this course in the History Department.


The students’ grades were based on the following activities:

  • 40% Class participation including two oral debates
  • 15% Paper 1
  • 20% Paper 2
  • 25% Final paper

Instructor Insights on Assesment

The most effective feedback is individual written and/or oral comments on the debate performances after they happen in class, and individual conferences with students to talk about their written work. This is easier to do with a relatively smaller class. Some difficulty can arise when students are just beginning to try out new skills, such as adversarial, public debate, without much prior experience. Students can feel at a loss as to how to proceed in that context, and so it is important to structure the first debate experience especially, providing rules, time limits, and guidelines as to what each stage of the debate is designed to accomplish. Beyond that, there is an important place in the course for simply trying out a new skill. “Getting one’s feet wet” does not always sound comforting, but to a certain extent that is the idea. Students also need reminders of their progress in the course, particularly as the format of the course requires them to undertake projects they may not usually carry out in their other course work.

Student Information


Fewer than 10 students

Breakdown by Year

About 2/3 seniors and 1/3 juniors.

Breakdown by Major

A wide range of majors from engineering, computer science, some of the natural sciences, and several double majors or concentrators in the social sciences were represented.

Typical Student Background

Few if any of the students had a background in reading legal sources or engaging in legal advocacy, with the exception of one or two students who had some experience with the debate club (a useful skill in this area!).

How Student Time Was Spent

During an average week, students were expected to spend 12 hours on the course, roughly divided as follows:

In Class

  • Met 1 session per week for 3 hours per session; 15 sessions total; mandatory attendance.
  • Class sessions regularly included discussions and viewing media related to current cases.
  • Two class sessions included debates.
  • One session included a fieldtrip to the Federal Court in Boston.

Out of Class

Activities such as:

  • Background research
  • Writing
  • Preparation for debates
  • Keeping up with current events by watching the news and reading newspapers and online news sources
Course Info
As Taught In
Fall 2014