Highlights from Cardozo’s Melnick Symposium on ‘The Death and Resurrection of Dialogue’

By Ellen Waldman    

Each year, the Cardozo Journal of Conflict Resolution, from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at New York’s Yeshiva University,  enlightens the local mediation community with its annual Jed D. Melnick Symposium.

This year’s symposium was titled, “The Death and Resurrection of Dialogue,” covering the media, politics, communities, racial divides, and in mediation itself. (The symposium agenda, from March 11, is at the link.)

The timely topics ranged from  the impact of various media on political discourse, Ohio State’s Divided Community Project and efforts to stimulate productive community dialogue, the ascendance of remote practice, the disappearance of the joint session in mediation,  and  finally, mediation’s role in addressing the inequities of structural racism.

This blog post focuses on this last, most-challenging topic, and the panelists’ efforts to address what may be mediation’s unwitting contribution to continued racial imbalance and oppression.

The panel was introduced by Bobby Codjoe, Cardozo’s Director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion and moderated by Prof. Maurice Robinson, an adjunct faculty member in Cardozo’s Kukin Program for Dispute Resolution. The speakers included Prof. Ellen E. Deason, emeritus at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law in Columbus, Ohio, Prof. Isabelle R. Gunning at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, and Prof. Sharon B. Press, Director of the Dispute Resolution Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in Saint Paul, Minn. 

A central question the panel posed was whether a mediator charged with maintaining impartiality and neutrality can be an anti-racist. To understand this question, it is necessary to analyze the distinction between being a non-racist and being an anti-racist, a distinction that Prof. Robinson helped the audience understand.

Being a non-racist means refraining from personally inflicting harm or behaving in negatively biased way toward BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals or groups. But non-racism entails a passive response to BIPOC’s generational pain and trauma, and the structures of oppression that maintain and reinforce them.

By contrast, being an anti-racist means taking any effort or action designed in direct opposition to racism, bias, oppression, marginalization and brutalization of any group of POC. It requires acknowledging that racism is a real and present day system. It interrogates the racialized frameworks people have grown up with which asserts the superiority of White people and the inferiority of BIPOC, and maintains caste-based hierarchies through a web of legal rules, policies and cultural practices.

To be an anti-racist, according to the program panel, is to recognize that the heart of racism is the denial of this system. To be an anti-racist is to work to recognize, identify, and take affirmative actions toward  changing this system. 

Prof. Gunning, when considering how mediator neutrality meshes with the imperative of an anti-racist to affirmatively “call out” racist structures and systems began by asserting that neutrality was an inherently problematic concept. Mediator obeisance to the supposed dictates of neutrality encourages White mediators to stay silent in the face of injustice and risks thwarting  the self-determination of BIPOC in the process. Gunning suggested that neutrality, for many mediators, serves as a proxy for trust and offered that mediators talk instead about the values they seek to enact in the process: equality, dignity and respect.

Prof. Deason began her remarks by delineating two specific instances where a White mediator is most at risk of complicity with structural racism. The first is when the mediator remains blind to racial stereotypes and unaware of the mediator’s own unconscious bias. 

The White mediator, in saying, “I don’t see color,” may, in fact, be simply affirming her or his own White reality as the status quo,  thereby denying the reality or experience of the BIPOC  parties in the mediation room.  A mediator’s determination to adhere to a neutral stance may affect how the mediator chooses to respond to the dynamic between the parties.

Deason revealed some skepticism that mediators can ever be truly neutral and noted that research reveals that mediators engage in selective facilitation, elevating the stories they find most compelling and silencing those stories that are less resonant to them. Both Profs. Deason and Press speculated that for White mediators, that story often will be the White story, whether consciously or not. 

Prof. Press noted that as mediation becomes ever more institutionalized within a court system that prioritizes efficiency and settlement over root-cause problem-solving, the challenges increase. When the goal is to relieve dockets, not surface underlying needs and redress wrongs, the risks that mediation will simply buttress existing racial inequities is significant.

Press and Deason noted that the standard mediator exhortation that parties treat each other with respect and avoid interruptions smacks of “tone policing,” just as the insistence that parties look forward, not back, can rob traditionally disenfranchised groups of the moral context and righteous indignation that undergirds their claims.

The panelists agreed that mediation needed to reconnect with its original emphasis on voice, both in the  community and court settings.  Additionally, they noted that the work of examining embedded whiteness and promoting racial healing is not the task of mediators alone; rather, dispute system designers and stakeholders in related fields, such as conciliators and group facilitators, must also take up the cudgel of self-reflection and modification.

In fact, restorative justice practitioners have started that work. See, e.g., Edward C. Valandra & Waŋbli Wapȟáha Hokšíla, Eds., Colorizing Restorative Justice: Voicing Our Realities (Living Justice Press 2020) (in which 18 authors who are restorative justice practitioners and scholars explore the racism and colonization within the field of restorative justice/restorative practices), and Fania E. Davis, The Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice: Black Lives, Healing, and US Social Transformation (Justice and Peacebuilding) (Good Books (2019).

It is true: the hour was filled with more questions than answers. But the very fact of the conversation reveals that the work  has, indeed,  begun.

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The author is Vice President, Advocacy & Educational Outreach at CPR.  Her bio on CPR’s website can be found here.