Associate Dean Bracey on Following Your Interests
One of America's foremost experts on the often complicated intersections of race and the law almost went to work in the aerospace industry.
Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor Christopher Alan Bracey spent the last two summers of high school and the first two summers while studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill interning at Fairchild Space and Defense Corporation. His duties included taking daily telemetry readings from satellites and doing spaceflight hardware testing on the Hubble space telescope.
Fortunately for GW Law, Professor Bracey's last year at UNC coincided with the end of the Cold War, and as the hostilities between the former U.S.S.R. and the United States dried up, so did the funding for extensive aerospace projects. Professor Bracey saw the writing on the wall.
"I was looking for a career rather than a job," he says. "I had a science background, but I was also interested in history and the law. Getting a J.D. seemed to be the best way to follow my interests." He entered Harvard Law School in 1992.
If it is possible to describe a career in three words, "follow your interests" seems to be particularly suited for Chris Bracey’s path. By adhering to that principle, he thrived in the hyper-competitive environment at Harvard Law.
"I was doing what I found interesting," he says. "I was writing and doing research, participating in a lot of the legal clinics, and editing three different law reviews."
As a supervising editor at the Harvard Law Review, a general editor at the Harvard Civil Rights – Civil Liberties Law Review, and as an editor on the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal, he was doing work that made him suited for the academic side of the legal profession without having any real career designs on academia.
In fact, the notion of teaching didn't occur to Professor Bracey until he clerked for the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia after he earned his J.D. "Judge Lamberth told me, 'I know you’re going to be a litigator, but you should also consider academia.'"
After his clerkship, Professor Bracey started work at Jenner and Block, which is where he served as an intern during his first year at Harvard Law. "Jenner and Block is not exactly a nuts and bolts litigation practice," he says. "It has a reputation as being a very cerebral sort of firm." A look at some of Jenner and Block's cases bears this out. Their attorneys have argued several landmark cases before the Supreme Court, with Lawrence v. Texas, Reno v. ACLU, and Wiggins v. Smith being only a few of the more notable ones.
For his part, Professor Bracey put his pro bono hours at Jenner and Block to good use by serving as co-counsel to the ACLU foundation for the case Thompson v. HUD, which effectively ended public housing assignments based on racial discrimination and segregation. He also represented indigent minorities in the Washington, D.C. court system that were accused of drug offenses, and were facing significantly longer prison sentences due to the sentencing disparities between cocaine in powder form and cocaine in crack form.
"Victory was understandably more difficult to come by," he says. "The important thing, from my perspective, was the system was put to the appropriate test, that the government carried their burden, and that my client ultimately came to accept the process as fair and just."
Following his time at Jenner and Block, Professor Bracey decided to follow the advice of Judge Lamberth regarding academia. After teaching at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago and Washington University School of Law in St. Louis, he was offered a position at GW Law. As a native of the D.C. area, the decision to return home to teach was not a difficult one. "I liked the idea of raising my children in the Nation’s Capital," he says.
Professor Bracey teaches Civil Procedure, Constitutional Law, and Race, Racism and American Law, which has become his signature course. "I have been teaching Race, Racism and American Law for ten years, and it’s become quite popular," he says. "It has elements of sociology, history, science, and of course, how the legal system has dealt with race over the years."
"It remains interesting to students because the subject is never finished. The third section of the course involves the discussion of current events and controversies, and there are always current events and controversies that involve race. They never seem to end."
His expertise in race relations and the law in America have brought him to the attention of news outlets all over the country. His opinions and legal and cultural analysis have been sought on ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN, and the BBC among others. "I often get calls about cases involving celebrities that have a unique cultural or racial component to them," he says. "On cases that would involve a Michael Vick or a Michael Jackson, that’s when my phone begins to ring."
In addition to teaching his courses, Professor Bracey is also currently serving as the Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. "We owe it to the students and to the Law School to make sure that our academic programs are as strong as they can be," he says. "But really, one of the best things about this position is that it gives me the opportunity to interact with and provide support to the rest of the faculty, and these are some of the sharpest legal minds in the country. I always find myself thinking, 'These guys are good.'"
-- Adam Dawson