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Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy

On Tuesday, January 11, Tracey Meares P22, Walton Hale Hamilton Professor of Law and founding director of The Justice Collaboratory at Yale University, spoke to the Dana Hall community during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation. Prof. Meares was introduced by All-School Co-Presidents A. Chiwaya ’22 and J. Meares-Garcia ’22, her daughter.

Prof. Meares shared research findings to frame her remarks and began by posing a question: “Why would people obey laws that are not fair to them?” she asked. She referenced Dr. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” which he wrote after being jailed for his participation in anti-segregation protests in Birmingham, Ala., and asked the assembled students and faculty to think about just vs. unjust laws.

She asked the community to guess which of the three following reasons explains why people obey the law: because they agree with it, because they fear the consequences of failing to obey, or because they believe the relevant authority of the law or person should be obeyed. Prof. Meares shared the third answer is the best choice to explain why people obey laws with which they disagree. She said research shows people across demographic groups — across race, ethnicity and location — are likely to believe that authority is legitimate when four factors coincide:

  • When they have a “voice” or say
  • When they perceive decisions are fair (based in fact, without bias, transparent)
  • When they are treated with dignity and respect
  • When they believe authorities are acting out of a sense of benevolence towards them

“People want to believe in their interactions with leaders like police officers, prosecutors, teachers and judges,” Prof. Meares said, “and that the authority they’re dealing with believes that they COUNT. They’re looking for information about their status in society based on treatment by a police officer or a teacher.” Research conducted with young people shows they feel the same way, as do individuals convicted of serious crimes and in prison. “If you’ve been treated unfairly, you’re probably more invested in perceiving an authority as treating you fairly,” she said.

To help honor Dr. King’s vision of creating a “Beloved Community,” Prof. Meares ended with a question she often hears young people asking: What can we do to make the world a better place? “Learn compassion, and learn to move forward with each other,” she said.