Yale Law Journal Editor Apologizes For ‘Unwelcoming Culture’

The prestigious Journal admitted 60 percent of black applicants in 2020, far higher than any other demographic group

Yale University / Getty Images
February 26, 2021

The former editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal apologized on Wednesday for his board’s role in what he describes as "the Journal’s troubling history of marginalization." 

The apology from Alexander Nabavi-Noori came after a bevy of law school affinity groups charged that the prestigious law journal’s admissions practices are racist and demanded the Journal release its admissions data, which showed that blacks in 2020 were admitted at a higher rate than any other demographic group. 

Nabavi-Noori, who graduates from the law school in May, is himself a gay Hispanic from a poor, single-parent family and a proponent of affirmative action. He nonetheless lamented the "unwelcoming" culture that his board—which boasted a 61 percent admissions rate for black applicants—had upheld. 

"Although we tried to implement a process that departed substantially from the one that left many feeling hurt, disrespected, and stigmatized last year, our process did not go far enough," Nabavi-Noori said in a statement posted to an online forum for Yale Law students. "As a Board, we have reflected on the Journal’s troubling history of marginalization, and we understand that affinity group members have encountered an unwelcoming culture on the Journal."

Nabavi-Noori did not respond to a request for comment. 

The confession provides a window into the revolutionary logic of antiracism. From the New York Times to the Poetry Foundation, forced apologies have become common across elite institutions, as young, up-and-coming progressives attack the old guard. Often, the attacks are framed as calls for inclusion, to which the institution’s leaders are allegedly an obstacle—even leaders who have made similar calls in the past.

Nabavi-Noori’s apology is the latest in this long string of liberal mea culpas, exacted by progressives making radical and at times contradictory demands of their fellow travelers. Because demands for more diversity and less tokenism are in tension with each other, even the most leftwing leaders can rarely meet both of them, creating constant churn within liberal power centers. That churn doesn’t always eject institutional leadership, but does have a tendency to humiliate it.

Prior to his loss of face, Nabavi-Noori had worked to make Yale more accessible. He tutored students taking the LSAT and serves as the Clerkships Chair of the Latinx Law Students Association. His progressive bona fides extend to the Journal, where he oversaw the publication of a symposium on Puerto Rico and "the history of American empire," as he put it in a tweet.

His apology comes on the heels of a week-long pressure campaign that prompted the Journal’s current editor in chief, Rachel Sommers, to release admissions data from the previous year. Though the data showed that black students were admitted at higher rates than their white counterparts, activists nonetheless complained of "injustice" perpetuated by the former editor in chief.

Some of those activists singled Nabavi-Noori out by name. "Tokenism is not a substitute for diversity," reads a joint missive from the Yale Law Women and the Women of Color Collective, posted Monday evening to the forum. "Previous leadership, especially former Editor-in-Chief Xander Nabavi-Noori ... must take accountability for their perpetuation of this problem."

Admission to the Journal is highly competitive. Students must complete a battery of tests and essays as well as a "diversity statement," and fewer than 40 percent of applicants make the cut. Alumni of the law review include Supreme Court justices and high-level members of the Biden administration.

Before he joined their ranks, Nabavi-Noori had struggled to apply to college. "I came from a very poor, minority, single-parent family and was the first to ever go through the process," he explained in a 2019 op-ed for the Desert Sun. "There was next to no guidance available for me in preparing my applications."

He had also attacked Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard over its affirmative action policies. "If we’re serious about education access," he wrote in the op-ed, "we must make our voices heard and reaffirm our commitment to programs that make these elite institutions accessible to more and more diverse groups."

That didn’t stop several student organizations—including some to which Nabavi-Noori belongs—from lambasting his editorship. According to his LinkedIn page, Nabavi-Noori is a member of the LGBT and first-generation affinity groups at Yale Law School, both of which issued statements last week decrying the "racist" culture he presided over. "Just as we recognize that some members of the LGBTQ+ community have been harmed by this culture," the LGBT group said, "we recognize that others have played a role in perpetuating it." 

The Latinx Law Students Association "affirmed" these statements in a post Thursday night, saying that "some of our members benefit from whiteness and/or class privilege." As Clerkships Chair, Nabavi-Noori sits on their board.

The shaming worked. On Wednesday Nabavi-Noori posted his apology.

The campaign against the former editor is ironic for another reason: The policies his critics are attacking, which included "targeted outreach" to minorities for specific positions on the masthead, were adopted in order to make students of color feel welcome at the law review. 

That approach left some students "feeling tokenized and that their preferences ... were underappreciated," Nabavi-Noori’s apology said, so his board decided to do things differently. 

It "did not conduct any covert outreach to editors" and replaced rank-order preferences with an "open-ended" application process, "believing this format would allow editors to provide additional nuance regarding their hopes and expectations for future involvement."

But on Saturday, members of the Women of Color Collective said that the new process had also been tokenizing. "The distribution of racial minorities did not reflect the individuals’ organic slating preferences," they told the student message board, "but instead appeared to be purposely orchestrated by the Board to satisfy the appearance of having ‘diverse’ committees." They noted that under Nabavi-Noori’s leadership, "each committee had exactly one BLSA [Black Law Students Association] member, with the exception of Notes (because the one BLSA member offered that position declined). Latinx members were similarly distributed."

Their complaint is an object lesson in how demands for diversity can collide with an antipathy toward tokenism. Nabavi-Noori had gone out of his way to make the Journal more inclusive, only to be attacked by the groups he was trying to include. Many of those groups have said the Journal should "prioritize anti-racism" over meritocratic selection, the Washington Free Beacon reported Sunday. Doing so would likely exacerbate the sense that minorities only ended up on the Journal because of their race. 

The members of the Women of Color Collective came close to making this point. "To artificially and coercively construct a ‘diverse’ masthead," they wrote, "is an insult to the integrity of the Journal at large. True, lasting diversity cannot arise from unethical, forceful, and demeaning practices."

It’s a message Yale's activists have yet to learn.

Update 03/06/21, 4:45 PM: This story has been updated to correct a typographical error. The outgoing board did not say it had "reflected the Journal’s troubling history of marginalization." It said it had "reflected on the Journal’s troubling history of marginalization."