What Counts As Knowledge? A Reflection on Race, Social Science, and the Law


  • I am grateful to Carroll Seron and Susan Coutin for inviting me to speak at the conference on “The Paradoxes of Race, Law, and Inequality in the United States” as well as to participants who provided feedback on my presentation. I also would like to thank Professor Thom Main and the faculty who shared their insights with me at a workshop at the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. In addition, I appreciate the lively discussion and helpful comments that I received at a workshop at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. I was greatly aided by the careful and thoughtful peer review that I received. Finally, I am indebted to Chia-Chi Li and Jonathan Tam, who provided me with able and timely research assistance. Please address correspondence to Rachel F. Moran, UCLA School of Law, 385 Charles E. Young Drive East, Los Angeles, CA 90095-1476; e-mail: moran@law.ucla.edu.


In the years since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education (1954), most discussions of the case have focused on whether it was effective in promoting lasting equality of opportunity in the public schools. Although this profoundly important question dominates retrospectives on Brown, another unresolved controversy relates to whether the ruling has altered in any fundamental way the role of social science evidence in constitutional litigation. More than 50 years later, substantial disagreement persists about whether this kind of research has played or should play any important role in the jurisprudence of race. Today, social scientists face increasing doubts about their neutrality and objectivity, struggle to be heard in a marketplace of ideas increasingly flooded with information of questionable quality, and encounter growing resistance to the notion that expertise provides a proper foundation for legal decisionmaking. For those who still believe that social science has a role to play in advancing racial justice, the strategy used in Brown can no longer be taken for granted. The time is ripe to reassess what counts as knowledge so that social science is not increasingly marginalized in courts of law.