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Fighting for Justice as Lawyer, Scholar, and Teacher
By CSLR | Emory Law | Mar 5, 2021 12:03:00 AM

CSLR Alumna Dr. Audra Savage | Fighting for Justice as a Lawyer, Scholar, and Teacher

This interview is part of a new series of discussions with distinguished CSLR alumni working at the intersections of law and religion in academic, legal, and religious professions

Dr. Audra Savage serves as a Senior Lecturer in Law at Emory Law School and McDonald Distinguished Fellow in Law and Religion at the Center for the Study of Religion. A successful corporate lawyer, her life and work have long been animated by a deep sense of justice and Christian faith. Savage holds degrees from Northwestern University, Columbia University Law School, and Emory Law School. Her doctoral dissertation at Emory was entitled, “The Religion of Race: Disestablishing Racism from the American Experience,” and she speaks internationally on issues of law, racism, and religion. Savage is known by her students as an exceptional teacher, mentor, and anti-racism advocate.

We sat down with Dr. Savage (virtually) to learn more about her research, faith, and vision for a more just society.



Your career has followed a unique path. After attending Columbia Law School you practiced corporate law, but later returned to academia to study law, religion, and race. And you recently accepted a tenure-track position at Wake Forest Law School. How has your perspective on law changed along the way, and what are some of the questions or issues animating your current scholarship?

In law school, I always felt that the law was a powerful tool to change society for the better.  It could be used to build the type of country that was promised in the founding of the nation.  As I matured as a lawyer, my eyes were opened to the ways in which law has been a tool of oppression – more so than for liberation in a lot of ways.  This understanding animates my current scholarship as I want to add my voice to scholars and advocates calling for the dismantling of racism that is so systematically and systemically intertwined in our law and society.


In your doctoral dissertation you describe racism in the United States as a form of religion. What do you mean by that, and why do you think it is useful to understand racism in those terms?

I believe racism is our original civil religion, where whiteness is sacred, and Blackness is profane.  I say this because our country was founded on as system that stole people from their homeland, designated them to be less than human, and then tortured and raped them to build the economic structure that endures to this day.  Law perpetuated and protected the institution of slavery, beginning with the most venerable of our documents – the US Constitution.  By understanding racism as a religion, I hope to redirect the conversation away from discussing racism as a problem with individual bad actors and help us all to understand how deep racism is ingrained into who we are as America.


In addition to your roles as a CSLR fellow and lecturer at Emory Law, you’ve also worked hard to support students of color and confront institutional racism. What do you see as the main obstacles to institutional change in higher education, and how can universities become better places for students of color to study?

I think the main obstacle for higher education institutions to become anti-racist is the failure to recognize the insidious and prevalent nature of racism, which starts with understanding the history of oppression of BIPOC.  This leads administrators and university officials to be reactive to specific incidents of bigotry and racism, as opposed to being proactive in interrogating ways the institution maintains racism and then working hard to dismantle it in every area.  I also think the problem is relying on an increase in diversity, equity and inclusion efforts as a way to counter racism.  Just increasing the number of BIPOC and giving them a seat at the table does not eradicate decades and centuries of building systems and processes that deny the humanity and agency of people of color.  After all, diversity efforts have been in play in most major institutions in American society since the 1980s and we’re still struggling to address racism.  It is not for people of color to fix racism – we did not create it and it is not for us alone to solve.

As for how universities can become better places for students of color….honestly, this question is too big for me to answer.  I would say fix racism in American society writ large.  Programs and policies at the university level are only superficial band-aids if you are not addressing all areas of culture and life. 

In the short term, however, I would say the universities could do more to address racist attitudes and speech of their faculty.  All faculty members should be committed to being anti-racist and supporting the school’s efforts to be anti-racist.  Given the administrative power faculties hold in the university structure, I do not believe you have any progress without 100% buy-in by faculty.



Dr. Savage with NPR legal reporter, Nina Totenberg, in CSLR's Berman Library (left) and delivering a lecture at the University of Uppsala in Sweden (right).


What role does religious faith play in your life? Do you see a connection between your religious commitments and your scholarship or role as a law professor?

I am a person of faith, which calls me to center my life on fighting for justice.  It drives everything I do and all aspects of my life.  This includes my research agenda as a scholar, what I teach and the way I teach as a law professor, and the way I engage as a colleague.  There’s a saying that “we are blessed to be a blessing.”  To me this means that I must use the privilege of an Ivy League education and my experiences at the upper echelon of society to ensure my people, indeed all people, are free from oppression.


Who are some of the thinkers or mentors who have been most influential for you?

There are way too many to mention!  I once heard that we are shaped by every single person that touches our lives – for good or ill.  I definitely believe that.  I’m being slightly coy in this response out of fear that I’ll name some people, but offend by forgetting others.  Suffice it to say that I’ve been a sponge all of my life, absorbing lessons from the people around me and those whom I read.


What gives you hope for the future?

My students, whose passion for social justice invigorates me.  My niece and nephew, who will continue our push to right the wrongs of the world if we teach them the way.  The resiliency of Black people, who have overcome the odds and continue to thrive and survive in spite of, or maybe because of, centuries of oppression.


Do you have any advice for people who might want to follow in your footsteps?

Follow your spirit, follow your heart…no matter the costs.  It’s worth it.