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Recently, people throughout the country have made strides towards racial equality. Racist attitudes, practices, and laws still affect minorities on a daily basis, however, and it is important for people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand the pervasiveness of race-based discrimination. On February 11, 2021, the BCBA Professionalism Committee and the MSBA Diversity and Inclusion Committee presented Part One of its webinar Discussing Systemic Racism, Implicit Bias, and the Role of Bar Associations in Addressing Them. The webinar, hosted by Committee chairs Ari Kodeck and Alexander Steeves, featured Russell McClain, the Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Maryland Carey School of Law. Dean McClain spoke about racism, racial discrimination in the judicial system, and the role of bar associations in addressing racist actions and beliefs. 

Dean McClain began by explaining how lawyers can develop a framework for courageous conversations. He suggested that people step outside of their comfort zones to discuss matters that may be unsettling. In other words, instead of focusing on maintaining safe spaces, he recommended that people enter difficult discussions by embracing the humility, authenticity, vulnerability, and non-judgmental mindset needed to discuss tough issues. 

The program then turned to a discussion on implicit bias and its impact on the administration of justice and the way in which it impacts lawyers both professionally and personally. Dean McClain explained that implicit bias refers to a variety of things, including subconscious bias and institutionalized bias. Essentially, people’s brains independently process information and sort it into different categories based on pattern, which can result in default reactions to situations that don’t necessarily align with a person’s conscious thinking. This can be problematic when the information a person receives is inaccurate as it can eventually result in subconscious bias. 

Dean McClain suggested that people take the Harvard  implicit association test to evaluate whether they harbor subconscious biases. The test requires people to connect an image, like faces of people of different races, with an idea in the form of positive and negative words, and calculates how long it takes them to connect the idea to the image to assess their level of implicit bias. Dean McClain explained that people regularly encounter a variety of sources that produce content, including the news, advertising, and media that portray BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) individuals in a negative light, which ultimately causes them to develop implicit biases. This can result in disparate treatment in many facets of life, including medical care and employment opportunities.

Dean McClain then discussed the axes of privilege and oppression, which is a chart that divides identity characteristics into privileged and oppressed categories. He noted it is important for people with privileged perspectives to consider what is like for people on the other side of the axes, such as the negative experiences they may encounter in their lives, and the added burdens they may have to carry. He then asked the participants to examine the ways in which implicit bias may have an impact on the legal profession. For example, African American males get longer sentences than their white counterparts following convictions for similar crimes. Courtroom bias, which is when a judge assumes a person of color is a party, is another issue faced by many minority attorneys. 

Part Two of the webinar will be a facilitated discussion with members of the bar to determine our role as lawyers, advocates, and officers of the Courts, which will provide all members of the Baltimore County Bar Association  a chance to voice their opinion on these issues. It will be presented on Thursday, February 25, 2021, from 12:00 pm – 1:30 pm, and people interested in attending can register here.