BY TRISH WEAVER, ESQ.
For those that read the heading and began to tune out, we need you. Please, read on.
For those that fashion yourselves to be fairly open-minded and opposed to “racism,” please read on. I fall in that latter group; but, in the past two years, I have learned that I really only saw and understood the tip of the iceberg. I took to learning more about racism embedded into our systems – both by accident and by purpose, and I now have a much wider and deeper understanding than ever before. And, the biggest thing I learned is that I have so much more to learn and understand. But, like most things that make a difference, the first step is getting started. With that in mind, I propose a blueprint.
I want to share with you the recent activities of the Montgomery County Racial Justice Council in the hopes that they resonate with you and prompt you to take similar action in your own bar association or other community groups.
The Racial Justice Council (RJC) was formed in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and was born of the soul-crushing experience of watching one black life after another taken with no change. Recognizing that this and other issues of racial injustice persist, the RJC issued a challenge to members of the Montgomery County Bar Association to educate themselves about systemic racism. In August of 2020, we launched the “20 Weeks for 2020 Pledge” and had over 360 pledge takers, which included lawyers, judges, and legal staff members.
The RJC’s Community Outreach Sub-Committee, which I co-chaired with Judge Jill Cummins, selected a different topic each month, circulated one email each week identifying articles and/or videos on that month’s topic, and then had a facilitated discussion on the topic at the end of the month. The monthly topics were:
- August – White Privilege
- September – Voter Suppression
- October – Black Rage/Black Trauma
- November – Mass Incarceration
- December – Allyship
We received positive feedback from the “pledgers” who found the experience to both deepen and broaden our awareness of systemic racism. Given the pandemic, we used Zoom for the monthly discussions and partnered with the Association of Black Psychologists, which provided facilitators to lead smaller group discussions in Zoom breakout rooms.
We talked openly, extended grace to one another, and created a space to begin having some of the difficult conversations on these issues.
We talked about how folks think about racism. Some thought about an individual’s use of racial slurs or the overt mistreatment of a person based on race. Some thought that being “color blind” was the correct approach – where race is not recognized. Others thought about systemic racism – discrimination that is baked into the fabric of our institutions and the policies that govern them.
Make no mistake about it, systemic racism has long been with us in this country – and remains alive and well. It has many faces and manifests as disparities in education, housing, employment, healthcare, and so many others. As Stokely Carmichael wrote in 1967, institutional/systemic racism is harder to see because of its “less overt, far more subtle” nature, as it “originates in the operation of established and respected forces in the society, and thus receives far less public condemnation than [individual racism].”1 Being “color blind” may be well intended, but it largely ignores these systemic aspects of racism.
As lawyers, we are keepers of our judicial system. We are to strive for justice and root out injustice – both in and out of the courthouse. Yet, our house – the judicial system – continues to breed its share of racial inequity. It is incumbent on all of us to first increase our awareness and understanding of the inequities – and then to take action to do something about it.
Here, the words of Benjamin Franklin are apt: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
So, I must ask, are you outraged that:
• More of Maryland’s prison population is Black than in any other state in the nation? According to the November 2019 report issued by the Justice Policy Institute, Mississippi is second to Maryland in the country for the incarceration of young Black men.2 Black students are suspended at a rate that is 5 1⁄2 times, and Latino students at a rate that is nearly 3 times, the rate of suspension of white students?3
• In Maryland, black youth are more than six times as likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities as their white peers? According to data collected in October 2019 and recently released, Black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults than white kids.4
• Fifty-eight percent (58%) of women attorneys of color surveyed by the American Bar Association say they have been mistaken for administrative staff – while only 7% of white male lawyers report a similar occurrence. 5
• Nationally, only 5% of lawyers are black, and only 5% of lawyers are Latino – while they are 14% and 18% of the full population, respectively.6
The numbers are sobering and can no longer be ignored. These statistics show the reality that Black and brown people in our state are at a significant disadvantage, continually swimming against the tide.
So, are you outraged?
So, now let me ask:
Do you remain silent or take action?
The answer lies in the words of two great leaders:
- Martin Luther King, Jr. lamented: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
- Similarly, Desmond Tutu said: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”
Inaction and apathy – or assuming that someone else is doing it – are the “silence” and “neutrality” that allow our systems to remain unchecked and to continue to perpetuate inequity. Please take action – starting today.
Please tune in to the continuing monthly programs by our Racial Justice Council on the many faces of systemic racism. We have had excellent programs regarding, for example, Critical Race Theory (dispelling all the misunderstandings as to what it is and is not) and How to Talk to Your Kids about Race. We will have future programs about Health Care and Race and the Environment and Race, among others. You can get on the email roster by signing up at montcle@barmont. org and ask to be added to the RJC program email list. Also, please consider starting a Racial Justice Council in your own county bar association or other community organization.
Snehal Massey, an attorney from Baltimore County, participated in our 2020 Pledge and, together with the other members of the Baltimore County Bar Association, posed a similar 21-Week Challenge to their members. Snehal relayed that the work done by the RJC “made implementing the Challenge in Baltimore County seamless because the RJC had already done the heavy lifting – they developed and curated a curriculum with topics and materials for each week and also established a collaboration with the Association of Black Psychologists.” Addressing the impact of having done this work, Snehal said: “Implementing this Challenge in Baltimore County has been instrumental in the kick-off of our Diversity and Inclusion Committee and in creating a stronger community within our local legal profession. I strongly encourage other bar associations to offer the Challenge to their membership to continue these conversations and the growth of this amazing community within our legal community.”
The RJC’s goal is that the Challenge will be replicated in many different communities. Please feel free to reach out to me if you would like a hand in getting started.
These initiatives also meld with the MSBA’s Spark Series, which launches “critical conversations for the legal profession” around lawyers’ role in society. In the first program of the Spark Series, Sherrilyn Ifill, formerly the president and director-counsel of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., engaged in a dynamic discussion with Donna Hill Staton and encouraged lawyers to speak up in the face of inequity and abuses of the rule of law. If you missed that program. You can watch the recording called MSBA 125th Thought Leadership Spark Series featuring Sherrilyn Ifill, on YouTube.7
Collectively, all of these voices are calling us to action. Please, take the call.
- Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1992 ed.).
- Justice Policy Institute, “Rethinking Approaches to Over Incarceration of Black Young Adults in Maryland,” November 6, 2019 (https://justicepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/justicepolicy/documents/Rethinking_Approaches_to_Over_Incarceration_MD.pdf).
- 2019-7, Racial Equity Profile, Mont. Co., JUPITER INDEPENDENT RESEARCH GROUP – OFFICE OF LEGISLATIVE OVERSIGHT, July 15, 2019.
- The Sentencing Project, “Black Disparities in Youth Incarceration,” July 15, 2021.
- American Bar Association and Minority Corporate Counsel Association, “You Can’t Change What You Can’t See: Interrupting Racial & Gender Bias in the Legal Profession,” 2018 (https:// www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/women/youcantchangewhatyoucantsee-online-06292018.pdf).
- American Bar Association, “ABA National Lawyer Population Survey,” 2021 (https://www. americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/market_research/2021-national-lawyer-popu-lation-survey.pdf).