Loading

St. John's Law Magazine Fall 2020 Special Digital Edition: The Anti-Racism Essay Project

About the Anti-Racism Essay Project

In 2014, protests consumed New York City after a police officer killed Eric Garner. In their wake, St. John’s Law students and faculty came together for a conversation about law, race, and justice. Out of that exchange grew our Dialogue Days, community-wide conversations organized by the student-run Coalition for Social Justice and Black Law Students Association, along with co-sponsoring student organizations and our Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights.

Here we are six years later, and it feels like nothing has changed. George Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe” is excruciatingly and infuriatingly familiar. And the pain and anger of this moment is not just about his killing, or the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, or so many others. The senseless killings of Black Americans are the most visible manifestation of a much deeper and systemic problem: anti-Black systemic racism that stems from 400 years of oppression.

This past June, the Law School community gathered again, virtually this time, for another Dialogue Day. The program’s theme was clear and direct:

No More Talking, What Are We Going to Do?

It was a call to action, and among many other commitments made and initiatives undertaken in answer to that call came this Anti-Racism Essay Project, a compilation of opinion pieces contributed by St. John's Law students, alumni, faculty, and administrators.

Our goal here is to curate a collection of perspectives that, individually and collectively, moves our Law School, our community, and our profession forward in solidarity as we work to be actively anti-racist and to combat injustice in all its forms.

Thank you for reading!

ROMERLYNS ALBERIC '20

"I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand what it is like to be a Black face in a sea of whiteness. Black faces are consistently drowned out by the majority of white ones, and they are almost non-existent in positions of power."

“Diversity and inclusion” is a hot phrase these days. But it’s no secret that this country has a systemic racism and injustice problem. Workplaces and schools usually have some form of training to increase awareness of these issues. Yet, with all the awareness, the problems persist somehow. How can that be? How can law firms that include implicit bias trainings into their orientations still have only one Black attorney? How can institutions that speak on diversity still have such low numbers of Black students? Honestly, it’s because many workplaces and institutions are projecting the appearance of not being racist, but are actually failing at being anti-racist.

Being anti-racist is actively working to fight racist practices, whether explicit or implicit. This means people doing the work of going beyond the standard “discrimination is not be tolerated.” I understand that this sounds a bit abstract, so let me provide an example to make this concept more concrete. Consider the law firm mentioned above. Say it’s a firm where there are about 50 attorneys, but only one Black attorney. Any other Black employee is a member of the support staff, except for two interns. This firm has one managing attorney, two supervising attorneys, and ten team leaders who serve as supervisors for their respective teams, all of whom weigh in on hiring. Not a single one of these people is Black. Clearly, there is a systemic issue at this firm. This firm incorporates anti-discrimination policies and implicit bias training in its new employee orientation. It does an excellent job of being good enough, projecting that it is not racist, while failing to be anti-racist, which is evident by the lack diversity.

To be anti-racist, the firm will need to open the door to meaningful conversation. The people in positions of power will need to ask the important questions:

Why does everyone in the firm all look the same?

Why does everyone in this room look the same?

What can we do to be more welcoming to different kinds of people?

Once those questions are asked, they will be hard to ignore. The firm will then have to choose between making significant changes to increase diversity or perpetuating racism. But the onus isn’t just on those in power. Other attorneys in the firm can also ask these questions. Other employees can speak up and bring attention to the systemic racism occurring in the workplace. They would be exhibiting anti-racist behavior by working against racism rather than idly waiting for the problem to fix itself.

My example is a reflection of our present society. I’ve worked in places like this. I’ve witnessed and experienced firsthand what it is like to be a Black face in a sea of whiteness. Black faces are consistently drowned out by the majority of white ones, and they are almost non-existent in positions of power. And unfortunately, even though it’s obvious, people rarely address it and challenge the status quo. Actively working against racism isn’t the easiest thing to do, especially in the workplace, but it is what must be done.

Often, people in those work environments fail to take the much-needed step to stand for what is right and call out visible and apparent issues. That failure leads the system to continue blocking Black people from entering predominately white spaces. My cynicism leads me to believe that people in these positions find it difficult to speak up and be anti-racist because they are comfortable. They allow themselves to overlook the injustice of it all with common excuses like, “Black people are just not applying.” They are satisfied with their own faulty reasoning and they never stop to ask, “How can we change that? What can we do to invite those we have effectively ousted and make them feel welcome?” And they never will stop to ask these questions because they are unaffected. They have jobs. They have benefits. They have good salaries. Why should they make noise and disrupt their own livelihoods?

JEREMY ASHTON '21

"To my fellow white law students: Issues embedded in racism, classism, and misogyny won’t go away if we ignore them as being 'not our fight.'”

As a cis-gender, white man entering his 3L year, I don’t have any answers. However, this is a call to action focused towards a large segment of my St. John’s Law colleagues: my fellow white students who still make up more law students and lawyers across the country according the ABA and the Law School’s own internal admissions statistics.

To my fellow white law students: Issues embedded in racism, classism, and misogyny won’t go away if we ignore them as being “not our fight.” We all, especially my fellow white male colleagues, have benefited from internalized prejudices and oppressive systems, formal and informal, for too long. The only morally correct response is to become active allies in undoing these systems, levying the power our J.D.s grant us, the advocacy skills we learn at St. John’s Law, and the privilege we hold by being white people to make space for the colleagues who most need to be heard, and acting in support of their voices rather than in our own self-interest.

Here is my short, incomplete list of how my fellow white classmates and I can start being actively anti-racist in the context of law school:

1. Understand that the law is not “neutral” when racism, classism, and prejudices are baked into American history and thus American law.

  • Examples include redlining within Property Law, the creation of reservations in Property Law, qualified immunity in Criminal Law, and so many Con Law II decisions/SCOTUS dissents.

2. Understand that we need to fight the racism embedded in the criminal “justice” system.

  • If you think the system is fair and balanced, watch The 13th on Netflix and read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Do both if you’re leaning towards being a prosecutor or a “progressive” prosecutor.

3. Listen to your colleagues, especially those who are sharing a different perspective then yours.

  • Don’t talk over a woman of color in your Criminal Law class, particularly during discussions of police brutality.

4. In general, listen to your colleagues, especially if what they are saying is making you uncomfortable. Remember that with discomfort comes growth.

  • If a certain discussion makes you uncomfortable, rather than get defensive, use that as a sign that you need to listen even more intently.

5. Think about the space you take up and how you can use your privileges to make more space for people who don’t look like you or come from your class/background.

  • Think about if the devil really needs another advocate before speaking up in Con Law II.

6. As Michelle Capobianco ’21 reminded me in our 1L year, “Everybody eats” so don’t be selfish, and never step on others to succeed. That’s a surefire way to ruin your reputation in an industry built on networking. Be collaborative, not competitive—it’s a better, and more effective, way to win at law school.

  • Share the outline, share resources, share knowledge. Yes, law school is graded on a curve, but not everyone is starting from the same place, so don’t buy into the foolish myth of a complete meritocracy. Some folks have generations of lawyers and judges in their families. Others will be the first in their family to graduate college, or high school, let alone law school. So, don’t be needlessly, overly competitive. That just entrenches inequalities between class and race that have deeper roots in American society.

7. Don’t expect or ask your colleagues to teach you about racism. That’s not their job.

  • Google can be a first step. Also, seek out Law School professors and administrators who can recommend books or resources on how to be a better ally. That is part of their job in educating and supporting us.

8. If someone raises an issue with something you’ve done or said, take this as an opportunity to become a better person (and, thus, a better lawyer) rather than getting defensive or crying.

9. Discussing racism isn’t about performing how “woke” you are. It is about listening, learning, and un-learning the messages we have been subtly indoctrinated in throughout our lives.

10. Finally, don’t be scared to become a better person. Be brave enough to dig into these topics. Recognize what “white privilege” really means, that you have it, and how that is unfair.

You, and all of us with privilege, can choose to do nothing. Or we can choose to fight against the unfair system that we’ve benefited from, to build a world where justice is not just an ideal, but a lived reality, for all.

RALPH CARTER '14

"Some say we are in the midst of a national racial awakening prompted by Mr. Floyd’s murder. For Black and Brown Americans, though, his killing is but a particularly bleak reminder that for too long we have all permitted police departments to treat us not as fellow citizens, but as enemy combatants to be controlled and neutralized."

In the days following the publication of the cellphone video of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police—which I cannot bear to watch in full—I sat sheltering from the pandemic and stunned as rage, fear, grief, isolation and even shame whorled around me to create the sense that I was losing my country.

Officer Derek Chauvin callously snuffed the life out of Mr. Floyd—a compliant and unarmed American citizen—his knee pressed on Mr. Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers held him down. Mr. Floyd begged for his life and cried out for his dead mother. Undeterred, the police continued in this unfathomable atrocity in broad daylight. That the cellphone video was recorded by a 17-year-old child underscores the sheer cruelty exhibited.

I have since struggled to come up with a cogent answer to the question posed by St. John’s Law students at the June 2020 Dialogue Day: What are we going to do?

Some say we are in the midst of a national racial awakening prompted by Mr. Floyd’s murder. For Black and Brown Americans, though, his killing is but a particularly bleak reminder that for too long we have all permitted police departments to treat us not as fellow citizens, but as enemy combatants to be controlled and neutralized.

That said, the casual brutality of Mr. Floyd’s killing has served as a collective gut punch for a nation shackled by COVID-19. This is the case even for those of us long acquainted with how police dispatch our Black and Brown bodies without cause. The mind strains to recall the names: Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Atatiana Jefferson, Freddie Gray, Laquan McDonald, Breonna Taylor, Tamir Rice, Stephon Clark, Oscar Grant, Walter Scott, Philando Castille, Alton Sterling, Elijah McClain, Rayshard Brooks, Jacob Blake, Daniel Prude . . . .

The words spoken by James Baldwin in 1961 powerfully convey how it feels to weather these unrelenting reminders of the tragic indignity of our existence in our own country:

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time—and in one’s work. And part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.

Some 60 years later, our country is still plagued by racism. As long as too many continue to deny, tolerate and benefit from this scourge, we will not prosper. It has been suggested that racism amounts to a national public health crisis. Due in no small part our affliction, we are failing to adequately respond to a coronavirus that, while disproportionately affecting Black and Brown people, imperils us all. Our federal government’s response to the pandemic evinces the criminal indifference that Baldwin spoke of. Our national failure to act collectively is the source of international pity and ridicule; we wallow in racist tropes while our death toll mounts and our economy craters.

To fail to root racism out of our nation’s structures and institutions would also accede to an existential threat to our national security and the rule of law. Our vulnerability to racist appeals has been weaponized against us by malign forces seeking to subvert our elections. Faced with a documented rise in white supremacist domestic terrorism, our government discounts the threat to our great nation. Similarly, evidence of white supremacist elements in our police departments goes unanswered, as some police meet peaceful protests with petulance, yet more violence, and support for white supremacist militias and counter-protesters.

So then, to the deceptively simple question posed: What are we going to do? I admit that I can offer only that each of us must do something today, and still more tomorrow, in our anti-racism efforts.

For my part, I commit to continue using my position of relative privilege to support the following anti-racism initiatives:

  • Ensuring election integrity and voter protection
  • Eliminating racial wealth and income inequality, including support for reparations
  • Demilitarizing police departments and reallocating public resources
  • Reforming my child’s school district
  • Improving diversity, equity and inclusion in the legal profession, corporations and institutions, in partnership with the Law School’s Ronald H. Brown Center for Civil Rights

For all members of the St. John’s Law family, I am not inclined to try to convince of our nation’s racist past and present. That is your task as officers of the court, citizens and residents of our great country, not mine. It is also compelled by the University’s Vincentian mission. I urge you to get involved in some positive way to eradicate racism in our nation. Suffice to say, there is much work for all of us to do. I hope to find allies throughout the Law School community willing to take on this work vital to our nation.

PROFESSOR ROSA CASTELLO '06

"The first thing I did after George Floyd’s murder was take a deeper look at myself and how I live my life. What was I doing personally to fight racism? What was I doing for my children? My community? My students?"

“the seeing eye should always see.

the night doesn’t stop the stars”

— From He Never Saw the Bullets Coming by Haki R. Madhubuti

As I write this essay, it’s an overcast day. There are ominous patches of dark grey sky, but there are small patches of bright sun breaking through. This is what the world feels like to me now. Amidst so much darkness, there is light. It struggles to get through, but it shines through anyway. This struggle is no stranger to those who have long been fighting against systemic racism and racial injustice. But it may be new to those just joining.

Although I’ve been fighting for years, the fight has been different since I adopted my son. I am white. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. When I was younger, though I knew I grew up with privileges, I was uncomfortable acknowledging this or speaking about race and racism. I didn’t confront these things until my young adult life, when, for some reason, the murder of Amadou Diallo awakened me in a way I hadn’t been before. But in 2016, I adopted my son. He is Black. His life will be very different from mine because, 21 years after Amadou Diallo’s killing, not much has changed. Where before I may have been awakened, now I’m aflame.

So, what can I do? Because, as the author, historian, and scholar Ibram X. Kendi has said, “to do nothing is dangerous.” It’s dangerous for Black Americans, including my friends and colleagues and, most importantly to me, my son. But it’s dangerous for me and for all white Americans too. It’s a chronic condition, and we’re the cause. Our complacency, our inaction, and our actions have allowed this chronic condition to go unchecked.

The first thing I did after George Floyd’s murder was take a deeper look at myself and how I live my life. What was I doing personally to fight racism? What was I doing for my children? My community? My students? Then I invested in some great books about racism and I made a plan. How was I going to actively fight racism in my personal life, in my community, and in my career?

In my personal life, I invested in children’s books on diversity and racism. I took a hard look at the books and toys my children have. Are they representative of different races and cultures? I asked what messaging I send to my kids about race. I planned to discuss and recognize heroic Black Americans and leaders. I planned to talk about racism in an age-appropriate way for them and to continue to do so. My children already have a diverse group of friends, but I made a conscious investment in maintaining diversity in the people influential in their lives.

In my community, I joined an activist group to bring anti-racism education to our school district. We have petitioned our board, written letters to the superintendent and other educational leaders in New York, and provided resources for how to make the educational material and the culture in our schools anti-racist.

Where I have worked most against racism in my life has always been in my career. Being a professor at St. John’s Law has given me a platform to speak out against racism and discrimination and to assist Black students in their professional journey. For nine years, I’ve been involved in our Ronald H. Brown Law School Prep Program for College Students, which offers diverse, disadvantaged students assistance and early exposure to the study and practice of law and other resources to enter the legal profession. I have taught these students in Prep Program classes, helping them prepare to apply for and attend law school. I have mentored them on their educational and professional journey. I have been impressed by their tenacity. Most importantly, I have learned from, and been inspired by, them to keep doing this work.

But there is always more that can be done and should be done. It’s not enough to help Black students succeed. That is critical work, and I will always do it. But we have to teach and inspire our white students to join this fight. I’m so proud of our students who are doing this and will support them in any way I can. And, this year, I plan to make social justice and anti-racism more prominent in all my classes. W.B. Yeats said “education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.” Let us work together to light this fire and break through the darkness.

ERIC DANG '21

"A central problem in the discussion about racism is that people tend to believe that their subjective experiences are representative of the whole population."

Everyone agrees that racism is bad. Not everyone agrees on what racism looks like. In the last few months, the conversation about systemic racism and institutional prejudice has hit the mainstream. Some are having their first difficult family conversations about race: conversations that most people of color have had for generations. Some continue to deny that the system is biased in any way. A central problem in the discussion about racism is that people tend to believe that their subjective experiences are representative of the whole population.

For Asian Americans, many of whom are first- or second-generation U.S. citizens or immigrants, this problem is especially pervasive. In my own family, where everyone from my parents’ generation and older are immigrants, there is a strong belief in the American Dream. They believe that if you put your head down, keep to yourself, and work hard, you will be able to find success. They believe that because it’s worked for them. They all came to this country with practically nothing and with little-to-no knowledge of English and, despite their struggles, managed to succeed. This is not an uncommon story for Asian immigrants to the United States.

Knowingly or not, my family and I all benefit from the “Model Minority” myth, wherein American culture maintains a steadfast portrayal of East, Central, and South Asians and Pacific Islanders as quiet, non-political, and accepting of authority. These groups are viewed as a “model” for how all minorities in the country should act: they should not make political noise, should keep their heads down, should work hard, and hope for the best. Those in positions of power have used these perceptions of Asian Americans to justify the continued oppression of Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC). Intentionally or not, Asian Americans have benefitted at the expense of BIPOC.

Among my family, there is little recognition of these perceptions and how they actively harm other minority groups. My uncles, aunts, and granduncles continue to expound their wisdom: if you keep your head down and work hard, you will find success. This has, at times, included some nastier corollaries: the only people who don’t find success are the lazy or unmotivated.

In the eyes of many in my family, and many in the Asian-American community, racism plays no part in their own accomplishments. They do not recognize the inherently racist structure that has supported their own relative success. They do not see, or perhaps do not want to see, that much of what they have achieved comes as much from the prejudice of those who sign the checks as from their own hard work. Their accomplishments have often come at the expense of other minorities and as a result of centuries of systemic anti-Black racism.

The first step to changing these misperceptions is to have difficult family conversations, often in multiple languages. I find it critically important in my own family circles to talk and educate people about the Model Minority myth, and how it’s been used to oppress BIPOC. I underscore to those in my life that Asian Americans, rather than play into the Model Minority myth, should be standing with BIPOC in support of the advancement of all minorities.

Because even though keeping your head down and staying quiet may not feel like racism, doing so while silently benefitting from a racist system certainly is.

BETH DO '21

"When people talk about race, I always wonder about those moments—the ones that are not TV-worthy because they are so common. The memories of shame linger, settling deep into your skin, reminding you that you are the 'other.' They whisper that you are not worthy, that no matter your accomplishments or titles, you do not belong."

베들레헴 (Bethlehem): commonly known as the birthplace of Jesus. My father’s gift to his firstborn. A legacy and a tribulation. With this name, my father hoped that I, like the Star of Bethlehem, would be a beacon of light in the world.

My name is Beth Do, and I am the first-generation immigrant daughter of a family who fled political persecution in North Korea. My parents moved to this country with nothing but faith and a desire to better their children’s lives. My father’s itinerant ecclesiastical calling ensured a kaleidoscope of cities. In each school, I was the new kid with the unwieldy foreign name and Sharpie-colored sneakers. I dreaded the first day of class when the teacher would blithely mispronounce my name and the inevitable mockery that ensued.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, the celebrated Vietnamese author, describes racism as something beyond physical assault. This “low-level” racism of my childhood is dull and colorless, receding quickly from public memory. When people talk about race, I always wonder about those moments—the ones that are not TV-worthy because they are so common. The memories of shame linger, settling deep into your skin, reminding you that you are the “other.” They whisper that you are not worthy, that no matter your accomplishments or titles, you do not belong.

When the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests gained traction, I was hesitant to believe the sympathetic banners and media coverage as more than virtue signaling. Yes, it was louder, more visible. Yes, it felt different. But was it different? Would this moment, too, recede into oblivion? My childhood taught me that discrimination is part and parcel of our American history, regardless of whether you were Asian, Hispanic, or anything else. If Black lives matter, if racial injustice is something our society really wants to address, then we needed to move beyond slogans.

The St. John’s Law Dialogue Day, led by the fearless Jasmine Johnson and Pharoah Sutton-Jackson (presidents of the Black Law Students Association and the Coalition for Social Justice, respectively), rekindled hope that the BLM movement was more than a passing fad. We said we wanted to move beyond words and to inoculate our community against racism. And we are doing that, even though implementing change during these turbulent times is no easy feat. That night in June, our shared fury fueled our determination and made for bold promise. It made me realize our Law School community could be on the precipice of something substantial, perhaps even redemptive. I am proud of my fellow students for recognizing that there is much work ahead.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton scholar and activist, noted that “the [pandemic] is a radicalizing factor because . . . it might cause you to question what foundation [society] was built upon in the first place.” 2020 has felt both unbearably long and oddly uplifting. Perhaps within this unfamiliar terrain is the space to nurture a revolution. The seeds of this revolution are in Gabriela Morales’ and Ridmila Sudasinghe’s Transforming Justice Initiative, a new student organization dedicated to prison reform. They are in Hunter Igoe’s and other Class of 2020 alumni-led efforts to push for diploma privilege. They are in all our student organization leaders who have added diversity positions and amendments to their bylaws, weaving inclusion into our governance systems.

My father dreamed of a beacon of light, but I envision a blaze, each flame illuminating and building up each other’s light. If there is a time to step forward and coalesce our collective ferocity and faith, this is it. I know there will be hardship and pain to come. Despite it all, in the words of Martin Luther King Jr., we will hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. We are each other’s hope, and we will not yield.

PROFESSOR CATHERINE BAYLIN DURYEA

"In my courses on Administrative Law, students don’t necessarily expect to encounter structural racism in the course material. But law is about power, and administrative law governs the process by which that power is translated into regulations that impact people's daily lives."

The last weekend of February, shortly before COVID-19 ravaged New York City, I attended a conference at Boston University on Racial Bias, Disparities and Oppression in the 1L Curriculum: A Critical Approach to the Canonical First Year Law School Subjects. For two days, professors and students spoke to the pressing need to reimagine legal education in ways that account for the lived experiences of law students of color and the racist history of our legal doctrine. The number of attendees far surpassed expectations, filling an overflow room. The energy was palpable. In conversation after conversation, experienced professors described how they had grappled with questions of race, power, and pedagogy for years but often felt isolated at their law schools.

Since the killing of George Floyd and the public outrage over racism in policing, there has been an explosion of attention to race and racism in legal teaching. The disproportionate effects of the pandemic on communities of color also brought the disparate experiences of law students to the forefront. I hope that we are on the cusp of a wave of significant changes to legal education that will better equip new lawyers to be anti-racist.

In my courses on Administrative Law, students don’t necessarily expect to encounter structural racism in the course material. But law is about power, and administrative law governs the process by which that power is translated into regulations that impact people's daily lives. By the time legislation is implemented through rules and adjudications, underlying discrimination may not be obvious. The path of a new highway through a park, for instance, may seem like a purely technical matter, but in fact such decisions are deeply intertwined with segregation and racial politics. It’s my job to draw those connections—to help students understand how doctrinal questions are inseparable from social and historic context.

So many administrative law cases implicate structural racism that simply bringing in robust discussions of the facts behind individual cases can illuminate connections between administrative law and race. The canonical highway case Citizens to Preserve Overton Park v. Volpe, for example, concerned the path of a prospective road through Memphis, TN. The Department of Transportation Act of 1966 devoted particular attention to preserving green space, giving environmental groups (and white citizens who lived near Overton Park) a statutory basis to challenge any route that disrupted the space. The statute provided no such protection for African American communities devastated by the path of federally-funded highways. White citizens in Memphis were able to thwart the proposed highway on procedural grounds that were unavailable to African Americans challenging highways in other cities. Overton Park stands for a number of important doctrinal holdings, but the case also illustrates how procedure can mask policies that are, at best, willfully indifferent to unjust outcomes based on race.

Most casebooks simply ignore how racism (and sexism) shaped administrative law and the administrative state, presenting doctrine as if it’s independent of historical context. I went to Boston seeking out support and resources for a different approach, one that combines doctrinal rigor with a realistic view of the legacies of white supremacy and patriarchy in administrative law. In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, I see a much stronger commitment to anti-racist pedagogy and a flurry of interest in race and administrative law.

The events of the spring solidified my commitment to anti-racist pedagogy and to being explicit with students about why I teach the way I do. This isn’t a question of bringing race into the classroom. Race is always there, whether we acknowledge it or not. But students simply cannot anticipate and shape the future of a constantly changing field like Administrative Law without a good grasp of its past.

Jeff Fannell '92C, '96L

"Whether you’re wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles, alone on a darkened street, or wearing a tailored suit, holding NBA credentials in a brightly-lit arena—it makes no difference. If you’re Black, you’re treated differently."

“Back the f--- up!”

So commanded the Alameda County deputy sheriff to the Black man, who just happened to be Masai Ujiri, president of the Toronto Raptors. The team Ujiri built had just won the 2019 NBA championship, defeating the Golden State Warriors in six games. He was on his way to the court to celebrate with players, family, and team officials. It was the high point of his professional career. An achievement to which very few can lay claim. All the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice had finally paid off.

And then reality crashed in.

“Back the f--- up!” A violent, two-handed shove, from one hired to protect and serve.

“I’m the president of the Raptors.” Another two-handed blow.

Bystanders mercifully intervened before things got uglier. Ujiri eventually made his way to the court, forcefully pulled into the celebration by his star point guard, Kyle Lowry, with words that resonate in the deep waters of the Black soul: We over here!

The look on Ujiri’s face spoke volumes. What was that?

It was a frightful reminder: you can work hard, sacrifice, achieve the pinnacle of success, but if you’re Black, none of that matters. You’re still not worthy of respect. Whether you’re wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles, alone on a darkened street, or wearing a tailored suit, holding NBA credentials in a brightly-lit arena—it makes no difference. If you’re Black, you’re treated differently. Your presence must be justified; explained on demand to the wannabe and real cop alike, and to every Karen and Ken.

Such is the evil of race and racism—an evil founded upon a man-made construct designed to divide and demean. It’s the creation of social hierarchies, manufactured to foster a lie that one group is superior, while others are inferior, and thus undeserving of basic human decencies. It’s a sinister rubric that has been used to validate colonization, slavery, genocide, annexations, lynchings, and brutalities of every kind. It’s engrained so deeply into the fabric of our society that many current day beneficiaries don’t even notice it, while perpetrators casually deny its existence.

For Black people, it’s part of our daily lives. It’s the cop who approaches me at the bus stop as a teen and demands my name and destination. It’s the store clerk who is determined to help me shop, while other customers are free to browse. It’s the loan officer at the bank who will generously “spring” for an extra thousand or two, as if he was holding my allowance. It’s my five-year-old son’s teacher who tries to convince me Special Ed is needed because my boy ripped up a piece of paper. It’s my neighbor, who unabashedly asks, How long you think you’ll be here?, with boxes yet unpacked in the house my family and I just purchased.

And, of course, it’s the look—the one you get from those who had been communicating with you by email and phone. Everything was fine, until the fateful encounter when they discovered that . . . you’re Black! In Ujiri’s case, the deputy sheriff filed suit alleging Ujiri assaulted him. Ujiri fought back and, armed with the resources becoming a high-ranking NBA executive, was able to obtain body cam footage that shows the officer instigated the ugly incident.

PROFESSOR ELAYNE E. GREENBERG

"Many of us were first attracted to the law because we saw it as of force of power that could right societal wrongs. Yet, when we became students and scholars, we learned the law’s limits, especially when it comes to combatting pervasive racism."

As I watched Jasmine Johnson and Pharoah Sutton-Jackson facilitate St. John’s call to end systemic racism during our June Dialogue Day, I was awed at how their focus and commitment mobilized other student leaders. My years of combatting societal “‘isms,” including systemic racism, however, have taught me that affirmative steps, while important, are not enough to effect meaningful change. We also need to change hearts and minds.

Many of us were first attracted to the law because we saw it as of force of power that could right societal wrongs. Yet, when we became students and scholars, we learned the law’s limits, especially when it comes to combatting pervasive racism. Time and time again, we have been disheartened to see that the law alone cannot effect real change. There also needs to be a concomitant change about racism in the hearts and minds of those implementing these anti-racist laws. We have seen the law’s limitations throughout history and, soberly, we still see it today.

As one example of the law’s limits, we shudder at the ongoing systemic racism that is suppressing the voting rights of Black Americans. Despite the 15th Amendment ratified in 1870, the 19th Amendment ratified in 1920, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, voting rights activists are still fighting the forces that discourage Black Americans from exercising their right to vote and voicing their choice for government leadership.

Too many Black voters contend with voting registration barriers, limited polling places with unconscionable wait times, and ongoing voter intimidation, just to exercise their right to vote. As a poll watcher in Tarpon Springs, FL during the 2004 election, I witnessed firsthand the intentional and overt actions used to suppress Black votes despite voting rights laws proscribing such actions. In 2020, systemic racism in voting remains a scourge in our democracy.

What can we do within our St. John’s Law community to change the racism in our own hearts and minds? This is an especially challenging question when most law students, insecure about their personal place in law school, are taught to “fake it ‘till you make it.” To be open to changing, however, we need to dispel our protective armor, make ourselves vulnerable, and begin to form bonds of trust.

Changing minds begins with seizing the opportunities our legal education presents to discuss the many iterations of racism and learn truthful narratives about its interrelationship with the law. Changing minds is about each one us having the courage to be introspective about the racist values we may have been exposed to in our families, social groups, and religious communities, and to acknowledge the subtle, and not so subtle, ways we may have been inculcated with racist ideas.

Changing minds is also heightening our awareness that there is no one Black, Latinx, Asian American, Indigenous, and White voice. Rather, each group has multiple voices, and changing minds is developing an appreciation of what each voice contributes to the conversation. Changing minds is about developing a heightened awareness of, and sensitivity to, the range of racially discriminatory micro aggressions and aggressions that our Black colleagues endure throughout each day. And changing minds is about our student groups intentionally creating rules and procedures to ensure a diverse and richer student membership and experience.

Some say changing minds is a first step to changing our hearts about racism. Changing hearts is the natural evolution of human connection as we constructively and respectfully work together to combat racism. Changing hearts is also about creating environments in our Law School community that are open to respectful engagement, while also respecting different levels of commitment.

Another way hearts are changed is when we speak up against the range of racial discriminatory micro aggressions and aggressions that we witness daily. Hearts can also change when we respond to insensitivities about race as part of invaluable conversations of understanding in which we learn how to be and do better. Changing hearts is about organically forming diverse bonds of collaboration and friendship because you respect the humanity in all and are intolerant of perpetuating racism.

Within our St. John’s Law community, hearts and minds are already changing—in seminars addressing race; in clinics and externships where students see firsthand the disparate application of the law because of their client’s race; and in those student groups that have already made anti-racism a priority. We are all hungry for more such experiences. As Jasmine and Pharoah asked, what are we going to do to make that happen?

Mohammed Hassan '21

"Many people I know do not know what to do because they are anxious or afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing or not knowing what to say or do. But that is why we educate ourselves and continue to learn and, in the interim, we cannot allow lack of knowledge or fear to be a reason not to take action."

On June 4, 2020, we gathered as a St. John’s Law community. Hundreds of us came together virtually for Dialogue Day including students, faculty, and administrators. Ironically, despite its name, the point of the event was not to have a dialogue. Instead, the theme of the evening was that we needed to do more than just talk about systemic racism and racial injustice. We needed to take action against them. Thus, the primary question that controlled the evening was “What are we going to do?” I think the answer is as simple and as complicated as this, start where you are and with whatever you can, and continue to educate yourself.

Many people I know do not know what to do because they are anxious or afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing or not knowing what to say or do. But that is why we educate ourselves and continue to learn and, in the interim, we cannot allow lack of knowledge or fear to be a reason not to take action. Start where you are and with whatever you can. I have countless friends that post on social media as their way of taking action against systemic racism and racial injustice. Some of my friends were out physically protesting against police brutality. Some donated to various organizations that support the fight for racial equality here in the United States. And some are fellow student leaders and activists here at St. John’s Law.

Those leaders are at the forefront of a student-led effort to make the Law School’s student organizations and student body actively more inclusive and anti-racist. Within a few short days, student leaders, representing their student organizations, took the challenge of Dialogue Day head on and arrived ready with unique and creative ways to help promote diversity and inclusion both within their organizations and in the student body at large. Others are doing all of this and much more. But most importantly, many of them are doing something. That is the most important thing you can do.

You do not know who is being inspired by your social media posts to do more research or who feels empowered to raise their virtual voice and use their own platform to educate others because you did it first. You do not know which of your fellow students were feeling mentally drained by the environment around them and were encouraged, motivated, or simply felt supported by your call to action and leadership efforts at school. And you do not know who you have incidentally educated or helped understand the world that people of color, especially Black people, live in today. Collectively, believe it or not, all those actions are responsible for causing the changes that we see in the world right now. And by changes I also mean the growing realization by our new allies that racism is well and alive and must be tackled, with their assistance in that effort. That itself is quite encouraging.

In addition to getting started, continue to educate yourself. I think asking what we are going to do was a powerful question to pose to a group of future lawyers—arguably future partners at law firms, future policy makers, future judges, future prosecutors, future world leaders, and potentially so many other influential positions. We, by way of our future license to practice law, will exercise power. That power includes the power to shape policy, to decide whether to prosecute a case, to hire or fire, to fight injustice or promote it, to right a wrong or further it, and much more. By continuing to actively learn and educate ourselves about the roots, effects, and mechanisms of system racism, we can continue to make better, more informed, decisions. And we can attempt to mitigate our implicit biases so that we do not perpetuate the same disease that we hope to eradicate.

RYAN IGLESIAS '21

"Thoreau imparted the following wisdom: 'There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.' And so, to answer the question asked of the St. John’s Law community on our recent Dialogue Day—What are we going to do? I posit that we stop hacking at the branches and hack at the roots; we educate, we create, we participate."

“His goodness must not be a partial and transitory act, but a constant superfluity, which costs him nothing and of which he is unconscious.” – Henry David Thoreau

Here, Thoreau sought to illuminate the phenomenon that is transitory philanthropy. He used the anatomy of a plant to explain this concept. The philanthropist is like a plant that has a stem, leaves, fruit, and flowers. Some offer their leaves, the most common part of the plant, and proclaim their benevolence. And then some provide their flowers and their fruit, not just their leaves. This distinction between those who offer enough to create an illusion of philanthropy and those who offer everything which makes up who they are is what defines true benevolence and philanthropy. Thoreau goes on to say, “you boast of spending a tenth part of your income in charity,” but what about the other nine-tenths?

Our society’s approach to systemic racism and racial injustice can be likened to Thoreau’s analogy of the flower. Many donate one-tenth of themselves and are content because they feel as if they have done their job. Many take a passive part in the effort of uprooting systemic racism and racial injustice because either they believe someone else will take up the effort or they believe that their well-wishes, and good intentions, and small gestures amount to more than a transitory act.

Thoreau imparted the following wisdom: “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.” And so, to answer the question asked of the St. John’s Law community on our recent Dialogue Day—What are we going to do? I posit that we stop hacking at the branches and hack at the roots; we educate, we create, we participate.

We must take upon ourselves the duty of educating the generation that comes after us and ensure that it carries the lessons we have learned during our generation and from generations past. It is our job to make sure that the generation after us understands the challenge, understands its causes, and understands what needs to be done. We create forums, associations, programs, events, initiatives, and more. We create so that those coming after us have a place to speak their minds, express themselves, and continue learning.

We must create mechanisms to ensure that the next generation is not only equipped with the opportunities to succeed, but also to catalyze the change that our own and prior generations have envisioned. We can accomplish this through small institutional change, like launching diversity initiatives to increase opportunities for education and careers, or large change, like effecting legislation. But we must continue to create and leave behind systems that continue to propel the next generation forward.

And last, we must participate. We must get involved with those around us who are blazing a trail and support them. We must join our local affinity chapters and be outspoken. And we must do our part in not just educating and creating, but also by being an example. We can no longer give one-tenth. We must give the remaining nine-tenths. We can no longer merely offer our leaves. We must collectively offer our flowers and fruits. We can no longer take a partial or transitory stance on systemic racism and racial injustice. Our efforts must be a constant superfluity.

MICHELLE JOHNSON '05

"As a country comprised of inherently good people and a Law School community bonded by an institution whose mission is to respect the rights of every person and mitigate social injustice, I remain hopeful that we will find strength and resolve to begin to have conversations about many topics which have polarized our nation—including the disparate impacts of race on the lives of Black and Brown people—in order to heal."

The discussion of race was forced upon me by a stranger when I was 16 years old, walking down the street during a spring afternoon in Orange County, CA to return to play in my high school’s basketball game. I was called the n-word from a black muscle car with a Confederate Flag waving from its antenna.

The unprompted attention I received caused me to look up and down the sidewalk, thinking that the car’s very young front seat male passenger who hurled this word at me clearly made a mistake. It was the first time anyone had ever called me that word and the first instance that my race was consciously weaponized and used against me. My heart sank further when I realized I stood on the sidewalk alone.

Embarrassed as if I had done something wrong, I told no one. I tried to chalk it up to an isolated incident and added it to the growing list of reasons why New York was better than California when evaluating the decision to return to the East Coast to attend college.

What I chalked up to being an isolated incident limited to California ended up being more widespread and endemic throughout the United States than I realized. As a sophomore college student attending NYU, I was waiting for my takeout order in Times Square when a stranger—this time a middle age woman—weaponized my race against me again without any provocation, calling me the n-word.

More than a decade later, I prefer not to remember or ever count the number of times my race or the race of someone I care about has been used as a basis for applying a heightened and disproportionately negative level of scrutiny during average everyday experiences—from shopping at local stores, to driving down the street, interacting with members of law enforcement, and traveling abroad. In many of these instances, I had my law degree from St. John’s and career experience at the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to thank for helping to correct the situation. In other circumstances, there was no amount of personal accolade or credentials in this world that would help.

Regardless of background, without question, each of us has at least one adversity that we needed to overcome to get to where we are today. Still, summarizing race as just another adversity is a gross miscalculation. Speaking out to support Black Lives Matter over this summer, high-profile, Black multi-million-dollar athletes and a billionaire media mogul received backlash from the public as if their wealth and talent shields them from systematic racism and made them and their loved ones exempt. While a person of color’s education, wealth, natural talent or ability, achievements, and efforts to assimilate can minimize the impact of systemic racism, it will never neutralize it.

As a country comprised of inherently good people and a Law School community bonded by an institution whose mission is to respect the rights of every person and mitigate social injustice, I remain hopeful that we will find strength and resolve to begin to have conversations about many topics which have polarized our nation—including the disparate impacts of race on the lives of Black and Brown people—in order to heal.

While the topic of racism can be painful and complicated, and the silver-bullet answer even more elusive, to make it more tangible, reframe it as a discussion or self-reflection surrounding equity. Become curious about the contributions you can make, no matter how big or how small, to help achieve equity for Black and Brown people within your profession, company, firm, personal life, or larger sphere of influence. I am here to empathetically help anyone in the St. John’s Law community engage in such a discussion or process a self-reflection. Please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

Director of Public Interest Programming ASHLEIGH KASHIMAWO

"For nearly 20 years I have straightened my hair for job interviews. And I am here to tell you that my curly hair is professional. Braids, locs, big hair, short hair, dyed hair, natural hair, wigs, and weaves are all professional. Our knowledge, preparedness, education, and skills make us professional, not our imitation of whiteness."

Taking action against system racism and racial injustice can feel daunting. Just talking about it can be daunting. None of us can individually solve racism, but as lawyers each of us will be in positions to disrupt the tiny assumptions, actions, and inactions that contribute to systemic injustice. Reflecting on some of the lessons of my career so far, I see room for small, achievable acts that we can all take on.

Beware words like professional, polished, and fit.

We’re going to talk about hair now, but please accept this as an example and a symbol that applies beyond hair. In the early 2000s, I was in college talking to a career counselor about summer internships. I am sure the counselor provided good advice, but what I remember most is that she told me to straighten my hair, nice and smooth and professional. Relevant context: I am a Black woman. I am very light/ambiguous-presenting and have spiral curly hair. This bit about the hair was common advice. My grandmother also told me to be sure to press my hair straight for job interviews. I assure you, my Nana wants nothing but success for me. However, let us agree that harmful intent is not required for harmful impact.

This advice about straight hair conflates the approximation of whiteness with professionalism. This conflation is obviously hugely problematic—but I accepted it. For nearly 20 years I have straightened my hair for job interviews. And I am here to tell you that my curly hair is professional. Braids, locs, big hair, short hair, dyed hair, natural hair, wigs, and weaves are all professional. Our knowledge, preparedness, education, and skills make us professional, not our imitation of whiteness. The next time you are on a hiring committee or recruiting interns, please remember this—and speak up!

Identify microaggressions and stop excusing them.

The first row is only for attorneys. Just about every Black lawyer I know has been told something like this in a courtroom, or the even more egregious version: defendants check in over there. It doesn’t matter if this comes from well-meaning, generally kind people. The message behind the comments is simple: you don’t belong. It is exclusionary and rooted in an outdated view of the legal field where attorneys are white (and male) and Black people are defendants or in supportive administrative roles. So, what can you do, other than not question the seating arrangements of strangers in courtrooms? Be mindful of the messages you may be sending. Think twice before you tell a student or an intern you are not sure they can handle a challenging course or assignment. Interrupt when you see someone asking a Black person for ID or proof that they belong. Diversify your offices, mentees, and leadership teams.

Challenge “race-neutral” criteria.

As a former public defender, suffice it to say I have a lot of constructive criticism for the way our justice system functions. For instance, prosecutors’ offices have their own rules about who gets a dismissal—the golden ticket of a settlement (think Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal or deferred prosecution agreement). It is an intrinsically subjective process that requires prosecutor approval. In my experience, it was always easier to get the golden ticket for white clients or clients the prosecutor might see themselves in. That always troubled me. Same for the requirement that defendants/respondents have no prior contact with the criminal justice or child welfare system. What happens when you combine this requirement with years of race-based law enforcement? You get Black children in kiddie jail for not doing homework; the emergence of “affluenza;” and an invisible disparity between privileged defendants who never have to check that box to disclose past contact with the justice system and those that do.

Law school taught you how to be critical and analyze the implications of rules. Apply that brain power to the seemingly neutral rules in your field—whether its charging and sentencing or staffing decisions in your corporate office. Ask yourself: what are the implications of this rule? Not the intent, but the impact.

If you take my advice here, if you are vigilant about subtle biases in hiring; if you become more mindful of your own messaging; if you push to reform facially neutral rules with discriminatory impact, will you solve racism? No. But can you lessen the impact of racism in your sphere? I really, really hope so.

ALAIN MASSENA '00

"The constant drumbeat of progressive, radical, and imaginative initiatives for equality and justice must continue to flow. Unfortunately, our efforts will fall short of the stars and the moon without the collective will of a nation to aim our next moonshot at the heart of racism in America."

Do we have the imagination necessary to effect the change we seek? Is there space within our hearts and minds to think differently and birth a new nation where all people are truly free? Where is the path forward?

The problem of the color line that we have faced from the formation of this nation can be solved. How do I know this to be true? Whitey on the Moon, the title of the poem from the late and great Gil Scott-Heron, best summarizes my theory on what is wrong and what is capable for this nation, our United States of America.

The singular focus that our nation exhibited in landing a human being on the moon demonstrates the infinite possibilities of powers within our reach. To hear pundits and experts constantly discuss the intractability of the race problem reeks of intellectual dishonesty. Why? Because Whitey’s on the Moon. To know that a nation within less than 200 years of its founding performed the unimaginable is to understand that, with an unshakable commitment to a singular goal, the heavens lie within arm’s reach, and our original sin can be cleansed.

This begs the question, why not racism, why not poverty, why not adequate housing and health care—but Whitey’s on the Moon? We have failed to fully invest in human capital. We have purposefully chosen to divest in segments of our population to the benefit of the white male segment of our population. This divestment has been intentional and systematic and has been supported by all institutions we hold dear.

Layleen Polanco, a transgender woman of color with epilepsy, died while being held in solitary confinement unable to post $500 bail! If we are unable to protect a community that faces attacks of racism, sexism, and homophobia, who can we protect? The cruelty of this avoidable death exposes the lie of American exceptionalism. Where is the moon-dust for the Layleen Polanco’s of the world?

We must replicate the collective will of a nation that landed a man on the moon to finally solve the problem of the color line. As a result of the awakening of 2020, we have witnessed an unending laundry list of actionable items. Proposed solutions to the problem of racism have spanned from defunding the police to reparations. Each and every effort made towards denting the fortress of inequity is a worthy effort. It will advance our society and aid in forming a more perfect union. The constant drumbeat of progressive, radical, and imaginative initiatives for equality and justice must continue to flow. Unfortunately, our efforts will fall short of the stars and the moon without the collective will of a nation to aim our next moonshot at the heart of racism in America.

In the 1960s, great advancements were made towards social justice for all Americans, in particular people of color and women, and we capped this decade of immense change by landing on the moon in July of 1969. What truly strikes me about our nation’s race to the moon is that failure was not an option. Where would we be today in terms of equality and justice if the 1960’s moonshot was aimed inward and failure was also not an option. A moonshot aimed at truly stamping out racism. A moonshot aimed at eradicating sexism. A moonshot aimed at wiping out inequity and elevating human dignity.

2020 is a year of awakening, it is also a year of reckoning. Presently, where is the collective aim of our nation? Are we finally ready in this 21st century to solve the problem of the color line? We as attorneys are uniquely qualified to carry the mantle of social engineers; to be bold in the utilization of our skills and talent to propel us forward and inward. We must continue to chip away at the fortress of inequity until our nation’s will is united towards finally taking a moonshot inward to end racism. When that day comes then we can all walk on the moon.

M. ANDRE OGE '20

"So, where do we go from here? What are we left with besides a depressing inevitability that anti-racism will disappear into the noise? Hope. When a trend evolves into a lifestyle of constant work and dedication to a particular outcome, the end result is lasting change."

Trends fade. They come and go, but eventually always fade. The recent murder of George Floyd is not a trend. It’s a staple of American society that harkens back to Emmitt Till. Violence, brutality, and senseless murder rightfully shocks the nation, creating cries for “Equality” and “Freedom.” However, the constant presence of such issues ends up making social change trendy. So how do we solve racism? How do we make anti-racism the new staple of our cultural world? Consistency.

When we discuss anti-racism, we must discuss the elephant in the room: out of sight out of mind. Not all communities are created equal and not all communities have to experience the negative implications of racist policies. This separation creates a tendency to “other” those suffering from racial afflictions. These specific communities are untouched, existing in a bubble of socio-economic commonality that shields them from the harsh realities that others face every single day. Thus, when issues of race arise, members of these communities will hide behind their shield and remain insolated.

Racism’s sword is subtle proliferations. Age-old stereotypical discussions, such as spouting “black on black crime,” became re-energized through perpetuations of sayings like “all lives matter.” Making true statements that purposely miss the mark serve as targeted distractions. These distractions are digestible, pleasant, and even sometimes well-intentioned naiveté. They help create ignorance. Ignorance sells.

Feigning ignorance equates to a coin toss, the other side being performative appeasement. Instead of passing a new civil rights bill, Senators wear Kente cloths on Capitol Hill and organizations spray paint Black Lives Matter on 5th Avenue. Once again, these acts are well intentioned, pleasant, and digestible. They are niceties meant to address wrongs, but always distract from real change. Ultimately, whatever side of the coin you land on, we all lose. Social change remains trendy.

The fact of the matter is that long before George Floyd was murdered, our elected officials and favorite corporate entities knew that their actions were racist in nature. Instead of employing redemptive methods, they waited to ride a wave. Social change becomes cool for a season, evolving into the focus of certain buzzwords, and headlines. However, the fight for anti-racism doesn’t seem to last. Why? Because it’s uncomfortable. It’s difficult. It’s hard conversations with relatives that you love and never imagined as being racist in any way. It is the playing out over and over of not being able to tell the good cops from the bad, even though we are told they are all good. It’s the insistence that racism is dead, when in fact it’s not even well hidden. It’s constant subversion.

So, where do we go from here? What are we left with besides a depressing inevitability that anti-racism will disappear into the noise? Hope. When a trend evolves into a lifestyle of constant work and dedication to a particular outcome, the end result is lasting change. The good news is that the seeds have already been planted in the current generation, my generation. With the widespread technological evolution and growth of social media, young people are able to share their collective experiences and voices. With our own personalized platforms, we are able to speak up about racial injustice and make this fight against racism constant and present. Yet, social media is only the beginning.

When The late John Lewis advocated for getting into “good trouble,” he was talking about real advocacy itself. He was talking about being uncomfortable. He was talking about having those hard conversations and taking stances that are not always welcomed. Most of all, he was talking about remaining dedicated. To ensure that anti-racism is more than just a fad, or a trend requires dedicated focus. It demands that we never let the conversation get lost in the noise.

To put it simply, we must become the change we want to see. The real work isn’t a grand, performative gesture. It’s a compilation of daily, little steps taken by a vast number of individuals. We do not have to be stuck in the past or accept that, somehow, we are playing victim when we bring up these issues. If we want to create an anti-racist outer world, it starts with how each of us constructs our inner world. Perhaps it is a war that can never be won, but it is a war that must be waged. By constantly enforcing anti-racism in our regular lives, we evolve anti-racism from a trend into a lasting change.

Jamel Oeser-Sweat '01

"We must continue to fight and not be pacified by words that promise change. My ancestors, through their spirituals, taught that simply singing “wade in the water” did not lead to freedom."

Law School taught me the power and allure of laws that allow for the exclusion of some and that benefit those not excluded. While some people make millions under these laws, others are denied access to technology, or are subjected to arrest and deprivation of liberty. What may seem like exaggeration or trickery would not seem that way to the small business owner selling unauthorized designer shirts or bags to put food on the table for yet another day. Or consider the family of a person who has a loved one dying of a disease when treatment is out of reach due to the cost of a patent-protected medicine.

Proponents of these laws believe that they help our society advance, despite their being used to exclude some people. I have seen the law embraced by the general population, and I have seen countless people covet their benefits. I have also seen people rise up and seek to change these laws to make them less archaic.

What may surprise you is that I am referring to intellectual property laws: copyrights, trademarks, and patents. These laws literally stand for the premise that one should have a limited monopoly over some item and the right to exclude others. Our country’s obsession with protecting inventions, brands, and artwork is a secret lesson in the existence and allure of systems designed to exclude others and convey benefit to small groups.

The parallels between the exclusion of others using intellectual property laws and the exclusion of others using a host of laws which convey rights and benefits to a majority in this country over minorities are striking. In order to prevail against a municipality in a civil rights case, for example, an attorney must literally show a connection between a policy or procedure set forth by a decision maker that the people being harmed may have never met or may not even know have harmed them. The law creates amazing obstacles to minorities or others being excluded or adversely affected.

Our country once again in its history purports to be in a period of great change, one in which we have acknowledged the disparities which have led to the exclusion of minorities in countless areas: from discriminatory laws, to lack of employment opportunities and limited access to medical resources, to over policing. The hashtag #blacklivesmatters has been used by individuals and corporations. There has been acknowledgement of systematic disparities and, in some cases, actions which seem to serve as an apology for deprivations of civil rights.

What are we going to do?

A powerful lesson that we have been taught since childhood is that an apology without any real meaning is a facade for the true order of operations. Children are indoctrinated with the words Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally, or PEMDAS, to reinforce their understanding that there is an immutable order to how things happen in mathematics and in this universe. We are taught not just about the message in the message, but that an apology often serves as the enteric coating for lessons about the true order of things. Ironically, in this country, when minorities react to their plight, it often leads to all sorts of orders intended to bring order, which further reinforce that initial lesson. Seemingly legitimate lawful orders have included “Send in the Water Hoses” and “Send in the Dogs.” No two words are more synonymous with deprivations of civil rights than the command/subliminal message “stop resisting.”

As an attorney, the same court system that requires me to sit through a CLE on diversity and inclusion required me to use my legal name as my law firm name even though publications from the Harvard Business Review to the ABA Journal have reported that people using minority names have a more difficult time getting jobs and call backs. These rules are allegedly set to be changed this year. For most of my career, I was denied the benefits of the laws I mentioned at the outset, which allow for the usage of brands to get an advantage over others. I was forced to compete on an uneven playing field and identify myself as an ethnic minority through law firm naming rules.

Whatever is next, I am sure it will start with an empty apology. In this case there was never acknowledgement of the effects of these rules on minorities, but rather, they were changed based on First Amendment challenges. We must continue to fight and not be pacified by words that promise change. My ancestors, through their spirituals, taught that simply singing “wade in the water” did not lead to freedom. One must take affirmative actions towards change. Sometimes the helping hand you need is attached to your own two wrists.

I am not throwing away my shot.

Catherine Sims '14C, '15G, '22L

"While none of us created the present oppressive system, we are all equally responsible for using resources to educate ourselves about our identities and our roles in upholding the system. We all are responsible for unlearning behaviors that do not center marginalized communities. However, the learning process is not just an intellectual exercise. It requires us to connect with our history in a different way and view our daily experiences through a different lens."

Law school pushes so many of us to the verge of burnout. Social justice and anti-racism work also push many of us to the verge of burnout.

Law students are well aware that job prospects depend on grades. The law school experience is hypercompetitive and can make you feel as though your only value is reflected by a letter grade indicating how well you can outperform your classmates.

Social justice work and anti-racism work are largely on social media now due to the pandemic. There is huge pressure to have a social media presence—pressure to catch every informative post, call to action, and appear knowledgeable on every aspect of every issue.

I participated in vigils, countless organizing calls, and virtual events. Hell, I’m tired. Fear for my own health, the health of my loved ones, and the persistent fear that’s always there as a Black person living in the United States add to the complexity of being a law student and being an anti-racist advocate. I had to pause and remind myself that, while we’re at home, clicking every informative post and attending every protest isn’t the only way anti-racism work can be done.

Anti-racism work takes various forms. I do this work by advocating for myself at St. John’s Law. I’m the Director of Community Outreach for the National Black Law Students Association. I’m a trainer for the Center for Racial Justice in Education. I’m a board member of Building Opportunities Opening Minds.

The titles are not what make me an anti-racist, but instead it’s the work itself.

I organize for black joy. I move with intention and purpose actively unlearning all norms that do not center and uplift my community. I do this by staying deeply connected to loved ones, being gentle with myself, and centering Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC).

How does one balance performing well academically, while also doing anti-racism work?

At a Diversity in Leadership Conference hosted by Leadership for Educational Equity in 2017 I learned to ask myself daily: How do I practice my truth? Here are some of the ways:

I rest.

I pray.

I meditate.

I practice yoga.

I eat a mostly plant-based diet.

I drink water.

I ask myself every day how I practice my truth to stay grounded and reminded to take care of my mind and my body first before anything else.

My physical, emotional, and spiritual health all weigh heavily on my ability to perform academically. In addition to intentionally setting a study schedule that allows me to complete the readings and outline, I am intentional about creating time to care for myself.

I walk by faith that God and my ancestors are with me every step of the way. I draw strength from the power, love, and resilience of my ancestors. I am allowing my body and mind to be a conduit so that my workmanship honors God and my ancestors every day. This process is deeply personal and requires self-reflection and growth.

There is no book that will undo a lifetime of internalized racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, and all the other isms.

Don’t get me wrong. While none of us created the present oppressive system, we are all equally responsible for using resources to educate ourselves about our identities and our roles in upholding the system. We all are responsible for unlearning behaviors that do not center marginalized communities. However, the learning process is not just an intellectual exercise. It requires us to connect with our history in a different way and view our daily experiences through a different lens.

I’m thankful to be a law student at this time as a heterosexual, cis-gendered, able-bodied, Black woman of faith. I’m grateful to be surrounded by people who challenge me and keep me grounded. I’m also blessed to have a family that pulls me to my roots and lovingly reminds me to take care of myself so I don’t burnout.

Within the St. John’s Law community we have to love each other and hold each other accountable. I think those two things are the key to transformative work that’s not performative, but truly brings lasting change.

Chanel Smith '16

"We must truly commit to diversifying our classrooms and places of employment, because diversity means nothing if we only get people to the door and never through it."

The world continues to be shocked and shaken by the visual deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and others. But for Black Americans, our parents have spent our entire lives preparing and warning us about these situations. When we see the deaths of these individuals, we find ourselves wondering are we next?

It is no secret that many of us have been judged based on the color of our skin and have had opportunities withheld from us. Yet we find ourselves consistently defending why certain actions are offensive or downright racist, like the constant shooting of unarmed Black men and women. We also find ourselves almost always outnumbered at school, at work, and in social settings. That is systemic racism.

As an attorney in Family Court, I have witnessed racism and bias dismantle the lives of people of color, often from impoverished communities. Judges and attorneys, who lack the understanding of complex issues faced by these communities, often make decisions solely based on their preconceived notions and bias. Family reunification is nearly impossible because it is heavily based on services that are ineffective, unavailable, or inadequately funded. I struggle with regulations that expose Black children to trauma associated with removal and extended stays in foster care, leading some of them on a pathway of destruction or mental illness. That is systemic racism.

How do we as a law school community break these systems created to dismantle the lives of minority families and inhibit the success of people of color, particularly African Americans? By educating those who make and enforce the law while keeping them accountable for what they see, hear and do. Nearly all of us are molded by our social upbringings, education, and interactions with others. Thus, it is crucial to expose racial bias not only in our community, but also in places of employment and professional settings.

We must truly commit to diversifying our classrooms and places of employment, because diversity means nothing if we only get people to the door and never through it. Thus, there has to be an increase in attendance amongst people of color in our classrooms, employment offices and respective organizations. We should strive to guarantee that all students are receiving equal opportunities to thrive in our profession. Without this, we reinforce the idea that people of color are still disadvantaged in professional development and advancement. We must further commit to diversifying the staff and administration so that students have further exposure to expansive dialogues and different opinions as it relates to race in the law. We cannot expect stereotypes, biases and personal perspectives of others to change if we do not expose them to interactions with people of color.

Furthermore, we should aim to add more curriculum and clinical experiences that address racial impact in the law. It is taught that the law is blind. Yet many laws disproportionately affect African Americans and people of color. It would be great to see more classes taught from this perspective and clinics specifically aimed to represent those targeted by racial bias. These additions would give students more insight and exposure to what is truly happening in our communities. We should also continue to provide implicit bias trainings and safe spaces for dialogue amongst students, staff and administration to ensure that people are not jaded and already accustomed to their biases once in practice.

Last, we must no longer make excuses for bias comments, or direct and indirect actions taken by those around us. I have heard many chilling stories from students and colleagues regarding their time in law school. Many were ridiculed by staff and belittled by other students. I too was affected by bias when I was a student and even now as an attorney. Educating others includes correcting ignorance. Too often we have pacified fellow colleagues who express their inability to be knowledgeable about biases faced by African Americans and people of color because they either have not been directly affected or have been misinformed. We need to have hard conversations to show people that their way of thinking is actually offensive!

There is no easy fix to breaking systemic racism. Change comes only when truly desired. By taking these simple steps in our legal community, we are showing that we care about the culture that is being created. I hope we all begin to care and invest more into making our profession better and welcoming to all.

Pharoah Sutton-Jackson '21

"Your education in many respects is an independent journey of evolution. So is your acclimation to your own form of advocacy and activism. Do not feel compelled to compare yourself to others. There are many different roles in a movement for change, and all are vital."

I was a Philosophy major in college, largely because of my fascination with people. My curiosity frequently leads me to observe how people respond and react to different situations. For some people, no matter the magnitude of the context, they know what they must do. They know what is right for them. For others, the grave stakes are not nearly as troubling as the resulting ambiguity of the right course of action. For the latter group, those emotions are often compounded by a sense of powerlessness and invisibility.

In 2012, following the murder of Trayvon Martin, I found myself in that latter group. I thought, I’m just a high school student, what can I do? In the years since, I have observed that, for people who shared that disposition, the feeling can persist through college and even post-graduate education. This feeling of I’m just a student. Yet, history teaches us that, traditionally, young students have been one of the most impactful factions in movements for change. Still, this does not provide much guidance or instruction for a student who is lost.

In my two years at St. John’s Law, I have been fortunate enough to discover some of the ways in which I am empowered as a student. The experiences I have had and the activities I have participated in contributed to my construction of a personal framework for service and advocacy. In Summer 2020, on the heels of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I knew exactly how I needed to respond. To be clear, that knowledge brought me no extra comfort as I grappled with the vicarious trauma. It did, however, give me confidence, direction, and, most importantly, the feeling that there is something that I can do to contribute. I hope that by sharing the following five directives, other students of all ages may discover their own power.

1. Educate yourself. Being a full-time student is a place of strength not weakness. So many of our issues as a society stem from ignorance and misinformation. Arm yourselves with knowledge and perspective.

2. Lean into the skills and interests you already have. If you are a writer, write. If you like to talk, start a dialogue. Obviously, you want to grow and develop other skills. But if you don't know where to start, start with what you know and already do regularly.

3. Tap into your local community. That could be your circle of friends, your school, your faith community, your neighborhood, or your job. Be in tune with the spaces you frequent and the people you deal with the most. Make sure you have lines of communication, mentors, and peers to collaborate with.

4. Recognize and identify a need. What's missing? What’s not being addressed or attended to? What’s not being talked about? What work is not being done that could and/or should be?

5. Find a way to be of service. What are people already doing? How can doing what you do well help them accomplish their goals? What can you provide? Time? Resources? How can you cater to what is needed?

The five actions I just listed are within the capacity of every student at the graduate, undergraduate, and high school level. How the culmination of this approach manifests is different for everyone. Just as everyone learns differently, everyone may respond differently. Your education in many respects is an independent journey of evolution. So is your acclimation to your own form of advocacy and activism. Do not feel compelled to compare yourself to others. There are many different roles in a movement for change, and all are vital. If you discover yours in a genuine, informed, and introspective way, then be confident in your ability to perform and secure in the necessity of your contributions.

Now, get to work.

Professor Cheryl L. Wade

"There are many contexts in which unacknowledged, unaddressed systemic racism destroys lives, drains wealth, erodes homeownership, and compromises health in Black communities."

As I left my mother’s home in a middle class, all-Black Queens neighborhood, I noticed two white police officers in a car parked in front of her house. One of the officers gave me a friendly wave, and they quickly pulled off and parked several houses away. I noticed a small pile of trash where the police car had been—directly in front of my mother’s home just at the point where the sidewalk meets the street. It was mid-April, the height of New York City’s battle with COVID-19. The officers had dropped used gloves and masks in front of her house.

Could the officers have inadvertently dropped the gloves outside as they sat inside their vehicle, I wondered. Would I risk infection if I picked up the items to properly dispose of them? Instead of taking that risk, I drove down the block where the officers were parked. “Hi officers,” I said through open car windows. “You dropped some used masks and gloves in front of my mother’s house.” They didn’t make any excuses. They didn’t act surprised. One officer politely said, “We’ll go back and pick them up. Sorry.”

I share this story because it demonstrates how individual and systemic racism are inextricably linked, and how difficult it is to figure out whether bias is implicit or conscious. Would the officers have discarded potentially contaminated masks and gloves in a predominantly white middle-class neighborhood? If the answer to this question is no, the story may reveal the officers’ implicit bias that caused them to unconsciously disregard the aspirations of Black homeowners to live in a community free of litter. Or, their decision may have derived from explicit racial animus.

But the distinction between implicit and conscious bias seems inconsequential. The potentially negative consequences to residents’ health and the value of their property is the same regardless of the implicit or conscious nature of the bias. How transformative it would be for police departments to acknowledge the potential inevitability of racism (implicit and conscious) and demand that officers behave in communities of color as they would in white neighborhoods.

There has been a great deal of discussion about implicit bias in the years leading up to the 2020 protests against systemic racism in police departments. These times remind us of the terrible relevance of both implicit and conscious bias, and the need to negotiate both individual and systemic racism. Systemic approaches to anti-racism can address individual biases whether implicit or conscious. Criminal justice, financial, and educational systems—all of society’s systems—must engage in this work.

There are many contexts in which unacknowledged, unaddressed systemic racism destroys lives, drains wealth, erodes homeownership, and compromises health in Black communities. In a book I coauthored with Dr. Janis Sarra, Predatory Lending and the Destruction of the African American Dream, we examine one of those contexts—the system of intentional anti-Black racism on the part of financial institutions that engaged in predatory mortgage lending.

Since the 2008 global financial crisis, more than 17 million Americans have lost homes to foreclosure, with Black Americans disproportionately affected by the sub-prime mortgage market meltdown. Black Americans were four times as likely as similarly situated white Americans to pay sub-prime rates on their mortgages, even when controlling for factors such as borrower income and property location. Millions of middle class and high-income Black Americans who qualified for regular fixed-rate, long-term mortgages were steered to sub-prime mortgages as lenders capitalized on years of structural racism. Mortgage lenders charged excessively high rates and fees, engaged in high-pressure sales tactics, imposed unnecessarily harsh pre-payment penalties, and distorted loan structures to avoid the application of consumer protection statutes.

Black borrowers were victims of overt, not implicit, bias. Former loan officers at Wells Fargo, for example, testified in depositions that Black borrowers were referred to as “mud people” and the loans were called “ghetto loans.” One former Wells Fargo officer said that Black borrowers were targeted for predatory mortgages because they were not considered “savvy” enough to know better. (White borrowers were not systematically targeted for sub-prime mortgages, so their savviness was not tested.) Racially discriminatory predatory lending was inspired by individual loan officers’ desire for bonuses “earned” by steering borrowers to sub-prime loans even when they qualified for lower cost mortgages. This desire combined with the overt and intentional racism of individual loan officers, and it was fostered by financial systems that profited from the racism of individuals by pooling the predatory mortgages and selling them to investors.

Predatory lending to Black Americans has prevented many from reaping the benefits of homeownership and accumulating wealth that can be passed from generation to generation. By exploring this predation in depth, and exposing its root causes and enduring impact on the racial wealth gap, my co-author and I hope to contribute meaningfully to the ongoing discourse about implicit and conscious anti-Black racism that pervades our society’s systems and structures.

WE WELCOME YOUR FEEDBACK

We hope you found this special digital edition of St. John's Law magazine featuring the Anti-Racism Essay Project informative and meaningful. As always, we welcome your feedback. You can email Lori Herz, the Law School's Director of Communications and the Essay Project's creator and editor, at herzl@stjohns.edu.