Goal IX Newsletter

Fall 2004, Volume 10, Number 4

Please, Don't Talk About Race - Do Something: by Lawrence R. Baca, Chair

Lawrence R. Baca

I was interviewed recently for a newspaper story about race and the diversity of our profession. The author was doing a piece on the 2000 census figures and the positive changes in the numbers of minority attorneys and judges in America. I told the writer that we could certainly point to some successes in our work to bring about true diversity in the legal profession but I also told him that we had a long road ahead of us and a lot of work to do. Then I told him about the variety of programs that the Commission is involved in to bring about positive change. I always enjoy the opportunity to talk or write about the successes of the Commission's work. I particularly enjoy writing about the ripple effect our work has beyond any particular program or event that we've run. My triple crown of excitement is when it also involves students. One of our most exciting programs, one that we do in conjunction with the Judicial Division, is our Judicial Clerkship Program. Every year at the ABA Midyear Meeting we bring 50 students together with 35 or so judges to learn how law clerks work with their judges. The students have an opportunity to work very closely with judges from all levels of courts. We have had federal judges, state judges and even an American Indian tribal court judge once. Likewise our students come from schools from all around America. They spend a day and a half with the judges, listening to panels working in small groups with judges and ultimately doing a research project and producing a bench memo for their judge. Our feedback says that it is an exciting program and the students learn a great deal. And our early follow up data indicates that the students are seeking clerkships. In a world where there are woefully few judicial law clerks who are racial and ethnic minorities the fruit this program will bear will be in greater numbers of law clerks of color.

These things standing alone are indicia of a successful program. Judges who tell you that they met some excellent law students of color, law students who tell you that it was an exceptional program and that they felt they learned a great deal and students who tell you that they had the courage to apply for clerkships because of the training that your program has provided are all signs that we are on full pace towards our goal. Well, kudos to the Commissioners and Judges who made this opportunity happen. It's what happened next that puts the shine on this jewel of a program.

One group of students, the group from the University of New Mexico School of Law, wanted to share what they had learned. They did two things. First they went back to their school and conducted seminars for any student in their school who wanted to learn what they had to share from our program. The ripple effect in action. These are students who don't just talk - they do something.

Kudos to the students from UNM School of Law

They also did more. I had by happenstance sat at the same table with the students from UNM during the introductory luncheon. The were very interested in my name and where I was from and what you do as a bar leader. Part of their interest is that my name is Baca, they thought I might be a homeboy. In New Mexico you can't swing a briefcase without hitting somebody named Baca. The Mayor of Albuquerque is a Baca, one of the Justices on the Supreme Court of New Mexico is a Baca. During the course of lunch I regaled them with tales of being chair of the Commission during the time when the first African American president of the ABA served (and the second.) I mentioned to them that I get to serve during the 50th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. As an American Indian civil rights lawyer I'm getting invited to speak at more conferences this year than ever before. Somewhere in all of my babble they kept getting ideas. That brings me to the second thing the students from UNM did. They called me two weeks later and said they noticed that I was going to be in New Mexico for the Federal Bar Association's Annual Indian Law Conference. They asked me if I would stay over and be the keynote speaker at a program on Brown that they were going to organize. Of course, I said yes.

They put on an excellent program. There were educators and politicians, panels and keynoters. I spoke about the build up to Brown through Sipuel, Gaines, and McLauren and the role of Mendez v. Westminster in California where I had grown up. (See my column ...) I also addressed the legacy of Brown and its profound effect on the civil rights movement and the civil rights laws to come. I told the audience that last term's Supreme Court opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger gave us a new window of opportunity to continue the quest to bring home the dream and promise of Brown. The other keynoter was an African American professor from the law school. His opening line was that he did not celebrate Brown. He went on to tell two stories that explain his disenchantment with the Brown. Let's call him Ray - (not his real name.)

He told a story of being in the first integrated class at his high school after desegregation. He noted that with the merger of the white school and the black school that a decision was made that they would alternate student speakers at graduation, a white student one year and an African American speaker the next year. The year that he graduated was the year for the African American speaker and he was honored to be chosen to represent the class. He remembered walking out of the school towards the area where the speeches would be delivered and being approached by the school counselor who said, "Ray. Please don't talk about race." He was taken aback. His prepared speech was the usual "let's all go on to a great future" high school graduation speech. He hadn't intended to talk about race.

Today he was invited to talk about race. He told us all that he had a different view of Brown. In fact, he said he didn't celebrate Brown. He noted that he liked to collect old yearbooks from schools, especially ones from the old segregated schools. He spoke of the enjoyment he got of looking at his own elementary school class picture. Every one in the photo looked like him. For the Supreme Court to say that one race schools were wrong was an affront to his class picture. I was, as you might suspect, caught a bit off guard. So much so that I can't tell you much else about his speech. I kept thinking of Mr. Justice Thomas' opinion in ... where he wrote, "Why does everyone assume that just because something is all Black that it's bad." After his speech Ray told me he'd wanted use the quote that but couldn't remember the case.

I seriously considered telling him that I had a lot of sympathy with his high school counselor. I was too polite - but I wanted to say, "Ray - Please. Don't talk about race."

The students on the other hand, they were my kinda kids, they weren't just talking about race they were doing something!

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