February 08, 2019

2018 Fall Chair's Column

Image Detail

Image Detail

The Section welcomes Wilson Adam Schooley as the 2018-19 Section Chair. Mr. Schooley is also a member of the ABA Journal Board of Editors and House of Delegates, and a civil rights and indigent defense attorney, author, adjunct professor, photographer, and actor.

Are we outraged? 13 million people dragged from their beds, ripped from their families, stolen from their homes, shackled and starved, taken 8,000 miles across oceans to a foreign land, thrown together sharing little save skin color, enslaved for two and a half centuries, and terrorized and oppressed for 100 years more.

People often ask me, “Since when does everything always have to be about race?”

In America, it’s since 1619, when the first Africans were brought to Virginia, followed by 12.5 million more before 1866.

150 years later, Black American wealth is still only one tenth that of white wealth. Compared to whites, African Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed and earn nearly 25% less when they are employed. Whites get 36% more callbacks on job applications than equally qualified Black Americans. Black drivers are 30% more likely then whites to be pulled over by police. African Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites, and at least ten times the rate in five states. Black citizens are 13% of the population but 40% of the prison population. If an African American and a white American each commit the same crime, the Black person is far more likely to be arrested, and 20% more likely to be sentenced to jail time, and will face a sentence 20% longer then a white person. About one in three black men spends time behind bars during their lives, severely limiting their employment prospects on release. Black children in the criminal justice system are 18 times more likely than whites to be sentenced as adults. Even when children grow up next to each other with parents who earn similar incomes, black boys fare worse than white boys in 99 percent of America. A 2012 study found that a majority of doctors have “unconscious racial biases” against Black patients. Black home ownership is at an all time low—42% compared to 72% for whites.

Then, there are the institutional killings. African Americans make up about 13% of the population. But in 2015 they accounted for 26% of those killed by police, in 2016, 24%, and in 2017, 23% of all those killed by police. In other words, Black Americans were the victims of the lethal use of force by police at nearly twice their rate in the general population. In 2018, Black Americans have accounted for 38% of the unarmed citizens killed by police so far. That’s three times the percentage of Blacks in the U.S. population. Plainly this cannot be the result of random acts by rogue cops. It is a structural pattern of institutional lethal force against a particular race of people. But these are not just statistics. They are people. Freddie Gray. Sam Dubose. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. Alton Sterling. Jamar Clark. Jeremy McDole. William Chapman II. Walter Scott. Eric Harris. Tamir Rice. Akai Gurley. Michael Brown, Jr. Eric Garner. Tony Robinson. Rumain Brisbon. Laquan McDonald. And, just this month, Botham Shem Jean in Dallas.

All of this, and yet there seems to be at most a collective sigh in much of this country about both the history and ongoing legacy of our four century disgrace of domestic terrorism against fellow Americans who are Black.

America is not outraged over its horrific history of enslaving and oppressing people solely because of the color of their skin even though, at the very same time, Americans today do seem to be hourly outraged at nearly everything else, from being cut off in traffic to immigration to—and in—the latest tweet.

“Anger is a public epidemic in America; it contaminates everything from media controversy to road rage to wars to mass shootings,” according to Jean Kim, a psychiatrist for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and assistant professor at George Washington University. Vegans are “outraged” over the owners of a chain of plant-based restaurants who eat meat. Dancers are “outraged” about a clothing ad in which a performer who portrays a dancer isn’t a dancer. Gardeners and fisherman and even knitters are “outraged” (the U.S. Olympic Committee would not let them use the term “knitters’ Olympics”).

But somehow we don’t feel national outrage about nearly half a millennium of domestic terrorism.

For those who visit it, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is a long overdue and deep, mighty, and substantive immersion in both the disgrace and the glory of Black history in America. The good news is the museum, our most sublime cultural endowment in decades, is full every day. This year it is second only to the National Gallery in attendance among Smithsonian museums. The bad news is only a tiny percentage of Americans visit. The real “fake news” is our school-taught story of slavery and it’s aftermath. Very few Americans know our true history, much less its enduring effects. James Baldwin said: "If you don't know what happened behind you, you've no idea of what is happening around you." So hardly anyone in this country who is not Black knows anything about what it is to be Black in America in 2018.

This ABA Section, of Civil Rights and Social Justice, was born in the crucible of America’s disgrace of race. We came into being because President Kennedy, seeing the civil rights movement seething against this bitter legacy of American slavery and racial oppression, asked: “Where are American lawyers in this struggle?” To their credit, some American lawyers answered the call, and this Section was created.

Now, today, 50 years later, after that civil rights movement and landmark legislation of the 1960s, 150 years since “emancipation” and after any progress we thought we’d made since Jim Crow gripped our nation in its dirty hands, incredibly, white supremacism is mainstreaming once again.

Or, maybe, it’s not so incredible. Some of white America is aghast. But Black Americans are not surprised. They know white on black racism is in America’s DNA. The hourly struggle of living under the weight of racial oppression is like breathing polluted air—something you have to do every day; you don’t accept it, but you have to live through it with every breath from dawn to dusk. If you doubt this, try applying for a job, dealing with police at a traffic stop, taking a road trip through America’s heartland, walking a downtown street behind a group of white folks, shopping the aisles in a store, getting a table at a restaurant, or thousands of other daily activities, while Black. Everything is harder, in everything you do, and you have to be twice as good to get half the respect.

We have not as a country—and certainly not as a national bar association, or even as a Section—dealt head on with the overwhelming cumulative, enduring, daily effects of centuries of generational racism, oppression, terrorism and trauma on Black America. White on Black racism is in America’s DNA institutionally and pervasively, and America never had a period or a process of facing and reconciling what we’ve done to Black Americans—as South Africa and Germany have with their atrocities.

We can’t begin to resolve many of our other domestic crises, like mass incarceration or the crises of economic equality, without first facing our endemic American epidemic of racism.

My focus this year as Chair of the Civil Rights and Social Justice Section is on facing directly our country’s four century history of enslaving and oppressing people it drug here in chains from different parts of the African continent and threw together in slavery regardless of language or culture, and on our ongoing national denial both of that oppression and of how richly we’ve profited—in every way, intellectually, financially, culturally, artistically, scientifically—from the people we oppressed. 

Particularly as a Section forged in the Civil Rights movement, we should—we must—be in the thick of the conversation about this shameful side of the American Dream, part of creating a counter-narrative to our collective American silence on the history and continuing effects of slavery, racism, and domestic terror, and on our national enrichment from the people enslaved—how powerfully African Americans have contributed to what is indeed great about America.

We are igniting that conversation with our Fall Meeting in the belly of the deep south, a triangle of cities that was first the cradle of the confederacy and then the crucible of the 1960s civil rights struggle:  Birmingham, Montgomery, and Selma, Alabama on October 10-14. I urge you all to join us.

To further that conversation going forward, we will spend the rest of my Chair year looking head-on and clear-eyed at one of America’s two original sins—slavery, its enduring and indelible stain, and the ensuing 400 years of racism and oppression facing the descendants of slaves. In service of that commitment, we have just created a new, permanent CRSJ committee that will explore, expose, and confront the daily burdens of being Black in America, the hourly struggle of living under the weight of institutional and cultural racial oppression.

In the Spring of 2019, April 11-14, we will meet in Baltimore, Maryland, a city with a rich racial history that has long been a center of Black culture and at the forefront of civil rights issues and is—along with Birmingham and Montgomery—one of a handful of Black majority cities in America.

Please, join us in this essential American conversation.