Known as “the man who killed Jim Crow,” the great Charles Hamilton Houston once said to his Howard University Law School students that “a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” And the Honorable Thurgood Marshall, his mentee, credited Houston with teaching him that “the practice of law could and should serve as a tool for creating equality in society.” As these wise words from two prominent and heroic African American social engineers indicate, the contributions of African American attorneys have and should continue to be a tool for creating equality in society.
In recent times, from the late Congressman Elijah E. Cummings and the late Congresswoman Barbara Jordan to the great Bryan Stevenson and Marianne Wright Edelman, countless African American attorneys have remained in the fight for equality and continue to fight for civil rights, social justice, and meaningful progress. They, too, are our heroes. In fact, to every social engineer who has contributed equal justice in some way, shape, or form—you are a hero too. We are our heroes. But Charles Hamilton Houston believed that attorneys were one extreme or the other, either helpful or harmful, and that there is no in between. I agree.
It’s not my intention to judge or critique what an attorney has been doing and whether it’s enough. Whatever the contribution—large or small, public or private—efforts are heroic if they contribute in some way to positive change in our society. Acknowledging that many African American lawyers nowadays did not seek a legal education to be heroic or to contribute to eliminating inequality, I believe that there is still an obligation to do so. But I realize that life often and inevitably gets in the way. How do you give back while trying to balance a demanding job, fulfill family responsibilities, and “live your best life” at the same time?
I’m asking you to consider that your best life (and the best lives of the generations behind you) might only be achieved when our collective lives are at their best—and we still have a long way to go. While we have made tremendous progress since slavery and segregation, thanks to the hard work of the social engineers committed to these causes dismantling these institutions, our plight is far from over. Black America is still currently faced with so many adverse disparities that either remain from slavery or have evolved into new methods of oppression in the form of mass incarceration, health disparities, unconscious bias encounters in all areas of life, wealth disparities, the school to prison pipeline, inequality in housing, and the persistent killing of unarmed black people, to name only a few. In short, we need more heroes to continue the fight for equality.
Even though our actions may not directly cause these societal plagues, our silence or our failure to act may be viewed as complicity. When we don’t object to an unjust law or policy, aren’t we sending a subliminal message that implies support? When we fail to act, are we unconsciously consenting to the wrongdoing? An indifferent response to the ills of society can be as damaging as directly causing those ills yourself, especially when you have the education, skillset, and resources to help remedy those ills. This, I believe, is what Charles Hamilton Houston meant by “parasite on society.” There is still no in between.
I’m not suggesting that you go argue the next Brown v. Board of Education landmark case before the Supreme Court. I’m not even suggesting that you change your practice area to civil rights (although we would welcome it). I am, however, suggesting that we have an ethical obligation to be a part of the solution.
In addition to issues that directly harm African Americans, the African American voice lends value to the advancement of equality in areas that affect all Americans. Regardless of how or what you choose to contribute, our collective voices are necessary to the implementation of positive change. The heroes—the social engineers of our time—are among us. They are us.
Lending your voice to these conversations is essential. Have the courage to speak up. And while some may be uncomfortable having these conversations, these discussions are crucial nevertheless. Progress and positive change are never easy, and they certainly are never comfortable.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from the great Charles Hamilton Houston. “A social engineer [is] a highly skilled, perceptive, sensitive lawyer who [understands] the Constitution of the United States and [knows] how to explore its uses in the solving of problems of local communities and in bettering conditions of the underprivileged citizens.”
How can you be a social engineer? How can you be a hero? Serve on a committee within the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice (CRSJ) Section. Organize or participate on an educational panel/webinar; take on a civil rights pro bono matter; draft an ABA resolution; author a white paper on a compelling legal issue; draft model legislation that can be utilized by state legislatures all over the country; write an amicus brief for a social justice case; submit comments to a proposed regulation. Mentor a young lawyer; volunteer as an election protection attorney; become civically engaged. Problem-solving comes in many forms and there are countless ways to contribute. There are countless ways to be a hero. For those of you looking for a way to become or continue to be the social engineer you were trained to be, there is plenty to do within CRSJ. I welcome you to join us!
This article is written in the author’s personal capacity and the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services or the United States government.
Angela J. Scott is chair-elect of the ABA Civil Rights and Social Justice Section. She is a former prosecutor and currently serves as a civil rights attorney-advisor for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).