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I Wish I'd Known - Michael Nava

Michael Nava

I Wish I'd Known - Michael Nava

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One afternoon in 1980, as I was sitting in the courtyard of Stanford Law School, I overheard two of my classmates—White guys—talking about the “minority” students at the school, one of them assuring the other, “They’re all affirmative action admits.”

It wasn’t a neutral observation, but clearly disparaging. It’s true that I’m the grandson of Mexican immigrants and from a poor family, the first in my family to receive a higher education. It’s also true that in college, I was an A student, won awards for writing, edited the college’s literary magazine, was the recipient of a Watson Fellowship, graduated cum laude, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

However, to my smug classmates, I was an intellectual inferior admitted to Stanford in the interest of what’s now called political correctness.

Finding the Right Fit

I spent my two law school summers working at law firms because I needed the money. Those experiences taught me that, while I could do the work, the virtually all-male, all-White, and completely straight (I’m also a gay man) culture of those firms would suffocate me.

Instead, upon graduation and passing the bar—on my first try, by the way—I entered public service. For most of my career, I worked as a judicial attorney in the California appellate courts, first at the California Court of Appeal as staff attorney to Arleigh Maddox Woods—the first African American woman appointed to that court. Later, I worked at the California Supreme Court where, among other posts, I was on the staff of Carlos Moreno, only the third Latino on the court.

Justices Woods and Moreno represented earlier generations of people of color who defied stereotypes and endured their own brushes with racism to become accomplished and respected jurists.

Your Place Is Here

Over the years, I’ve mentored law students of color who are entering a profession in which their communities are still drastically underrepresented. Even here in the supposedly liberal and diverse California, the state bar reports that 70 percent of licensed lawyers are White, while Whites make up less than 40 percent of the state’s population.

People of color entering the profession have to be bicultural. That is, they have to learn to navigate the upper-middle-class White culture that dominates the profession from the starting point of their own ethnically, racially, and often economically different cultures. By contrast, few White lawyers ever have sustained or had meaningful contact with Black, Latino, or Asian-Pacific Islander communities, even as those communities, in California and elsewhere, taken together, constitute a demographic majority subject to the law.

What I’d tell my mentees is this: Yes, the legal profession often feels unwelcoming to us, but you must fight for your place in it and keep the gate open for others to follow. This isn’t merely a matter of personal accomplishment but a social necessity.

If the status quo remains intact, we’ll have created a kind of apartheid system where members of a racial minority—Whites—exercise control over a legal system that has its greatest impacts on a non-White majority. In time, the legitimacy of that system will inevitably be eroded.

Overcoming Casual Racism

I was stunned and discouraged by the casual racism of my Stanford classmates. Between their comments and my experiences as a summer associate, I wasn’t sure there was a place for me in the profession. In fact, I seriously considered dropping out at the end of my first year.

As it turns out, there was a place for me in the profession, but I and my generation of lawyers of color basically had to create it from scratch. And so much more work remains to be done. To the law students who read this, both those of color and those White law students who ally themselves with us, I urge you to take up the challenge to make our legal system truly representative of the people it serves.