Goal IX Newsletter

Winter 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

Re-Education of the Establishment - One Lawyer at a Time by: Charlene L. Usher

In the new millennium, prosperity and abundance abound in America. The national debt has been reduced significantly, inflation and unemployment are at record lows, and many minorities are experiencing greater levels of wealth and prominence.

Charlene L. Usher

Despite the gains made by some, however, we continue to hear of events like racial profiling, or being caught DWB—driving while black or brown. We are horrified to know that the racially motivated dragging death of James Byrd in Texas could happen in these times. It is offensive and bewildering that a distinguished scientist can experience the unjust treatment that Wen Ho Lee endured mainly due to his ethnic background (see article on page 5). We are faced with legislation such as California’s Proposition 209 that will likely change the face of the future legal profession.

Although some people may wonder why there is a need for diversity consciousness, most can look to these recent events and understand its necessity, particularly as the U.S. population grows more diverse each day. Some individuals and groups are working to make a difference in the legal profession by re-educating lawyers about their perceptions, attitudes, and sometimes unintentional or seemingly innocuous racially discriminatory behavior. One such person is retired Oregon Supreme Court Justice Edwin Peterson, who has founded an organization in Salem, Oregon, called Understanding Racism.

After working on a commission to study bias in the judicial system, Justice Peterson concluded that many white decision makers in the court system, law firms, and the legal community in general held subconscious biases. Along with other Oregonian lawyers, Justice Peterson established Understanding Racism, a nonprofit group that conducts six-week seminars on diversity.

The program is designed to help majority and minority lawyers and judges to examine their views of minority lawyers, recognize racist thinking that may have been passed down through generations, and begin to change such thinking. For example, one part of the program helps participants explore their hiring and promotion decisions and their expectations of minority lawyers, which often are lower than expectations for non-minority lawyers. Participants in the cost-free seminar meet weekly to participate in discussions and presentations that encourage them to see themselves in a different light.

 Justice Peterson states that the program has been successful in changing the attitudes— in “meaningful, relevant ways”—of some people who take the course. Participants, many of whom have voluntarily taken the course, often comment that they did not think they had any racial bias issues. Jeffrey Batchelor, a white male who grew up in Portland had limited exposure to minorities. Batchelor, now married to an Asian woman, states, “like almost everyone in this country, I have racist thoughts. I just didn’t appreciate it.”

Duane Bosworth, a white male raised in an urban environment, had had little exposure to minorities until working with the Oregon Urban League. After completing the program, Bosworth states, “I am more convinced than ever that there [is] an urgent need” for such a program.

Minority participants, such as Stella Manabe, an affirmative action program administrator in Oregon, describes participating in the program as “very emotional,” particularly because she participated with white peers and supervisors in her own workplace. Manabe, an Okinawan American, feels the program is worthwhile despite “enduring the emotional upheavals in the sessions to see a few light bulbs turn on in the group.” To facilitate interaction, the program now emphasizes participation of minority lawyers not in the same work environment of non-minority participants.

Manabe lauds those white allies who are devoted to changing racist attitudes in a predominantly white state. The general population of Oregon is approximately 93 percent white and 7 percent minority. Of the total active members of the Oregon State Bar, those members who identified themselves as minorities make up approximately 5 percent.

The administrators of the program are examining ways to improve Understanding Racism, which is in its fourth year. They are particularly interested in determining ways to monitor the long-term effectiveness of the program on participants.

Manabe, like several other former participants, is now a program facilitator. She offers these words of advice for others seeking to emulate and improve on the Understanding Racism model:

  • Structured follow-up is necessary.
  • Continuing “boosters shots” are needed to continue the program’s effectiveness.
  • There must be a willingness to overcome the discomfort to transcend dealing with racism as an intellectual exercise to dealing with racism as an emotional evolution.

The Understanding Racism workshop has been provided to law firms, the bench, government agencies, and other organizations. For more information, contact Understanding Racism Foundation; Attn: Honorable Edwin J. Peterson, c/o Willamette University School of Law; 245 Winter St. SE; Salem, OR 97301; phone: 503.375.5399, fax: 503.370.6375; e-mail: peterso@willamette.edu.

Charlene L. Usher, a California lawyer, can be reached at Law Offices of Charlene L. Usher, LLC, 1142 S. Diamond Bar Blvd., #375, Diamond Bar, CA 91765; phone: 909.629.5755.