Recognizing Systemic Racism Starts with Self-Reflection

Jul 10, 2020

I was wearing a navy suit with a red tie.

I walked into the courtroom to prepare for my hearing. In my right hand was a brown leather briefcase, filled with files needed to conduct my hearing. I moved past the seating area of the courtroom, which was relatively full for the morning docket, to the front of the courtroom where many lawyers were scattered at the counsel tables and in the jury box, waiting for their cases to be called. I received many confused looks, which was not uncommon, but this time someone decided to vocalize their thoughts.

Next I heard:

“The front of the courtroom is reserved for lawyers only.”

There was no question, only an assumption that because I was black, I was not a lawyer, and therefore not a member of their exclusive club. I matriculated through law school and passed the bar, just like the lawyer who made hurtful comment. This is just one of many experiences where I felt left out and unwelcome in the legal profession because of my skin color. These experiences are not unique to me. Many of my black colleagues have shared stories of similar experiences. These experiences are so common that many black attorneys expect to hear racially insensitive comments on a regular basis.

The murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have caused a racial awakening in America. Although all the issues we are now confronting have been present since the beginning of the American republic, people of all races are looking to stand up, speak out, and eradicate systemic racism in our culture.

You may be wondering what you can do to combat the same injustices that take place in the legal profession? We can all start with a little self-reflection.

Watch commercial television for one hour, especially during prime time. Take note of how many black actors you see in commercials and shows. When you do see a black actor, note the role and context of the character, specifically – how many black characters are in roles of authority or control? For example, in pharmaceutical commercials where the benefits of a particular medication are explained by someone “playing a doctor on tv,” how often is that “doctor” black?

How many car commercials do you see? Chances are a lot. In those commercials, how often is the salesperson or expert who explains the awards or runs the comparisons with other models black? Investment firms, insurance companies, and law firms – how many blacks advertise these products and services? On commercials for high-end vacations, note the race of the characters being served in tropical luxury and that of those doing the serving. In airline commercials, count how many black pilots you see.

Now back to your TV show. Same analysis: If race is not relevant to the storyline, how many black actors portray characters in positions of authority, as compared to characters in need, trouble, or simply in the background?

At the conclusion of your one hour of reflection, consider the overall ratio of black characters in positions of authority or for which a professional degree is required in relation to the overall number of individuals you saw on TV in one hour. Now consider your professional world – how many black attorneys do you regularly interact with? How many judges?

Take a close look at your organization’s leadership. Who is in the C-Suite or on the executive committee? Do the faces reflect a diverse and welcoming organization? Does your organization have metrics and provide real incentives for the advancement of diversity initiatives?
If not, be an advocate for change. Force your organization to take a hard look in the mirror. Change in this profession is only going to occur by taking drastic steps, not by making performative public statements quoting black leaders.

Recognizing racial issues affecting the legal profession is just the beginning. I was wearing the suit and tie, but still was not welcomed in the “lawyers only” section. There is much more work to be done.

Jason Stuckey is an associate with Bricker & Eckler LLP. His practice focuses on labor and employment matters for educational institutions. Lori Anthony is Section Chief of Civil Rights in the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. She oversees AGO civil rights litigation statewide in employment, housing, public accommodations, credit, and higher education, and serves on the CBA’s D&I and UPL Committees. Stuckey and Anthony serve on the CBA’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee. Visit cincybar.org/groups/DIV to read the CBA’s Diversity Statement and for more information.print