Racial Justice: What Can We Do?

Sep 1, 2020

A closer look at racial disparity and action items for the legal community

More than 100 attorneys and members of the community tuned into the BLAC-CBA Round Table’s Racial Justice: What Can I Do? CLE, held virtually on July 16, 2020. Speakers included the Honorable Timothy Black and Honorable Jeffery Hopkins, and presentations by Ambur C. Smith of the Ohio Democratic Party and David A. Singleton of the Ohio Justice & Policy Center. 


This opportunity for the legal community to learn about and discuss ways to combat racism and social injustice as individuals and attorneys is the first of several to be held in the coming months. Be on the lookout for upcoming webinars focused on Racial Justice. In September, the BLAC-CBA Round Table will host a webinar on Anti-Racism and Addressing Systemic Racism in the Legal Profession. For the information referenced in this article, please visit cincybar.org/racial-justice.


Presented here are condensed versions of Smith and Singleton’s presentations. >> 

By Ambur C. Smith 

Today’s Black Lives Matter and anti-discrimination movement is defined by multiculturalism and elevated by technology. Amidst a global pandemic, activists have leveraged social media to spread awareness and own their narrative, organizing and inspiring protests across the world. In an election year, politicians are challenged to meet constituent demands or relinquish their power to those who will. As such, 2020 is slated to be the most transformative year in modern America, and ultimately world history. However, the extent and nature of this transformation is up to us. 


The following are seven ways we, as individuals who happen to be attorneys, can fight for racial justice, and seize the unique opportunity this moment in our local and national history presents. By doing so, we will ensure the movement for Black lives and racial justice continues long into the future. 

1. Educate Yourself 

Many conversations about anti-racism begin with the need for advocates to understand the many ways that race defines the lived experiences of all people, but particularly people of color (POC); ensuring that those who seek to champion this pervasive issue are well equipped to do so. It is especially incumbent upon non-Black or POC advocates to take full responsibility for educating themselves. 


The list of resources provided in the CBA’s Racial Justice: What Can I Do? webinar is a great place to start when seeking this essential knowledge. Once this initiative has been taken, it is then your responsibility to share what we have learned with others. 


To ensure you are not overwhelmed with this responsibility, focus on educating yourself about two things: 1) where we are as a local community and nation, and 2) how we arrived at this historical moment. 

Where Are We?

Racial disparity permeates every aspect of American society. African Americans are more likely to experience negative outcomes in America’s health, education, criminal legal, child welfare and financial systems than their white counterparts. Such disparity also infects the legal profession. While Black Americans make up 12.5% of the total U.S. labor force, they are just 5% of licensed attorneys and 10.6% of the entire legal profession, including non-attorney personnel. 


Horrific videotaped instances of police and civilian violence have further exposed society’s lack of compassion and contempt toward Black and brown communities. The recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in the midst of a global health crisis have prompted members of a diverse, global community to demand immediate reform. Yet all of this begs the question, how did we get here? 

How Did We Get Here? 

The socioeconomic conditions that define the state of race relations in 2020 America can be attributed to several factors. European expansion, particularly in America, depended upon the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans and the genocide of Native Americans. To justify their crimes against humanity, European settlers promoted negative stereotypes depicting slaves and indigenous people as inherently criminal and inferior. Such propaganda has stigmatized and criminalized Blackness and other communities of color for generations, justifying violent resistance to their progress , long after the abolition of slavery. 


Today’s Black Lives Matter Movement has been met with calls for law and order and the desire to make America great “again”, as if to ignore the many ways the mistakes of the past are repeated by those in positions of power and continue to haunt the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our nation. Those of us fighting for racial justice must use the channels provided by media and technology today to our advantage, especially while Americans are heavily reliant upon the 24/7 news cycle and social media to feel connected to the world around them. 

2. Listen 

As attorneys, we are naturally critical thinkers and argumentative. However, in the fight for racial justice, particularly for non-Black or POC champions, it is essential to find ways to amplify the voices and perspectives of the victims and survivors of discrimination and resist the urge to compare, rebut or debate their claims. Moreover, when opportunities to step aside and share your platform with those silenced on account of their identity present themselves, seize them. The viral #SharetheMicNow campaign illustrated how white women allies could actively listen to black women in their industries. 

3. Engage

Once you have taken the initiative to educate yourself and listen, you will be better prepared to engage with your extended networks in thoughtful and meaningful ways. As we continue to navigate pandemic related restrictions, virtual platforms and social media are critical tools at our disposal. For a perfect example of leveraging such resources for good, look no further than the website and social media accounts of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. 

4. Align with Existing Organizations 

While engaging in your individual capacity is essential, it is also important that we maximize our potential by aligning with existing organizations whose mission is to achieve racial justice. Collaborate to amplify your message and demonstrate the coalition building essential to achieving justice for all. During an election year, civic engagement is at an all-time high; find ways to channel this political energy beyond the November election. 

5. Leverage Your Power 

As attorneys, we are often granted access to information, people, places, and opportunities that the public is not. We must capitalize on this relative privilege, challenging those within our firms and civic organizations to champion individuals who identify with historically underrepresented groups and the causes and programming they support. 

6. Celebrate Black People, Communities and Culture

When fighting for racial justice, it is easy to lose sight of exactly what is at stake if our efforts are unsuccessful. Beyond the hashtags and slogans are Black and brown men, women, and children whose lives matter, not only because they are endangered, but because of their immense individual and collective contributions to society. Celebrating Black people, communities and culture through holidays and accolades serves as a necessary reminder and ensures those who continue to promote limiting stereotypes about Black people and communities are discredited once and for all. 

7. Be Bold 

Lastly, I would be remiss not to acknowledge the sacrifice and risk associated with fighting for racial justice. While anti-racism has seemingly become a trend in recent months, it is still and will continue to be largely unpopular and at times dangerous. Nevertheless, I challenge us all to be bold in this moment; to not only pen open letters but allocate time and resources toward eradicating racism within and beyond our respective organizations. After all, there will come a time when we must account for our actions in this moment, not just as attorneys, but as individuals. By embracing these strategies, I am confident we will be proud of our response. 

Ambur Smith was born and raised in Milwaukee, WI and is a graduate of Hampton University and Georgetown Law. She began her legal career as an Associate in the Cincinnati office of Dinsmore & Shohl LLP before transitioning into her current role as Deputy Director of Voter Protection for the Ohio Democratic Party. She is a proud member of the CBA, BLAC and a trustee of the Cincinnati Bar Foundation.



By David A. Singleton

The May 25th killing of George Floyd by four Minneapolis police officers, one of whom knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, has sparked a national movement to eliminate racism in our criminal legal system. Many people in our local community, including attorneys, have asked how they can help. Before offering specific suggestions, it is important to understand that racism in the criminal legal system existed long before George Floyd’s death and involves much more than police misconduct. 


We live in an era of mass incarceration, a problem that disproportionately impacts Black people. Currently, there are 2.3 million people incarcerated in the U.S., a 500% increase over the past 40 years. Although the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, it has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. Black people disproportionately experience incarceration in relation to their percentage of the total population: they comprise one-third of the incarcerated population nationwide. 


The overrepresentation of Black people in Ohio’s prison system is even starker: while Black people represent 43% of the state’s prison population, they make up only 12% of Ohio’s total population. Perhaps most jarring is the reality that 1 in 3 Black men will spend time in prison at some point in their lives, compared to 1 in 17 white men. Although Black and white people use drugs at roughly the same rates, Black people are 2.5 times as likely as their white counterparts to be arrested for drug possession. 

Racial disparities do not end with conviction and sentence. People convicted of crimes may face a lifetime of barriers obtaining employment, housing, and other benefits because of their criminal histories. In Ohio, there are nearly 1,000 state laws that restrict the opportunity of people with criminal records to acquire employment, professional licenses, and government contracts. And because Black people are disproportionally hauled into the criminal legal system, the burden of these so-called “collateral consequences” disproportionately impacts them as well.


So, knowing all of this, what can you do to make a meaningful differencing combating racism in our criminal legal system? Here are some ways to help: 

Reduce mass incarceration: 

  • Volunteer with OJPC on a Beyond Guilt case by contacting Mark Vander Laan at mvanderlaan@ohiojpc.org. 
  • Join the National Lawyers Guild mass defense team by contacting Jacqueline Greene at jgreen@f-glaw.com. 
  • Work on policy reform, like decarceration and bail reform, by contacting David Singleton at dsingleton@ohiojpc.org.

Donate to the Cincinnati Bail Fund: 

Affect the impact of collateral consequences: 

  • Volunteer at one of OJPC’s Second Chance Clinics by contacting Alicia Miller at amiller@ohiojpc.org.
  • Help people seal their criminal records.
  • Assist people in applying for Certificate of Qualification for Employment (CQE) — you don’t have to be a litigator to help with CQEs. 
  • Encourage private employers to hire people with criminal records. 

Achieve police accountability: 

  • Work with OJPC and community stakeholders on policy change by contacting Sasha Naiman at snaiman@ohiojpc.org. 
  • Litigate a police brutality case. 
  • Hold police wrongdoers accountable if you are a prosecutor or a judge.

David A. Singleton is the Executive Director of the Ohio Justice and Policy Center, and is also a Professor of Law at NKU Chase College of Law. He earned his law degree cum laude from Harvard Law School.