It goes without saying that the last couple of weeks have been tough for black folks in America. As I sat in my office yesterday, awaiting the decision of the Staten Island grand jury in the Eric Garner case, I was neither waiting with bated breath nor waiting with any sense of hope that the cop who was caught on video choking Eric Garner to death would have to face a jury of his peers. I instead waited with a perverse sense of assurance that Eric Garner’s family, like Michael Brown’s family days before, would be disappointed with and disenfranchised by the justice system. This feeling, though unsurprising, was still disheartening given my …
It goes without saying that the last couple of weeks have been tough for black folks in America.
As I sat in my office yesterday, awaiting the decision of the Staten Island grand jury in the Eric Garner case, I was neither waiting with bated breath nor waiting with any sense of hope that the cop who was caught on video choking Eric Garner to death would have to face a jury of his peers.
I instead waited with a perverse sense of assurance that Eric Garner’s family, like Michael Brown’s family days before, would be disappointed with and disenfranchised by the justice system.
This feeling, though unsurprising, was still disheartening given my profession. As a young attorney of color, only two years into practice, I looked at the landscape that lies before me with despair and a deep lack of faith in the power of the people to truly move our country forward to a place where people of color in general, and black men and women in particular, finally achieve some measure of equity, not just equality, under the law.
This feeling in the pit of my stomach was devastating; it was so different from the feelings I had in 2010, when I was entering law school.
My classmates and I rode into law school with three of the most prominent Americans in the country — President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Attorney General Eric Holder — being black attorneys.
Many of us black law students came from inner-city communities and therefore came with a deep desire to use our time in law school and in practice to address the plight of our communities.
We dedicated ourselves to leadership positions in our local and regional associations of black law students. We served as judges for the Boston Debate League, a program that gives high-school students of color the skills to debate both sides of an issue. For our peers we put on programming about the school-to-prison pipeline. We organized a caravan to the Supreme Court to attend the oral arguments in the Fisher affirmative-action case. We organized a demonstration following the death of Trayvon Martin.
We did all of this because, as law students of color and future attorneys of color, we felt a duty to use our newly acquired power to speak and act on issues that are impacting our communities.
Now, as a licensed attorney, I question whether or not the power we sought actually exists, and whether I was perhaps naïve or just unrealistic.
When the seemingly inevitable failure to indict in the Garner case was made public yesterday, I sat at my desk at the firm where I work, paralyzed.
I could no longer truly concentrate on the tasks before me. I needed to talk or plan or organize. I needed to take action.
But I couldn’t.
There are very few of me — black male attorneys, that is — in any setting. As a result, I oftentimes tread lightly so as not to offend or say something objectionable, just as I was instructed to do during a pre-law-school training put on by the Council on Legal Education Opportunity (CLEO).
Just days prior, I had written and published a blog post titled “Young, Black, and Powerful.” Yet when I asked my friends — who are all young black professionals with many credentials, the kind who are, or should at least feel, young, black, and powerful — if I should share the piece with my coworkers, they uniformly counseled me not to do so.
You see, we are not yet young, black and powerful. We are young, black, and playing it safe in uncharted territory, as the firsts in our families to have achieved this level of education, in professional sectors where we are anomalies.
Lofty ideals of changing those sectors and the world in which those sectors exist take a back seat to paying dues and the hope of perhaps being able to change the system from within. And therein lies the problem.
This is troubling when the dues being paid are within a system that has, since its inception, fundamentally failed black people.
I was paralyzed when the Eric Garner decision came down, and I was equally perplexed as to how anyone in my job could continue working as if nothing had happened.
As the only black employee at my job, perhaps I am oversensitive. Perhaps other people were just unaware of what was happening or too busy to give it their attention. Either way, I still cannot understand.
The inability, or even the perceived inability, to safely have a conversation on these topics or share a relevant piece I have written is the opposite of the safe zone I had as a member of the Black Law Students Association. It is also in direct contradiction to the revolutionary vision that drove me to law school, with tales of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund speaking, writing, and working for change for black people in America.
This is the paradox of the black attorney. There are too few of us to feel safe. There are too few places where we can be outspoken, and there is too much work to be done for us to be silent.
As I watched on Twitter as young activists organized actions in response to the Garner decision, I desperately wanted to participate.
After all, I was an activist and an organizer before I was an attorney. It was that work that inspired me to apply to law school.
But now I am an attorney — “was an activist and organizer” is the operative phrase.
I wonder if I gained power or if I traded it in.
I was young, black, and powerful.
Now I am young, black, and professional.
A cop is not being charged for the videotaped execution of a man, and I am nervous about speaking out, let alone engaging in an act of civil disobedience that could potentially result in my arrest.
My status in a relatively conservative profession almost forces me to uphold the status quo, even if it’s the very thing I came here to fight against.
My grandmother used to always quote Matthew 16:26: “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Good question, right?
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