Am I Racist? Of course not.
For over 50 years, since our law school days in the 1960s, when he was the only black and I was the only woman in our law school class of 114, Jack Sherman and I have been professional colleagues and best of friends. We witnessed each other’s children growing up, and now live next door to each other. Skip West, Ken Parker, Jim Johnson, Nate Jones, to name only a few, are other black lawyers with whom I have developed genuine friendships. When we greet each other, we hug, and the loving feelings are real, not pro forma.
And I have other credentials: As director of the Public Defender Office in the 1970s, I hired many black (as well as women) attorneys. I cared about breaking down barriers.
And when President of the CBA in the late 1980s, Inyeai Ororokuma and I, she then President of the BLAC, started The Roundtable, out of which grew the Minority Counsel Program and SWEL.
So, but a few years ago, I, nor anyone else, would ever suggest that I’m racist. But I am.
I’ve taken the implicit bias tests that confirm this. I learned of my preference for lighter skin tones, for the young over the elderly, for men as scientists. Almost by osmosis we internalize prevalent cultural messages. But, now I am on high alert and paying attention. Being aware has paid off. Or, so I thought.
Just days before writing this commentary, my refrigerator died. The cause appeared to be an electrical problem and I was advised to contact Duke emergency services and did so. Within the hour, the Duke van approached and I walked out to greet the driver. A young dark skinned black man stepped out and I offered a welcoming smile, but my heart sank. My unspoken thought? “Damn, he won’t be able to figure this out.” Twenty minutes later, his obviously intelligent analysis was clearly stated. I quickly forgot my fall from grace, until a few days later when I read an insightful article by Byron McCauley, a columnist and member of the editorial board of the Cincinnati Enquirer. It was published on the day the Tensing trial ended in a mistrial. I excerpt only two paragraphs:
“The legal system rightly holds a presumption of innocence for defendants such as Tensing. And the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a high one for prosecutors to meet, as it should be. Yet the continued failure of the legal system to convict police officers for on-duty actions is troubling. How much of that failure represents society’s respect for policing, and how much might, just maybe, represent the taint of racism?” He continued:
“Just the other day, a woman refused to take her assigned seat on an airplane between two African-American men (one of them me). Instead, she elected to be seated at the windowless rear of the plane. I wondered then what type of juror she would make in a case such as Tensing’s.”
I would not have acted as that woman did. My racism is more nuanced, more private. Now you see it, now you don’t. But it is there. Would it arise if I were a member of a jury, judging the credibility of witnesses?
I write spurred on by a June 24th N.Y.Times article by Ibram X. Kendi, a 2016 National Book Award winner and professor of history at American University. Kendi addressed why police officers are rarely charged for taking black lives, and when they are, why juries rarely convict. He traces America’s history from the explicit racism of Jim Crow to what many now consider our “post-racial” society, citing a survey by the Pew Research Center last year that found that 50 percent of whites feel the races are treated equally by the police, compared with 16 percent of blacks.
Kendi suggests that this can change, “……… Killing the post-racial myth and confessing racism is the first step toward anti-racism. Americans can recognize that label as an opening to a just future.”
How could I not follow through and acknowledge my reality if I am to hold my head high?