More of This Critical race theory made me a better lawyer
Christopher Punongbayan is a lawyer and Executive Director of ChangeLawyers. He completed the Critical Race Studies program at UCLA Law School.
I am not an academic. I don’t even work in education. I’m just a lawyer. And at one point, I was a lonely law student burdened by imposter syndrome. Critical Race Theory came into my life at the precise moment I needed it the most.
I began law school weeks before 9/11, and I felt like I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I never should have left New York, where I was doing social justice work through my day job. I should have been there to help the community rebuild. Instead, I was 3000 miles away in Los Angeles studying contracts and civil procedure.
I tried my best to make peace with law school, but law school wasn’t designed for someone like me. I had no professors of color in my first year; I was one of a small number of BIPOC students on campus; and none of the classes made an effort to even acknowledge race.
For instance, I remember learning about People v. Goetz in criminal law class. The case involved a white man who shot and wounded 4 Black kids on a New York City subway after one of them had asked him for $5. The court dismissed the charges against Goetz because he had a “reasonable” belief that his use of force was justified.
I sat back and listened as my classmates discussed the case. They recited the holding of the court with no critical analysis at all. Racist stereotypes about Black folks were plainly presented in the light of day and no one said a word to the contrary. Vastly outnumbered, I was afraid to address the underlying issue that just seemed so obvious.
I was quietly seething. But I was also questioning my own sanity.
Was I the only one who didn’t understand the case? My professor, a former federal prosecutor, must surely see the completely one-sided racial bias in the case? But, no. He wrapped up the lesson, and we moved on.
This shallow analysis kept happening in class after class, case after case.
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Speaking Of… More and more teachers want to teach race massacres
The Elaine massacre of 1919 is believed to be the deadliest episode of racial violence in Arkansas history. But when the historian Brian Mitchell began researching it a few years ago, he met teachers in the state who didn’t know about it or weren’t sure how to explain it to their students.
“Teachers who were having a difficult time talking about difficult histories didn’t know where to start,” he said.
So Professor Mitchell, an expert on African American history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, helped create a virtual exhibit about the massacre and packed it with teaching materials.
After the murder of George Floyd last year triggered widespread protests and calls for racial justice, there has been more public discussion of America’s history of racial violence. The recent centennial of the 1921 race massacre in Tulsa, Okla., which prompted President Biden to visit the city, is a prominent example.
But the Tulsa race massacre isn’t the only one getting a fresh look. In some American schools, museums and other institutions, events like Elaine are being discussed for the first time. And some of these efforts are gaining momentum even as Republican politicians in several states try to block curriculums that emphasize systemic racism.
Roger Brooks, the president of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit based in Massachusetts, said it was thrilling to see “the examination of untold or forgotten histories gaining traction across the country.”
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More of This 77% of judicial clerkships are given to white people. Law students of color have had enough.
Two summers ago, as a third-year law student at Georgetown University, James Gilmore applied for dozens of law clerkships with federal judges — temporary positions that are highly coveted for the experience and connections they afford. He received one reply.
The paltry response came after a school counselor downplayed his chances of obtaining a clerkship because he wasn't ranked in the top of his class. "I was discouraged," Gilmore, 33, said. "I took it to mean I wasn't cut out.”
But he was. Gilmore, through networking with those who saw his potential and promoted diversity, snagged a one-year clerkship with Senior District Court Judge Fernando Gaitan Jr. of the Western District of Missouri. After it concludes this fall, he will start a second clerkship with the U.S. Courts for the 9th Circuit in Las Vegas.
Gilmore, who is Black, realized the difficulty to pierce through barriers was common among other law students and graduates of color. The most recent data analyzed this year reflects that: According to the National Association for Law Placement, which tracks career development and salaries in the industry, of the more than 3,100 graduates from the class of 2019 who said they earned a judicial clerkship, 77 percent were white and 23 percent were graduates of color.
Latino graduates made up 7.5 percent of all clerkships, Black graduates more than 6 percent and Asian graduates more than 5 percent. Black graduates were among the least likely to get a federal clerkship, making up about 4 percent of all 2019 graduates who were hired.
The association's similar surveys over the past 15 years show judicial clerkships are slowly becoming more diverse — but barely. A concerted effort taking shape this year could help change that.
Law student groups, legal organizations and federal judges, particularly those of color, are working to ensure applicant pools are more diverse and using hiring pilot plans that make it easier for judges to connect with applicants whom they may not normally reach and may come from nontraditional backgrounds or schools.
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Say It Louder How race shaped our punitive justice system
Champ Napier is the exception.
From his birth in Prichard, Alabama, the third-poorest city in America, he faced an uphill climb just to stay out of poverty and prison. Mr. Napier remembers the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses on his schoolyard, white residents yelling obscenities at his school bus. The site of the last recorded lynching in 1981 is in nearby Mobile.
As a teen, he quit high school to sell drugs, thinking it was the fastest way out of poverty. When a drug deal went wrong, he shot a man six times. At 18, he was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder.
But 15 years inside Alabama prisons bred a determination to find a new path. And in 2015, more than 10 years after his parole, he became the first-ever Alabamian convicted of murder to receive a complete pardon. Now he works as a client advocate for the Mobile County Public Defender’s Office to help others avoid a system he barely survived.
“Our rite of passage shouldn’t be from poverty to prison,” says Mr. Napier.
His story speaks to the challenges of breaking that vicious cycle, particularly in the South. Nationwide, that cycle has contributed to Black people being imprisoned at five times the rate of white people. Moreover, studies show that Black people are also routinely sentenced more harshly for the same crime.
But in the South, where more than half of all Black Americans live, these trends are amplified by historical racism, higher rates of poverty, and a more punitive justice system. The South includes 8 of America’s 10 most incarcerative states, according to Bureau of Justice Statistics data compiled by The Sentencing Project.
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