We all own the work of dismantling systemic racism
COLUMN > A Note From the WSBA Executive Director
BY TERRA NEVITT
Another year begins deeply impacted by COVID-19. This month, as we honor the achievements and contributions of Black Americans, this junction between the pandemic and Black History Month feels particularly important. COVID-19 has harmed Black Americans more than any other group.11 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7762908/. It has exacerbated and exposed the systemic inequities and injustices that our institutions are built upon. It has proved how too often our institutions are resistant to Black voices and experiences. It has emphasized that unfortunately, there is nothing “historic” about Black racism and it has helped many of us to acknowledge that the “normal” we are waiting to return to has, in many respects, not served Black people well.
So what is our pathway forward? Can we find a “new normal” that better speaks to our values of equity and justice? As we consider this question at the Washington State Bar Association, with a unique focus on the administration of law and integrity of the legal profession, I want to flag several efforts that all of us in the legal profession can support and engage with.
WSBA Demographic Study
The WSBA is kicking off a comprehensive demographic study of the legal profession, following up on a similar study conducted almost a decade ago22 www.wsba.org/about-wsba/equity-and-inclusion/achieving-inclusion that was the basis for the WSBA’s inaugural Diversity Plan. We will be working with an expert consultant to collect and analyze data about our members so we can better promote diversity and equality in the legal profession. Our focus is on understanding how members’ multiple identities may impact their experience in the profession and their legal career. Among other things, we will use the results of the study to inform how the WSBA can better support underrepresented and historically marginalized legal professionals and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. The results will be available to all members and others in the legal community, including sections, minority bar associations, law schools, and the judiciary. You can expect to receive an invitation to take part in the demographic study before this fall. Please respond. Your participation makes a difference.
WSBA Equity and Disparity Work Group
In June 2020, responding to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Charleena Lyles, Manuel Ellis, and countless others by police officers, the nationwide uprisings addressing virulent racism in the United States, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic devastation, the Board of Governors created an Equity and Disparity Work Group. Its purpose is to propose to the Board of Governors solutions to address the laws, policies, and procedures in place in the legal system that have historically led to disparate and inequitable results that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The work group, chaired by Gov. Alec Stephens, has focused its initial efforts on (1) critically examining the language and interpretation of General Rule 12.2, which prohibits the WSBA and its entities from taking positions on political or social issues which do not relate to or affect the practice of law or the administration of justice; and (2) promoting expanded access to courts through the continuation of a hybrid in-person/virtual court system post-pandemic. The work group hopes to bring proposals to the Board of Governors later this year.
Task Force 2.0: Race and Washington’s Criminal Justice System
Expanding our view beyond the WSBA, in 2020, the deans of Washington’s three law schools at the time—Mario L. Barnes (University of Washington), Annette E. Clark (Seattle University), and Jacob H. Rooksby (Gonzaga University)—convened this task force to pick up where a similar task force left off in 2010 and revisit where things stand regarding racial disproportionality in our state’s criminal justice system. Thus far, the task force has issued two reports. The first report—the work of the task force’s Research Working Group—provides an updated and more complete picture of racial disproportionality in Washington’s criminal justice system, including disproportionalities experienced by Indigenous people, which were not examined in the 2011 report. While the data shows some improvement, the persistence and significance of disproportionality is a sobering call to action. “[R]ace and racial bias continue to matter in ways that are not fair, that do not advance legitimate public safety objectives, that produce disparities in the criminal justice system, and that undermine public confidence in our legal system.”33 https://law.seattleu.edu/centers-and-institutes/korematsu-center/initiatives/task-force-20-x24772. The second report, published by the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee, finds that 10 years since the task force first looked at the overrepresentation of youth of color at every stage of the juvenile justice process, little has changed and in some cases, racial disproportionality has worsened. The subcommittee sets forth recommendations “to fundamentally change how systems respond to the needs of young people.”44 https://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/korematsu_center/118/.
You can learn more about the task force and follow along with its work at the website of the Seattle University School of Law Korematsu Center.55 https://law.seattleu.edu/centers-and-institutes/korematsu-center/initiatives/task-force-20-x24772.
Washington Supreme Court Symposium
In June 2021, the Supreme Court’s Minority and Justice Commission and its Gender and Justice Commission66 For more on the Gender and Justice Commission, see link here. joined together to share information about the significant overrepresentation of Black and Indigenous women in the conviction and sentencing of women and girls in Washington state. In a half-day symposium, the distinguished panelists addressed the systems that contribute to racial disproportionality and the collateral consequences of incarceration. In addition, the presenters highlighted the experiences of LGBTQ+ persons in our state’s incarceration facilities. The powerful symposium is available to view on TVW77 https://tvw.org/video/2021-state-supreme-court-symposium-2021061001/?eventID=2021061001. and the materials are available on the website for the Minority and Justice Commission.88 www.courts.wa.gov/?fa=home.sub&org=mjc&page=symposium&layout=2.
This weekend, I listened to a podcast episode of Code Switch on NPR, “They came, they saw, they reckoned?” In a conversation with political scientists Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson, the episode explores the impact of the “racial reckoning” that occurred during the summer of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd. The upshot wasn’t encouraging. This has been an incredibly difficult period for all of us. We are isolated and divided, we are worried about our health, we’ve lost loved ones, and our work and school norms have been turned on their head. It seems natural and human, under these conditions, to narrow our focus on the things we can control and the things that impact us daily.
I had this in mind when Denise Diskin and Dana Savage presented a CLE to the Board of Governors at its January meeting, “LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Legal System: A View from Practitioners and Communities.” In explaining why she wasn’t presenting on terminology, Diskin noted the ever-changing evolution of how communities see and identify themselves and noted (I’m paraphrasing here) that having the specific terminology right is not as important as listening thoughtfully and having empathy. Her statement was simple but powerful and it reminded me of our Washington Supreme Court’s 2020 call to action:
“As we lean in to do this hard and necessary work, may we also remember to support our [B]lack colleagues by lifting their voices. Listening to and acknowledging their experiences will enrich and inform our shared cause of dismantling systemic racism.”99 www.courts.wa.gov/content/publicUpload/Supreme%20Court%20News/Judiciary%20Legal%20Community%20SIGNED%20060420.pdf.
We all own the work of dismantling systemic racism. Part of that begins with supporting and amplifying experiences that are not just our own. There is some good work being done in our state, I hope you can find an opportunity to engage with it with thoughtfulness and empathy. Black History Month is a reminder that we have work to do—every month, every day—because there is nothing historic about Black racism, and we in the legal system have unique skills and access to address systemic injustice. Please take care of yourselves and our broader communities, and let’s work together toward a new, better “normal.”
6. For more on the Gender and Justice Commission, see link here.