A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law
I honestly don’t recall how A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality, and the Law came to be on my to-be-read shelf. It was probably a “you might like” recommendation from bookshop.org. If so, bookshop.org was right! This slim volume is the transcript of a conversation that took place in 2017 between Sherrilyn Ifill (President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc), Loretta Lynch (former Attorney General of the U.S.), Anthony C. Thompson (founding faculty director for the Center for Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law), and Bryan Stevenson (founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative).
These 4 luminaries of civil rights advocacy spoke in February 2017, only a month into the Trump administration. Reading it now with the hindsight of the past four years, I was struck both by the prescience they had and also how universal some of their insights are, regardless of who occupies the White House.
The conversation was convened by Anthony C. Thompson to celebrate the launch of NYU School of Law’s Center on Race, Inequality, and Law. Professor Thompson began the conversation this way:
So, we face the painful reality that we’re headed down this perilous path. The toxic rhetoric over the lastyear has surfaced attitudes that we thought were confined to our history. We’re experiencing a steady and dangerous marginalization of immigrants, people of color, and the poor. We’re witnessing an uptick in hate crimes and hate speech. We’re seeing government officials issue policies propelled by the twin forces of arrogance and ignorance. And we can’t simply stand still and hope things will go well. We must take action, individually and collectively, to change the entire discussion of a nation. So, we’re here to redirect a base, insensitive, and destructive national public conversation. We’re here to reorient a country that seems to have lost its way. To paraphrase Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail, we’re here because injustice is here. We have work to do.
Though there is certainly a lot of conversation about the law and the courts from these lawyers and legal scholars, I took some comfort in the ways they lifted up the non-legal tactics that are required in the work we have to do. Bryan Stevenson opines “There will always be people who try to exploit the fear and anger that give rise to … narratives of racial difference. And I think we haven’t done a very good job. Too many of us have taken advantage of the legal battles while leaving behind the narrative battle. And that for me is the greatest challenge we face.” (p 16-17) Sherilynn Ifill agrees with Stevenson and takes it even farther. “There is no permanent win,” she says of the ‘narrative battle.’ (p 18)
Most of this slim volume consists of Stevenson, Ifill, and Lynch discussing back and forth the role of the courts and the role of culture (the “narrative battle” as they call it) in a fascinating exchange. Though they were speaking at a moment in recent history where there was little to be hopeful about, I was left with a quiet hopefulness from it. This was due in no small part to something Bryan Stevenson says in the book, “You don’t get to be hopeless and then call yourself someone who’s trying to do justice. You just don’t. And that’s what Thurgood Marshall understood. He understood, I can’t be hopeless and worry about that. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice.” (emphasis added, pp. 98-99)
More than that insight, though, was the sense that this work, this hopeful work of doing justice, it takes all of us. I am not, nor am I likely to ever be, a lawyer who can parlay understanding of the laws, policy, and the power of argument to change the shape of society. And I have an important role to play. So do you. There is no permanent win. There is no chosen one to make the change on our behalf. We have to do it. We can do it.
When Thompson asks him what the “weight-bearing wall” is in Stevenson’s vision of a changed and changing culture, Stevenson answers:
I went to South Africa, and what I experienced there was that people insisted on making sure I understood the damage that was done by apartheid. When I talked to Rwandans, you can’t spend time in Rwanda without them telling you about all of the damage done by the genocide. I go to Berlin, and you can’t go a hundred meters without seeing those markers and monuments that have been placed near the homes of Jewish families that were abducted during the Holocaust. The Germans want you to go to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial.
And then I come to this country and we don’t talk about slavery. We don’t talk about lynching. We don’t talk about segregation. And so, our project is really trying to create a new landscape. I never thought during my law practice that I’d be spending so much time working on a museum, but our museum is called “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.” (emphasis in original pp. 85 - 86)
For this museum nerd, Stevenson’s focus on a museum as (a part of) an antidote to bigotry and injustice was both a validation and a comfort. Don’t get me wrong, the museum field as a whole has a lot of work to do (much like the rest of the country/culture). It is an industry founded on some unsavory elements of Western culture: colonialism, paternalism, cultural appropriation. It also has the potential to be a touchstone of the world we deserve.
Forgive my rabbit-hole jaunt, friends, I don’t actually want to talk about museums. I want to talk about culture. Culture change often happens at a glacial pace, and when it moves more quickly, it does so in fits and starts. Moving three steps forward and two steps back. Kaitlin Jenner graces the cover of Vanity Fair one year and aggressive anti-trans legislation is signed into law in multiple states a few years later. But here’s the thing about culture, you and I have a role in it, whether we like it or not. We can choose to interrupt those parts of culture that are toxic, or we can carry on perpetuating it. There is no neutral in what the authors of A Perilous Path call the “narrative battle.” There are no sidelines, because the battle is being waged through speech, actions, and attitudes each of express every day.
Sherilynn Ifill gives a great example of what I mean when she says:
one of the narratives I hope we’ll begin to attend to is to reclaim the word ‘public.’ …the word public only became dirty when it became associated with being black. Public housing was built for white people initially. There was nothing about public transportation that was considered black. Public schools--when you think pubic schools, we know what we’re talking about--right?
So we took these things that were pillars of public life and American life, and we racialized them. And then once we racialized them, we could demonize them and we could starve them of funds. (p66 - 67)
So let’s agree to pay attention to the words and the policies that have been racialized. Let’s interrogate the euphemisms we’ve adopted so that we can talk about race without talking about race: urban, inner-city, underprivileged, at-risk, food stamps, welfare checks, Obamacare. Let’s work to become aware of them so that we make different choices with our words and our dollars.
Awareness is the first, essential step in changing culture. Thanks for being a part of my awareness journey.