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RBBA President’s Message: Do Black lawyers matter?

Shani C. Mitchell

Shani C. Mitchell

Our organization was contacted by the President of the Black Law Students Association at Florida A&M University College of Law to support their campaign to increase awareness of the need for more African-American attorneys.

Their campaign reasons that our profession needs this increase in order to address the inadequacies found in the dispensing of justice, criminally and civilly. In a May 2015 article in The Guardian, Yolanda Young writes that Black lawyers account for less than 5% of all lawyers in America.  She argues that the lack of Black lawyers affects the equality in prosecution, criminal defense, and civil representation. Based upon the foregoing, does race matter in lawyering?

Race seems to matter everywhere else in America.  It matters in television ads.  Just ask Old Navy.  Last week, Old Navy launched an advertisement showing a multi-racial family, and they were attacked by those who didn’t favor such images. Last year, General Mills was the target of this type of attack when Cheerios launched a similar campaign.  Race has played a factor in this year’s Presidential Primary, and has been the subject of protests on college campuses across this nation.  But, will more Black lawyers make a difference in the dispensing of justice?

Many argue that if there were more Black prosecutors, then Ferguson and other jurisdictions with high profiled police involved shootings would have been handled differently. The case of Duane Buck raises such a question.  This case is on final appeal to the US Supreme Court.  In 1997, this defendant was sentenced to death in Texas based upon the expert testimony of Walter Quijano.

This expert was asked by the prosecution, during the penalty phase of his trial, whether the defendant’s race, being Black, was a factor that posed an increased risk of future dangerousness, in which he answered in the affirmative.  The prosecution argued that the expert’s testimony about race should be considered in the jury’s deliberations. So, for years, in Texas death penalty cases, race definitely mattered.

Whether you agree that Black lawyers have a more heightened awareness of equality, and thus are able to dispense justice with less bias.  Whether you agree that Black defense attorneys are able to relate better with Black defendants, and thus provide for a more effective defense strategy.  The minimal presence of Blacks has an effect on our profession.

So, what should be done? We can make recruitment and retention a reality and not a mere mission statement. This can be done by investing in the longevity of the Rochester Diversity Clerkship program sponsored by our organization, MCBA, and GRAWA. Next month, we welcome our 2016 summer clerks.  Please join us on June 9 at 5:30 at Nixon Peabody to welcome them to Rochester and show your support; previous and new supporters are welcome.

In addition, please support efforts to provide mentorship to minority high school students so they are introduced to the profession. One can take the time to volunteer in the Rochester City School District and let the students know the power and privilege associated with our profession.

For example, for the past two years, our organization has sponsored a mock trial team with the Boy Scouts’ Law Explorers Program (and we won this year!).  We hope that this legal community will celebrate and promote diversity in the profession.

In short, do Black lawyers matter? Yes, they do.  Our profession benefits by the inclusion and retention of minority attorneys.  James Baldwin once said, ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’  Let’s face this change together.

Shani C. Mitchell is president of the Rochester Black Bar Association.



One comment

  1. EXCELLENT ARTICLE, I am going to plan a forum/symposium next fall and would love for you to attend and discuss these same concepts. I will reach out to you once the details are finalized but we will be able to provide for travel and accommodations. Thanks for all your support, you all were the first professional organization that I reached out to and it is such a blessing to see my school mentioned in the opening paragraph.

    Best regards,

    Micah R. Green

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