I have the privilege of working with dedicated and dynamic race equity advocates across the nation. For years, members of the Racial Justice Institute have been unapologetically practicing conscious race equity advocacy, holding this nation accountable for the disproportionate and disparate outcomes its produces. Often feeling unheard and dismissed, their persistence and determination came full circle this year.
The unprecedented shift in the conversation around race because of the coronavirus pandemic was the beginning of broad scale acknowledgment of the inequities that have existed since the founding of this nation. Covid-19 exposed these racial inequities through the disproportionate numbers of Black and Latinx communities dying from the coronavirus. To compound this trend, the systemic murder of Black lives at the hands of state-sanctioned law enforcement was reignited by the killing of George Floyd.
Shift in Discussion on Race
As such, we saw the nation begin to shift and change the discussion on race. From corporations, private organizations, and legislatures, a range of new voices began to shape a new narrative about the importance of race equity. Using terms such as “anti-racism” to describe the resolution to this conundrum, private businesses such as Starbucks, the Washington Football Team, Facebook, and Amazon began to lend their support to these issues, and one unexpected entity intrigued me—the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA).
The stated purpose of the LFAA is “to leverage the resources of the private bar in partnership with legal services organizations to amplify the voices of communities and individuals oppressed by racism, to better use the law as a vehicle for change that benefits communities of color and to promote racial equity in the law.”
As a long-standing advocate for racial justice, I agreed to partner with the LFAA to begin the exploration of what could be achieved by this aspirational and lofty idea. What I have learned is that although this effort is being led by pro bono counsel from big firms who have the best of intentions in both the development of the LFAA and its potential, it is apparent that this will be a long-term endeavor before any meaningful results can be manifested.
I offer the following points for consideration as the group continues to explore how to work collaboratively with race equity advocates and the organizations and communities they seek to support.
First, LFAA must consider a critical question: What do you mean when you use the term “anti-racism”?
While more than 250 private law firms have signed onto this initiative, until they create some form of consensus around how they define this term and what it means for the LFAA entity and the big firms who have signed on, they will continue to encounter resistance and criticism from those in the race equity movement.
At the height of the killing of George Floyd, many organizations, including Big Law, rushed to release statements to demonstrate their solidarity in the movement and to denounce this explicit act of racism. The rush to show support, however, subsides into a realization that there was little thought given to what this pronouncement means for their organizations, their staff and for each of them individually.
Anti-racism is an action word that requires conscious, intentional and continual effort toward the eradication of racism in America. For each organization within the alliance that says it is “anti-racist,” they must establish in specific and concrete terms what that looks like for them.
Second, will firms acknowledge and contend with the role they play in this system of inequity?
In a profession where nationally 86% of all lawyers identify as white, 5% Black, 2% Asian, and 5% Latino/x or Hispanic, in addition to the goal of leveraging resources and using their expertise to contribute to the effort, these firms must look inwardly to examine how they are “walking the talk” for anti-racism. Many of these firms are inhabited mostly by white male partners and leaders stand complicit in perpetuation of this imbalance. The anti-racism movement must start with self-examination.
Finally, how far are you willing to demonstrate your commitment to anti-racism?
I wonder how private law will respond and whether they are prepared for the ultimate test: What happens when the very institutions these firms represent are the source of a challenge for inequity? How will they respond? Will they use their leverage, power and influence to make real, impactful and transformative change? Or will they bow out to continue their pursuit of profit?
Although I offer some tough criticism to the LFAA as it continues to grapple with where they fit in this struggle, I also hold out great hope. Imagine the sheer force of power a collective of Big Law firms can bring to bear on an issue so complex and complicated as racism. They certainly have the means, capacity and intellect to commit to these efforts.
In order to begin the erosion of racism in America, we all have a role to play. So, Big Law should sit in discomfort, engage in difficult conversations and consider both their role in this fight and how far they are willing to go. They may very well surprise us. I for one, am willing to give them the space to prove the critics wrong.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.
Kimberly Jones Merchant is the director of the Shriver Center on Poverty Law’s Racial Justice Institute where she leads and provides strategic oversight for the annual institute as well as its expanding alumni advocacy network. She is a 23-year practicing attorney.