Silence in the face of racism is racism. Even for lawyers, and especially in Wisconsin, which ranks among the worst states in the nation for racial disparities in rates of poverty, unemployment, educational attainment and incarceration.
Three days after the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, I listened to a room full of my fellow law students at the University of Wisconsin Law School speak with raw emotion about what that election meant to them. The event was organized by leaders of the Black Law Students Association, the Middle Eastern Law Students Association, the Asian Law Students Association, the Indigenous Law Students Association, the Latino/a Law Student Association, the Jewish Law Students Association, the LGBT law students association (QLAW), and the Women’s Law Student Association. The majority of those who spoke were people of color. I heard my classmates speak about being afraid to go outside, of fearing an increase in hate crimes, of fearing for the lives and futures of their children, of fearing for their basic rights as human beings.
The next morning, as Law School liaison to the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) of the State Bar of Wisconsin, I shared this experience and proposed that the group send out to its members a message of solidarity with vulnerable populations and information about WisLAP, a Bar Association resource that provides confidential peer counseling for lawyers and law students who are struggling through hard times. A board member quickly responded stating: “No, actually, that would be wildly inappropriate. The YLD does not take positions on politics or elections, and sending out such messages would be doing exactly that.”
Only nine months later, as unapologetic white supremacists marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, bearing swastikas, torches and weapons, a man allegedly drove his car into a crowd of anti-racism protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens. The president initially asserted that “many sides” were to blame for the violence, and later defended some of the “very fine people” he said were marching with the white supremacists.
In response, Kenneth Frazier, CEO of Merck Pharmaceuticals, resigned from the president’s manufacturing council and wrote: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy.” The CEO of Campbell’s Soup followed suit, stating: “Racism and murder are unequivocally reprehensible and are not morally equivalent to anything else that happened in Charlottesville. I believe the president should have been -- and still needs to be -- unambiguous on that point.”
Even America’s business leaders have realized that, as Howard Zinn once wrote, you can’t be neutral on a moving train. It is time for Wisconsin’s lawyers to do the same. While the American Bar Association’s president issued a strong statement affirming its commitment to defending the rights of minorities and disadvantaged populations only a month after Trump’s election, the State Bar of Wisconsin and its leadership have been conspicuously silent.
The Young Lawyers Division, in particular, has a special responsibility to its current and future members. It is the only group within State Bar that all Wisconsin lawyers automatically join (as long as they are under 36 years old or in their first five years of practice in the state). Its stated mission is “To educate, support and advocate for new lawyers.”
Instead of acting to support its members and take a stand against the rising tide of racism, hate speech and hate crimes that accompanied Trump’s election, the YLD board devised ways to disguise the reason for the message and considered sending out wellness-themed resources supposedly to combat the stress of the holiday season. Even this was ultimately deemed to be too controversial by a 15-member board composed entirely of white people.
At the next YLD board meeting, a roomful of these white lawyers patted themselves on the back for having organized a training about implicit racial bias while the realities of structural and explicit racism stared them in the face. Some spoke about the need for “them” (how they referred to people of color) to meet “us” (apparently referring to white people, or perhaps the white people who comprised the entirety of the YLD board) “half-way,” whatever that means. Some trotted out tired tropes about our meritocratic society (“You have to put in a lot of work to get here!”) to explain why there was not a single person of color on its board. The board again decided to do nothing to support its members of color or address the blatant inequities on the board itself. I resigned shortly thereafter.
When I watch images of literal Nazis marching down this nation’s streets, waving their flags and shouting their slurs, my mind turns back to that room of white lawyers cowering from controversy and comfortable in the privilege their whiteness has bestowed upon them. I remember how common it is for white people, and especially white professionals, to remain silent while our brothers and sisters of color suffer. I think back to the board member who declared that a message of support to the organization’s membership would be somehow taking a “wildly unacceptable” position on politics.
Doing nothing in the face of increasing hate speech, violence and explicit threats to the civil rights of certain populations is not neutrality: It is inherently a political act in favor of the status quo. Standing against hatred and political violence is not about supporting one team of politicians over another; it is about making a choice between right and wrong.
Since before the founding of this country, people have looked to lawyers as leaders in their communities. Speaking as a future Wisconsin lawyer: We need to do more. We need to elect leaders of our professional organizations who will stand strong against all-out assaults on American ideals and the rule of law. We need to declare to our communities and clients alike that we oppose racism and bigotry in all its forms. We need to hold ourselves accountable to living up to our values if they are to mean anything at all. Lawyers are not somehow above it all; we are an important force in this society with an obligation to uphold the rule of law and the sacred rights the people of this nation hold dear.
There have been so many ignored warnings regarding the rising tide of white supremacy and the continued inequities in our society, it’s pointless to recount them. But Charlottesville is among the latest, so let’s use it as an opportunity to pick a side. Will we stay silent, or will live up to our values?
Will Kramer is in his second year at the University of Wisconsin Law School. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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