Why Black History Month is an Opportunity for All Law Students to Make a Difference
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People all over the world rejoiced as Moonlight claimed “Best Picture” honors earlier this week during the Academy Awards. While the significance of the win has been somewhat overshadowed by the logistical snafu that found the Oscar being mistakenly awarded to fellow nominee La La Land, the long-term implications of the win will outlast the temporary buzz. Wrote Bustle, “Regardless of how the award ended up being named (and, man, was that a wild ride), it's undeniable that a win for a film like Moonlight is unprecedented and groundbreaking, and could make a substantial impact on the types of films that are funded and greenlit in the future.” Making the victory even sweeter? That it occurred during the US’s Black History Month.
But the reality is that the vital importance of Black History Month far transcends Hollywood and the entertainment industry. For aspiring lawyers, this annual month-long commemoration offers the opportunity to do more than merely pay tribute, but to assess the role of the law -- and themselves, within it -- in promoting equality and social justice for all. Here’s a closer look at why Black History Month matters for aspiring legal professionals.
Beyond the Past
Much of Black History Month celebrates the past. And rightfully so: We’ve come a long way, in relatively short amount of time. As Congressman John Lewis, a leader of the civil rights movement, told NPR in 2015, it was just “fifty years ago next month we were beaten, left bloodied, and almost died in Selma” while protesting for the right to vote.
However, it’s also a reminder that the work isn’t done yet. As Eric Liu wrote in a CNN piece on the need for reparations, “The experience of African-Americans is exceptional in its systematic, multigenerational, reverberating effects. And it's exceptional in its centrality to the founding and building of our nation. No experience reveals more than the African-American experience both the hypocrisy and the possibility of our national creed.”
Meanwhile, contends Renwei Chung in an Above the Law piece, “In the last few years, race relations have gone backwards.” Compounding the problem? A disconnect in perceptions about race relations: A recent Gallup poll found 15 percent of black Americans identifying race relations as the most critical issue facing the country today compared to just four percent of white Americans.
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The Role of the Law
Uniquely positioned to lead the way for righting ongoing wrongs toward equality across nearly every sector? Lawyers.
Consider the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE). Established in 2015, RISE is “a nonprofit organization dedicated to harnessing the unifying power of sports to improve race relations and drive social progress.” At its helm as CEO? Former law school dean and expert in civil rights law, education law and election law Jocelyn Benson, who told the ABA Journal after accepting the role, “I was offered an incredible opportunity to lead a national campaign to improve race relations in America at a time when there are very clear divisions.”
Meanwhile, at the same time many law schools are amping up their offerings in the area of race relations. Last month the Harvard Law Review elected its first black, female president. ImeIme Umana, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, will preside as president of the 131st volume of the prestigious publication. Says Umana, “[Black women] have been systematically excluded from the legal landscape, the legal conversation, and we’re just now making some important inroads.” There’s also a push for more black lawyers in the profession. According to data from the American Bar Association shared by The Guardian, white lawyers currently make up 88 percent of all lawyers in the US while black lawyers account for just 4.8 percent.
Contends writer Yolanda Young, “It is curious that a profession that exists to further thought and solve complex social, ethical and legal problems has been unable to solve its own even when some solutions seem obvious – increase minority law school pipeline initiatives and remove the cost impediments of attending law school; provide more training and apprenticeship opportunities; and above all else, treat black attorneys fairly once they enter the profession.”
Honoring and Engaging
Black History Month is also an ideal time to acknowledge the many achievements of African-Americans in the law. Consider Brooklyn Law School’s showcasing of its own prominent graduates whose careers have helped change the world. Many law schools also sponsor activities, initiatives and events of their own during Black History Month aimed at providing opportunities for law students to learn more about African-American culture and history and its relationship to the law.
Which returns us to the overarching question: Why is Black History Month so important? Chung makes a compelling case in Above the Law: “We cannot continue to take for granted the rights we have now,” he writes. “We are the future children of the movement. It is our responsibility, especially as minorities in the law, to learn the history and educate others so that we can stand beside Congressman Lewis and fight for our future. If we in the legal community do not fight for justice, fairness, and equality, then who do we expect to advocate for these causes?”
And while Chung’s words are directed toward the minority community, his message is not only applicable to but imperative for all members of the legal profession: “Black History Month is not just a tribute to the past because discrimination is not just a memory of the past. Black History Month is an annual call to action for us to contribute to the movement.”
Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.