around the bar
February 14, 2009

Understanding Institutional Racism, Seeking Solutions the Goal of Panel

Consideration of race and racism is moving beyond black versus white confrontations in the national discussion, and as it does, issues become exponentially more complicated. That was the clear message coming out of the ABA Midyear Meeting program “The Assumption of Justice: A Dialogue on Color, Ethnicity and the Courts.”

Commenting on color, ethnicity and the courts is the nation’s first African American Chief Magistrate Judge Joyce London Alexander, U.S. District Court for Massachusetts.

Multi-ethnic groups “can be explicit and active agents of discrimination against other groups of color,” calling for new mechanisms to address inter ethnic racial animus, said Tanya K. Hernandez of George Washington University.

Courts are among vehicles to implement those mechanisms. Judge Peter Buchsbaum of the New Jersey Supreme Court Committee on Minority Concerns cited a 1993 action plan adopted by the court to address racial and ethnic discrimination in the state’s courts rooted in prejudice, ignorance and insensitivity. Buschbaum said that was “not a one-time” statement, but rather continues to be a daily activity. Judges “have to think, am I letting my background and potential bias affect how I react” to litigants, lawyers or cases before them.

Judge Sophia H. Hall described a program she teaches for new colleagues on the bench of Cook County (Ill.) Circuit Court to sensitize them to how they risk demonstrating bias, and the ethical standards and court policies requiring fair and equal treatment of litigants in the system.

Each person carries unrecognized bias, an outgrowth of background and development, said Peggy McIntosh of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. Citing her own experience, she said “As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege, which puts me at an advantage.”

“I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,” she said. She compared white privilege to “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks.”

McIntosh challenged her audience to work in pairs to “unpack their knapsacks,” taking one minute to identify factors in his or her own life that put them at an advantage, and then one more minute to recite factors that put them at a disadvantage.

The dialogue was sponsored by the Section of State and Local Government Law, the Judicial Division Lawyers Conference, the Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice and the Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity.

To download this CLE program please go to: http://www.abanet.org/cle/programs/t09taj1.html