Loretta Lynch, Bryan Stevenson, and Sherrilyn Ifill spoke on a panel moderated by Anthony C. Thompson.
The NYU School of Law received more than 1,200 RSVPs for its launch of the new Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law, with the audience for the February 27 event filling Tischman auditorium as well as two overflow rooms showing a livestream. At a time of increased national dialogue about race and inequality—and growing concern among progressives about what policies around those issues may look like under the new presidential administration—the crowd assembled to hear from a trio of speakers the center’s director Anthony C. Thompson described as “three of the best warriors for social justice in our country”: Loretta Lynch, former attorney general of the United States; Sherrilyn Ifill (NYU Law ’87), president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and Bryan Stevenson, an NYU professor of clinical law and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
Dean Trevor Morrison announced that the center will serve as a “hub for students, scholars, and community members to exchange ideas on race, ethnicity, and inequality in all of its dimensions.”
In introducing the panel, Thompson, who acted as moderator, said:
“We're here to reorient a country that seems to have lost its way. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, we're here because injustice is here. We have work to do.”
The lively discussion that followed touched on topics ranging from education and criminal justice reform to the recent executive orders on immigration and lessons to be learned from the civil rights era. In addition to addressing the role of lawyers and the courts in countering discrimination and segregation, the panelists also stressed the need to shape a clearer, more honest 21st-century narrative to replace the insidious myth of “colorblindness” that has allowed racial disparities to persist. Here are some highlights from their conversation.
On local governments and politics:
“A lot of what we do will be at the local level. It’s looking at the county commissions, the water boards, the school boards, the town council, the railroad commission, the sheriff—the sheriff evicts people!—to really get down into the nitty gritty of how political power is constructed and controlled in this country. The problem, very often, with those of us who are in New York and are shiny and want to be civil rights lawyers is that we don’t want to go to Alabama and challenge the way county commissioners are elected. I think that's part of the issue we have to talk about—geography: It's a big country! Y'all can't all be in New York. At the end of the day, this is what we've written off … the 'red states.' Fifty-two percent of black people live in the South! So you are writing off most black people when you decide that you don't want to deal with those issues.”
“This all starts at the local level. It starts with somebody believing that they can run for city council and realizing that they can, in fact, not just win and be the black face on the city council— or the the female face or the LGBT face—but that they can actually get something done and wield power. And so we have to focus I think on growing the next group of people who are going to join the political discourse and wield that power at a local level. We were blessed for eight years with a wonderful president. But politics is about more than who the president is. Law enforcement is about more than who the attorney general is. … All politics is local. If we want to rebuild to a point where we do have a federal government that is responsive to our needs and that does listen to people and that is based on inclusion as opposed to fear and exclusion, we have to populate it with people who hold those values dear.”
On cities and public programs:
“I grew up in New York as the youngest of 10 kids. How did we make it? We made it because there was this public apparatus that allowed our family to survive. With that one 35-cent token I could have a job up in Harlem even though I lived in Queens. I had a brother and sister who both went to the City University of New York, where registration was $85 per semester, and that was tough for us, but we could do it. There was this strong investment in public life. That’s the only way you keep a strong middle class, the only way people move from a lower socioeconomic condition into the middle class. I hope that we will begin to reclaim the word ‘public.’ The word ‘public’ only became dirty when it became associated with being black. Public housing was built for white people initially. There was nothing about public transportation that was considered black. We took these things that were pillars of American life and we racialized them, and once they were racialized we could demonize them and starve them of funds. So now in Maryland you get lots of money to build a highway, but the governor cancels the plan to build the subway in Baltimore that's going to take people to their jobs. Because when you say it in a speech in Maryland, all the people in the counties know what you mean when you say you're giving your tax dollars for ‘public transportation’ in Baltimore.”
“There are 200 zip codes in this country where 80% of children are expected to go to jail or prison. I think that's a health crisis, I really do. I think the CDC should declare a state of emergency in those zip codes, because we have children born to violent families, living in violent neighborhoods, and going to violent schools. They show up at 4 and 5 and have trauma disorders that we're not diagnosing and not treating. When you’ve got a trauma disorder, what you need to do is make the child feel safe. We do the opposite. We threaten them. We make them go through metal detectors. We've got teachers that sound like correctional officers and principals who sound like wardens. We demonize those children. I think we have to step back and say who are these children and what do they need? Who are these communities and what do they need?”
On the importance of confronting the past:
“I never thought during my law practice that I’d be spending so much time working on a museum. But our museum is called From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. We have to get people to understand the damage that was done to this country with this legacy. We kidnapped 12 million Africans, brought them across the ocean on this torturous journey, killed millions of them, held them in captivity for centuries, and we haven’t acted as if we've done anything wrong. We haven't really developed any shame about this history. I want to develop the shame index of America. We do a lot things great, but we don’t do mistakes very well. We don’t apologize very well. And if you don't learn to be shameful about shameful misbehavior you'll keep repeating that behavior over and over again. I don't have any interest in punishing America for its past. I represent people who've done really terrible things. I want to liberate us. I want to get to the point where we can we say that was bad and that was wrong, so we can get to someplace that's better. I want to deal with the smog created by our history of racial inequality so we can all breathe something healthy.”
“When people say to me ‘my family never had slaves, we were always nice people, we're not implicated in any of this,' I just find it to be really astonishing. Here we are all in the same country. You move into a neighborhood, you turn on the water, and water comes out of the pipe. Your grandparents didn't make the pipes in that city but you accept the water that comes out of the pipe. There are all these ways we accept the advantages of wherever we are… We take all the benefits, all the good memories of the things that make us great, but when it comes to the other part of the history, that is also something we have to take responsibility for.”
On thinking strategically:
“Alabama's constitution still prohibits black and white kids from going to school together. The only way you can get it out of the constitution is to have a statewide referendum where people vote whether to remove that segregation language from the constitution. We have tried twice now to get that language removed. In 2004. 52% voted to keep the language in the state constitution. In 2012, after the election of Barrack Obama, the number went up to 63%. Here's the bizarre thing: There is nothing in Alabama about which everybody can be legitimately proud, except for our college football teams. Alabama and Auburn are no joke—it’s probably the thing about which there is more enthusiasm and more community than anything else in that state. But I look at the team and it’s a predominantly black team. If you said to those football players, ‘what you’re doing is unconstitutional,’ or if you said to people in Alabama, ‘you can't have that football team until you change the constitution,’ all of a sudden there's going to be a tension that nobody currently feels. I think we have to create that tension—it’s the only way you do this work effectively.”
“You change what you can change. And one of the ways that change can happen in this country is by understanding where dollars go, and controlling the money. We have a very nice and tidy civil rights statute that is supposed to compel us to watch where the money goes: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, in addition to outlawing segregation in public accommodations and other things, states that the federal government may not provide funds to any program that engages in discrimination. It was that prohibition that made Northern schools begin to desegregate because they thought they were going to get the money cut off by the Department of Education. It’s the reason a kid like me was bussed to an integrated school. I’m a big fan of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and I think Title VI is the most underutilized portion of the statute. We give $2 billion a year to police departments. Don’t cut off that money—send more, but only if the departments can prove they’re not engaging in discrimination. How do we do that? That means we need to have data collection, we need to know about diversity and what kind of training you’re doing. We can use Title VI as a window, as a means to challenge all kinds of disparities. It requires a lot of our resources because to put together a Title VI complaint. But it’s as good as gold if we could just polish it and reveal it and use it.”
On criminal justice reform:
“I’ve been a prosecutor for over 20 years and what you prosecute and how you prosecute defines you as a society. It tells communities, it tells families, it tells the world whom you value and what you value, and it tells people what their status is. Are you the victim or are you the perpetrator? I've had cases where I’ve had people who could be either one on any given day. My grandfather was a sharecropper and a minister. He had eight children and a third-grade education. He built a church next to his house and when black people in his rural North Carolina community got in trouble they could come to him and he would hide them from the sheriff. My grandfather was a righteous man, a moral man, a man of conviction and of God. He knew that if there was no fairness in how people were treated then there was no justice for anybody in that community. I do believe the criminal justice system exists to protect people and I was very proud to be able to do that. But the way in which we choose how we punish and whom we punish is fundamental to who we are.”
On sources of optimism and strength:
“I get overwhelmed a lot. Every now and then I go into the front part of the office and I look out the window and think about the people who were trying to do what I’m doing but 60 years ago. What they had to say frequently is ‘my head is bloody but not bowed.’ It just tells me I don’t get to complain. You don’t have the choice of being hopeless. It’s just not a debate you should be having with yourself. Hopelessness is the enemy of justice. When you’re fighting for justice you’re fighting against hopelessness. You have to see hopelessness as a kind of toxin that will kill your ability to make a difference. When you feel worried and you’re not sure you can do something, push yourself. Be the person who stands up when everybody else says sit down. Be the person who speaks when everybody else says be quiet. You'll find a power in being that voice, in being that light, in being that representative that will make it clear to you that you can do so much more than you think you can do.”
“We get so much power from remembering. My own view is that we have very short memories and we really need to engage understanding the people who came before us and what they had to overcome. I’m not even just talking about black people. The world has come apart time and time again over hundreds of years. If you’re sitting in this room it means you come from a line of people who were able to survive whatever they had to. Somebody somewhere in your line had to overcome poverty or war or famine or devastation or terrible health or injustice. I think our disconnection from those stories—our disconnection from understanding that history—is so deep that we sometimes think we can’t survive what we can survive. Those struggles tell you about power.”
“These are difficult times. You’re going to see some things and hear some things that are going to shock and stun you and scare you. Maybe you've seen them already. They're going to make you wonder about what America has chosen and why. They're going to make you wonder: Can we survive all of this? But they will also make you look at yourself in a way you never thought possible. The times that we are about to transition through will highlight for you what's important to you in ways you aren't going to see right now. You will find the issue or the cause that touches you. It’s going to be painful to get there but it always has been. It has always been work, but it is the best work that you will ever do—the work of bending your shoulder and making this world a little better. It will make you the best person you will ever be. That's what I see ahead for young people today. That’s my hope.”