By TOLULOPE ODUNSI / Assistant Dean for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, UB School of Law
Swastikas, white hoods, burning crosses, lynchings and racial epithets. In contemporary America, these overt acts and symbols of racism are generally deemed unacceptable. However, systemic racism (systems and institutions that subtly, or not so subtly, disadvantage people of color) persists.
Why? Despite recent shifts toward understanding that racism is systemic, many still fail to identify the covert ways racism is embedded in our society.
I am the assistant dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the School of Law. From my lens, one of the biggest tasks of anti-racism work is getting people to reconceptualize what racism looks like. It is making sure that our students, faculty and staff understand that racism is not always packaged in racial slurs or overtly racist acts.
The inability to identify and call out covertly racist systems has brought our country to where we now stand: There are two harmful groups in America. One places a presumption of criminality on people of color, particularly Black people. The other accepts blissful ignorance of the reasons why social and economic disparities exist between people of color and their white counterparts. Both represent a large part of America’s population, and they are why we as a nation can’t identify and call out racist systems.
I thought about this last month while doing something as mundane as purchasing liquor at my local liquor store. I opted to purchase Hennessy, a cognac that gained popularity among Black Americans because it was one of the first mainstream liquor brands to advertise in Black media. What struck me, as I purchased my alcohol of choice, was that I was not allowed to simply collect the Hennessy from the shelf. Instead, I was required to have a store clerk retrieve the bottle for me.
When I asked the clerk why, she offered that this was protocol for their more expensive liquors. The problem was that I saw other liquors that were much more expensive than Hennessy available on the shelves. The only conclusion I could draw was that this store presumed that the kind of person who would purchase Hennessy, a drink well known to be popular among Black Americans, might steal it.
Unfortunately, this presumption of criminality has caused me to find myself in several situations where I have feared for my safety and for those around me. One incident took place in 2016, shortly after I was sworn in as an attorney. As a newly minted lawyer I, of course, felt as though I had a clear understanding of the rights granted to me under the Constitution. That view was shattered one evening when I was hanging out with some friends in a Buffalo apartment. During the evening, my friend’s neighbors called the police on us because they felt that we were too loud. When the police arrived, they asked that everyone show their IDs. When my friend questioned why this was necessary, one of the responding officers placed my friend under arrest.
In response, I calmly told the officer I was that person’s attorney and asked why my friend was being arrested. He pulled his gun from his holster and pointed it at me after I challenged him.
“Because I want to and I will arrest you, too, little Miss Attorney,” he retorted.
In that moment, I knew my priority was ensuring the safety of myself and my friend rather than defending our right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. I made this intellectual and emotional calculation while confronted with the officer’s gun. Even while practicing law, the very thing I had just been given permission to do, my behavior was deemed to be criminal.
This is the same presumption of criminality that was given to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Amadou Diallo and countless others who died at the hands of law enforcement officers. This same association between Blackness and criminality impacts Black people in all aspects of criminal justice — from higher rates of childhood suspension, expulsion and arrest at school to higher rates of probation and parole revocation.
The public’s inability to address covert racism such as bias, micro-aggressions, and coded racist language and policies (such as my local liquor store) is why an officer felt emboldened to kneel on George Floyd’s neck for 8:46, responding to an accusation that Floyd had proffered a counterfeit $20 bill. It is why studies tell us that Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to be called back for job interviews and that Black newborn babies are three times more likely to die when looked after by white doctors.
If racism has no place at the University at Buffalo School of Law or in our society, the question becomes, how do we disrupt racism where it may exist?
For me, building an anti-racist culture requires first looking inward and critically examining our own individual impact on people of color. Do we believe them when they share their experiences of racism, or do we deflect and deny that race is an issue? Do we acknowledge the trauma they may feel due to the unprecedented level of national attention on the racial injustice in the U.S., or do we just go on with our day as if nothing is happening?
At a systemic level, this work includes swift action to examine and dismantle policies and practices that have a disparately negative impact on people of color. Attorneys and law students are positioned to leverage their legal analysis, research, writing and advocacy skills to do just this. As the late Charles Hamilton Houston once told his Howard University law students, “a lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” As lawyers, even though we might not directly contribute to systemic racism, our silence and failure to act allows it to thrive.
Finally, we must understand that the power in being able to identify covert racism is the power to disrupt it.