Confrontational Justice

As a black, self-employed attorney and elected official in my community, I started August 28th with gratitude, believing that the Civil Rights Movement made it possible for me to be possible. I started with a sense of hope that racial progress was still not only possible…it was inevitable.  

But, within 3 hours, in two Chicago-area courthouses in two different counties, I was reminded that although the nation was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the history-making “I Have A Dream” speech, the reality is that I, a highly educated black woman, still exist at the margins of society.  While I can now physically enter the courthouse through the front door, I am still mentally relegated to back door entrances and persona non grata status by white court personnel.

In the first instance, the court clerk rudely told me that I could not check in with her for my case. Instead, I was told to take a seat and wait for my case to be called, and then asked if I had an attorney.  Even though I was dressed like other attorneys in the courtroom, had a file in my hand, and attempted to explain that I was checking in as the attorney.  There was no moment of awareness nor acknowledgment of how offensive and racist she had just been.  No apology.  Just business as usual.

I observed that the white male attorney before me and the two white female attorneys after me, were assumed automatically, just by their presence, dress, and demeanor, to be attorneys.  They were treated professionally and with respect.  I, on the other hand, was talked down to and practically ordered to sit down (as she pointed to the public seating area of the courtroom, not the “inner sanctuary” where judges, clerks…and attorneys sit).

In the second courthouse, I stood in line inside the Circuit Court Clerk’s office, under the overhead sign marked “Attorneys”.  In front of me stood a white, male attorney.  After he was waited on, the clerk looked at me and walked away.  She just walked away and left me standing there wondering if she was coming back or what.  I soon had my answer.  As she sat down at a desk across the office, I called out to her and motioned to the open window.  She looked at me, and without saying a word, pointed to the sign above…because, after all, that line was “for attorneys only.”  No chance she hadn’t seen me.  We made eye contact.  She saw me alright, but not as an attorney.

And then I remembered when a court security officer motioned to my white, female client that she could come around the metal detector, while I, walking right behind her, was motioned directly to the metal detector.  When she hesitated, the officer said,“You are an attorney, aren’t you?”  So, not only are white attorneys automatically presumed to be attorneys, white people, in general, receive the presumption and apparently get to avoid the metal detector…at least if walking into court with a black person.  Ahhh, white privilege.

And then I remembered the time when I stepped up to the judge with a white, male client charged with a DUI.  As started to talk, the judge cut me off and told me to let my attorney talk for me. In a nano-second I realized that the judge thought my client, dressed like he was on his way to a rodeo, was the attorney…and that I, dressed like I was going, well, to court, was the DUI defendant.

There are other similar incidents.  I repeatedly get to see how the justice system treats people who look like me when they think I’m not an attorney.  I get to see what’s really happening.  

So, I’m on a mission. If you believe in “the Dream”, please join me in turning a mirror on America’s persistent, racist pathology.  If you see discrimination, call it.  Like roaches, discrimination hates the light.  But injustice doesn’t scream and call attention to itself.  It is usually more subtle, more nuanced.  If you don’t look, you won’t see it.  

Don’t ignore it.  Confront it.  Join the movement.