The Question of Race
The Honorable Bedford Brown was born in Caswell County, North Carolina in 1795. He would graduate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1813, where he studied law. Soon thereafter, Brown would be admitted to the North Carolina State Bar as a member of the noble legal profession. He would have an incredible career as an attorney that would eventually lead him to be elected as a U.S. senator. By many objective measurements of success, Sen. (and attorney) Brown lived an accomplished life, one worthy of admiration. However, he also owned more than 100 enslaved African people, including my 4th great-grandparents John and Lizzie Brown, and my 3rd great-grandmother, Onie Brown, in a system that was endorsed and upheld by law and the American legal profession.
Sen. Brown’s descendants would inherit land, wealth, and privilege that would persist for generations throughout North Carolina, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. Unfortunately, the descendants of his enslaved people, which include my family, would not fare the same. They would continue to work as sharecroppers, cultivating the same land that they once worked as enslaved people, unable to read or write for generations. Finally, in 1980, nearly 110 years after Bedford’s death, my mother became the first in her family to obtain a college degree, and in 2010, I was admitted to the North Carolina State Bar as a licensed attorney, the same bar that admitted the Honorable slave-owning, Bedford Brown.
It should not be lost on anyone that our collective shared history and the effects of that history still impacts our lives today—a history where two families connected through a legal and accepted framework of human enslavement, can and have continued to live and experience life in this country through dramatically different lenses. Lenses that allow one family to live abundantly and experience the fruits of this country without limitations, and another family to endure and survive nearly 300 years of legalized enslavement, followed by another 100 years of institutional racism.
I dare say that there should be little doubt that the legal profession has been and continues to be impacted by the question of race.
This question persists today, and for the most part, has defined my experience as a lawyer in the United States.
“You must work twice as hard as everyone else,” my parents constantly said when referring to the challenges of being a person of color in this country. “You must not give them any reason to doubt your abilities,” said my mentors in the profession over and over again. “You must find sponsors and mentors to guide you through the profession if you are to achieve success… be an example for the race,” said other mentors and personal advisors. “No matter what you do as an attorney, you will always have an additional obligation to your people,” said many more mentors and advisors.
These phrases and words of sage advice, encouragement, and duty are common among communities of color in historically white places. But the dogged pursuit to always be damn near perfect in every professional setting at levels beyond any reasonable expectation eventually becomes increasingly tiring.
I always constantly check my appearance before meetings, making sure my overall demeanor is not seen as “too aggressive,” or worse, that I’m “not serious for the role” or “I’m not the right fit” when my behavior, by any objective measure, was no different than my white male counterparts. And even when I do check off all the boxes of an equation that equals “happy, hardworking, and very approachable black man,” I’d still be reminded in one way or another of how “other” I was.
“How you doin’ … boy,” said a board member of a former employer.
“I don’t think you’re qualified to be here,” said an attorney with another former employer.
Unfortunately, my own personal experiences as a black man are not unique experiences. The challenges of being a person of color in historically white places, like the American legal profession, are not new.
But what is new and different are the channels and ways in which people of color can share their experiences and provide examples to others on how to endure, thrive, and flourish as an attorney. The ABA Young Lawyers Division’s Men of Color Project is one new-age example of a digital platform for resource sharing. Founded in 2018 as a special initiative of the division, the Men of Color Project has connected men across the country in a collective effort to support each other and ensure that generations of men from diverse backgrounds can thrive in our profession. Whether it is conversations about mental wellness and coping with microaggressions in the workplace or confronting overt examples of textbook racism, the Men of Color Project demonstrates how 21st century technology, when paired with a culturally and enriching initiative, can reach the masses.
No one can change the past. But, it is my immense hope and belief that we can all heed the call to ensure that our profession is no longer a byproduct of its history, but a shining example of how the critical-thinking minds of this nation can create a profession that is welcoming of all people, and reflects the multicultural, diversity-rich people it has sworn to serve.
This article appeared in the April 2019 edition of Law Practice Today.