California Lawyers Association

A Personal Plea for Addressing the Root Causes of Racism

June 2020

By Ona Alston Dosunmu

In addition to being the C.E.O. and Executive Director of CLA I am also an attorney. The death of George Floyd has affected me and turned my attention to the meaningful policy interventions that lawyers can champion to help reduce the likelihood that others suffer the same fate. But this month’s piece is less about those policy interventions than it is the personal cry of a mother, a wife and a sister to Black men.

Ahmaud Arbery. Trayvon Martin. Eric Garner. Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Michael Brown. Freddy Gray. Walter Scott. Tamir Rice. 

George Floyd is is just one of many in a long line of Black men and boys who have died at the hands of police or at the hands of vigilantes who are confident that when it comes to Black men, they may act with impunity. The facts, circumstances, and law around these incidents is varied and complicated but the root cause is not. Many people are incapable of seeing African Americans as fully human. Added to this is the demonization of Black men as “criminals” and “thugs.”

And even if they do not feel personally empowered to shoot a Black person for playing their music too loud or because they thought they were a suspect in a crime, racists can always use the police or the threat of calling the police to try to enforce their will on African Americans. How? By calling 911 (or threatening to) for such offenses as picnicking in a public park, asking that a dog be leashed or selling bottles of water without a permit. 

The terror, trauma and perpetual fear that state-sanctioned violence will be brought to bear against Black boys and men for nothing more than doing everyday things like jogging or going to the store impacts entire families and entire communities. And no amount of money, education, professionalism, mastery of standard English or careful diction protects our sons, husbands, fathers and brothers.

When my son was 15, he went to play basketball with friends in a tony, upper-Northwest neighborhood of Washington, D.C. He left his friend’s house to meet his sister. On his way, he was stopped at gunpoint, frisked, questioned and thrown into the back of a police car and taken for a so-called “field show-up” by a victim of a recent mugging. He was never arrested, never read his rights; nor was a parent ever called. As he was sitting handcuffed on the curb his friends tried to intervene. They were told to move away. Ultimately, he was released. It was a case of mistaken identity for which he didn’t receive so much as an apology.

A parent of one of the friends who witnessed the incident contacted me to ask about my son’s welfare. But for that message I never would have known the incident occurred. I never would have known that this wasn’t the first time this had happened to him. My son could have been taken from our family in an instant by a trigger-happy, racist cop or by being misidentified as a criminal. While my husband didn’t make excuses or try to convince me that I was wrong to be upset, he did gently remind me that such experiences are par for the course. The fact that neither my son nor my husband was surprised by this treatment and the fact that this wasn’t my son’s first run-in with the police for simply existing in his Black, male body was and continues to be both painful and infuriating.

There is an unbroken line through U.S. history of violence against African Americans—from slavery to the post-Reconstruction terrorism of lynching in the Jim Crow era to police officers acting as judge, jury and executioner on the streets of America’s cities. I support efforts at criminal justice reform. I support the election or appointment of prosecutors who come from the communities being policed. I support stronger federal Justice Department supervision of problematic police forces. I support changes in the law about when the use of deadly force is permissible by police officers. All of these policy interventions are important and should happen.

Most of all though, what I believe needs to happen is for America to learn to see African Americans as fully human. 

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