By Ona Alston Dosunmu
Much ink has been spilled on the attack of the U.S. Capitol by a violent mob on January 6. Some of that commentary underscores the stark contrast between the way the crowd was treated in contrast to the way in which those engaging in Black Lives Matter protests during the summer of 2020 were treated. If we expand our aperture, however, and consider the events of January 6 in the context of U.S. history then we see another pattern—a pattern demonstrating the futility of attempting to separate “Black History” in the United States from U.S. History. Given that it is Black History Month, now seems to be a good time to ask where we are today in U.S. history and what the future holds.
There is a view of the history of the United States—in broad and over-simplified strokes—that describes it as a story of progress and reactionary retrenchment around the rights, status, and, indeed, very existence of Black people, particularly the descendants of those who were enslaved, in this country. While people of African descent have resisted racialized oppression for as long as they have been on these shores, there has been a rhythm to U.S. history—a rhythm that feels like two steps forward and one step (or more) backwards when it comes to the status, rights and treatment of Black people in America. Here’s a provocative thought experiment: Will people 25 or 50 years in the future argue that the current historical period is analogous to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan after Reconstruction or the rise of White Citizens Councils in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education?
This raises the question of where we go from here. And, for our purposes, what role can lawyers play in helping the nation emerge from this stronger, better and more united rather than weaker, poorer and more divided? More specifically, what can the California Lawyers Association do? The good news is that lawyers have often been at the forefront of social progress in the United States. We have the intellectual, research and advocacy tools to navigate through the wilderness of discord to relative peace and prosperity once again.
Here are a few thoughts to get us started: Insist on fact-based civil discourse grounded in reality—not only in the courtroom but in all interactions whether virtual or face-to-face. CLA both recognizes the value of an adversarial system of justice and the importance of engaging in a civil manner. We have recommitted ourselves to elevating civility through our civility task force, which our President Emilio Varanini and our Chair Betty Williams described last month. One of the initiatives CLA adopted early in its life is Civic Engagement and Outreach. This effort has a particular emphasis on K-12 education. Ensuring that today’s students have a basic familiarity with the Constitution and the processes and procedures demanded by our constitutional democracy will go a long way towards averting another crisis like the one we just lived through. Finally, courageous attorneys of good faith who are committed to truth and reason should consider running for public office in both the Republicans and Democratic parties. Public service has been tarnished in recent times. Lawyers can play role in restoring the dignity, importance and relevance of elected offices at all levels in our state and in our nation.