California Lawyers Association

We Can And Must Do Better

By Leo G. Spanos 

What does justice mean?  What does equity mean?  What does equality mean?  Do we live in a just, equitable society that treats people equally?  If you ask a thousand different people, you will get a thousand different answers.  It depends on your perspective.  It depends on your experiences.  It depends where you were raised.  There are no “right” answers; only shades of gray.  We live in shades of gray.  Over 328 million people can observe the same event but see it differently.  With different eyes.  With different ears.  With different preconceived ideas.  With different biases.  Downplaying or overlooking certain details while emphasizing others. All the while, not even realizing it; or realizing it only fleetingly; only conveniently; only when it’s personal.  We live with blinders. Like a racehorse galloping around a track in blissful oblivion.  

Eight minutes and 46 seconds evidencing a murder based on age-old animus or a police officer struggling with a nondescript suspect resisting arrest?  Eight minutes and 46 seconds seen through the lens of a blank – white — canvas or through 401 years of oppression and domestic terrorism?  Eight minutes and 46 seconds showing an isolated incident or systematic inequality?  One bad apple or the tip of the iceberg?  It depends on your experiences.  Is the police officer the person who saves the cherished family cat that got caught in the tree or the person who beats people with a billy club for no other reason than seemingly being at the wrong place at the wrong time; of course, it’s always the wrong place and wrong time for some people.  At least, that’s how it feels to them.  To others, it’s called “law and order” though there is nothing lawful or orderly about it when it is not applied impartially.      

We should be careful not to paint with an overly broad stroke.  Not all interactions between law enforcement and minorities, particularly African Americans, end in violence; likewise, interactions with non-minorities are not always peaceful. In some cases, the perpetrators of the violence are themselves minorities.  Most people agree that the majority of law enforcement officers perform their jobs with respect and dignity.  They do their best in difficult situations; they put their lives at risk to protect others; they need to make split-second decisions and they are often second-guessed.  They are not intentionally treating different classes of people differently.  The divergence in views emerges when we witness acts of injustice that hark back to centuries-old abuses of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement.  We see it differently.  We feel it differently.    

We struggle defining “systematic inequality,” “systematic racism,” and “implicit bias.”  We struggle explaining how we can say that “most law enforcement officers are not racist” while maintaining that “systemic inequality” exists.  We struggle explaining how we can say that “most law enforcement officers are honest and perform their jobs with integrity” while maintaining that “implicit bias” is a problem.  We struggle explaining why “law and order” can be both divisive and desperately needed.  We struggle explaining why expressions of “white power” are inherently different than those of “black power.”  We struggle to explain that “white privilege” exists even though many white people feel left behind and anything but “privileged.”  How can someone who is suffocating say “I can’t breathe”?   

We struggle because there are no easy answers. Yet we need to embrace the difficulty and strive to explain and to educate.  The consequences of not doing so are too consequential.  Context and history matter.  They matter greatly.  In this conversation, they are everything.  We must acknowledge that the playing field is not equal.  Despite the famous proclamation that “all men are created equal,” our founding fathers created a decidedly unequal republic.  They were unabashedly forward-thinking in some ways but in other ways they were steeped in age-old hatred and prejudice.  To acknowledge this does not lessen their achievements; it does not mean they should not be celebrated and even venerated.  Their accomplishments have endured over two and a half centuries and we should be rightfully proud to be the heirs of their legacy.  But like those before them – the ancient Greeks, for example, who created democracy – they were imperfect.  They were biased, and yes, many were racist.  They were capable of promoting and spreading evil ideology even if they were not inherently evil.   

This is not the forum to go into details but certain events/periods of our history must be called out: 1619, the Native American Genocide, Slavery, the Trail of Tears, Dred Scott, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Plessy v. Ferguson, 3,446 Lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, the Japanese Internment Camps, Refusing to Guarantee Federally Backed Mortgages in Black Neighborhoods (a practice known as Redlining), the War on Drugs, Mass Incarceration . . . the list goes on.  No, the playing field is not equal. Yes, we view things through a different lens.        

Were we the only people to struggle with prejudice?  No. History is replete with other examples.  But our story is unique.  France abolished slavery in 1794.  England abolished slavery in 1807.  Spain in 1811.  The Civil War started in 1861 and over 620,000 people perished.  Americans against Americans.  Brothers against Brothers.  Why?  Because those who sought to untether themselves from our national ties were willing to die — to maim, to kill — over the right to own and enslave other people.  Their economic life depended on it but so did their sense of worth.  (As Thomas Pearce Bailey said “Let the lowest white man count for more than the highest negro.”).  The South conceded defeat in 1865 but their fight against racial equality was far from finished.  The Nazis studied the laws enacted by southern states and even some of them thought they went too far.  What was the cause of America’s maniacal animus against black people?  In 1944, a teenage African-American girl won an essay contest on the topic of “What to do with Hitler after the War”  when she wrote “Put him in a black skin and let him live the rest of his life in America.”  (“Caste, The Origins of Our Discontent” Isabel Wilkerson, page 164).          

When we speak of “systematic inequality,” “systematic racism,” and “implicit bias,” we acknowledge that despite our efforts in overcoming the darkest parts of our history the remnants still remain.   We have made great progress but work remains.  The stench of hatred still lingers.  The physical remnants and the social ones:  Statues.  Monuments.  Symbols. The Killings at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.  The Alt Right and the Re-Emergence of White Supremacist Groups.  Continued Voter Suppression.  Unequal Representation in Government.  Unequal Representation in Upper Echelons of the Economy.  Unequal Representation in the Judiciary.  Disproportionate Levels of Unemployment.  Disproportionate Levels of homelessness.  Disproportionate Levels of Homeownership.   Disproportionate Health Outcomes due to COVID 19.  Charlottesville.  Treyvon Martin.  George Floyd.  Breonna Taylor, and so many more. . . When we speak of “systematic inequality,” “systematic racism,” and “implicit bias,” we pay respect to the past as a way to better understand our present.  Not to dwell on the past it but to learn from it.   We can do better.  We must do better.  Not only for ourselves.  For our children.  For our grandchildren.  For future generations.   

Disclaimer:  Leo G. Spanos is a Senior Associate Attorney at Jen Lee Law (www.jenleelaw.com) and the incoming Chair of the Bankruptcy Section of the Alameda County Bar Association.  Mr. Spanos focuses on individual and small business bankruptcy and providing financial relief to his clients. The opinions expressed in this article represent solely the views of the author.  Mr. Spanos can be reached at leo@jenleelaw.com.   

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