From the Multnomah Lawyer: Building Resilience to End Racial Injustice

The last few months have been challenging - without much notice, we had to drastically change our daily routines and interactions. Words such as “pandemic,” “social distancing,” “self-isolation” became a part of our everyday conversations in addition to the barrage of emails and articles containing the word “unprecedented” in describing the times of COVID-19. 

At first, many believed that the coronavirus was an “equalizer,” a non-discriminating virus. However, Black, indigenous, and communities of color are bearing the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic’s health and economic impact. The coronavirus has magnified the prior inequities that existed as a result of another pandemic: racism. Unfortunately, coronavirus and racism are dangerously too similar, and together they are a lethal combination to Black and brown people. Coronavirus, just like racism, (1) allows those who have not experienced it or been affected by it to ignore and disbelieve its existence; (2) vilifies the victim and further blames them for being a victim; and (3) discharges any sense of collective responsibility to address it, but instead puts the burden on the victim, often with no power or support, to seek redress on their own.

Then, amidst the sudden and drastic changes to our lives due to COVID-19, we were horrifically reminded of how deadly and evil the pandemic of racism was. In dread and dismay, we watched the life of George Floyd, a Black man, being taken from him without any regard. While a white police officer knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, George Floyd pled and cried, “I can’t breathe.” Those were also the dying words of Eric Garner in 2014 when a police officer held him in a chokehold. This excruciating racial pain once again reminded the Black community that Black lives are not valued; Black lives don’t matter.

Now, I say these words feeling the full weight and sting of them. As a Black person, I have had my own experiences of not belonging, not being valued, and fearing for my safety. Whether it was as a college student witnessing a white supremacist group protesting on my campus because they believed that the university admitted too many students of color or as an attorney being called the “N-word” as I walked back from the courthouse, those are just a couple of examples of what being Black is - it is to be seen only by the color of your skin with the most negative stereotypes attributed to it.

In the days and weeks that have followed George Floyd’s murder, there have been local and national protests demanding justice, equality, and the end to police brutality. In many ways, the current demonstrations parallel the protests against racial injustices and state sanctioned violence going as far back as the post-Civil War days in the 1870s to the uprisings in 1943, 1965, 1968, 1992, 2014, and so forth. These protests are more than just about George Floyd or the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. These protests are rooted in the long history of racial violence and inequality and are a referendum on the inadequacies of our democracy. A democracy that has extolled that “[we] are all created equal” but continues to treat Black people, indigenous people, and people of color unequally, as less than in every aspect of society.

As much as I have felt hurt and heartbroken over these tragedies and the many more that continue to happen, such as Tony McDade and Rayshard Brooks, I am also hopeful that transformative change is possible. Today’s demonstrations are markedly interracial. Public opinions about the need for police accountability are changing. There is a re-examination of statues in the likeness of, and buildings named after, individuals with racist pasts to determine whether they truly exemplify our values and ideals. In some cases, the statues have been removed or the buildings have been renamed. In other cases, where the statues and building names remain, the full story of the individual is included to provide the proper context. Our racial and cultural history is complex and, oftentimes, contradictory. But we must grapple with it if we are to stand for equality for all.

In addition, many organizations and law firms observed June 19 or Juneteenth - also known as “Freedom Day” or our nation’s “Second Independence.” Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when the enslaved in Galveston, Texas, finally learned of their freedom and began their struggle for equal rights. This was two months after the end of the Civil War and more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Moreover, many national and state organizations, including the MBA, have issued statements of solidarity with the Black community and a commitment to racial justice.

Yet, there is still more to do. Statements of solidarity are important gestures, but they are only the first steps. As MBA President, I commit to amplifying the voices of those who are marginalized and are unheard. I am committed to creating an environment of belonging where the differences of individuals are valued. As a member of this legal community, I ask for your help in fighting against racial and other injustices. We do not know how long COVID-19 will be with us, but we know that institutional and structural racism have existed for decades. The movement to end them will be long and arduous. And the fight for equality, inclusion, and belonging require resilience. Resilience to engage in difficult and painful conversations about race, racism, oppression, and white privilege. Resilience to acknowledge and hold space for the deep pain and trauma that people of color have experienced and the pain from unpeeling the layers of our complicity. We must listen to and center the experiences of Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).1 Both individually and collectively, we must take responsibility for doing the work of being anti-racist.

1 The term BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous, People of Color. It is used to acknowledge that not all people of color face the same level of injustice and oppression. By specifically naming Black and Indigenous communities it highlights that these communities face different, and often more severe, forms of oppression and erasure.

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