Racing ForwardThursday, May 10, 2018
BerkeleyLaw – By Andrew Cohen
The racial justice work churning within Berkeley Law is expansive and inspiring. Yet the people leading that work—clinic leaders, student advocates, faculty scholars—acknowledge that confronting racial inequities in America demands confronting them in its legal institutions.
“Racial justice work is disingenuous unless it’s connected to that acknowledgment,” says Tirien Steinbach ’99, director of Berkeley Law’s East Bay Community Law Center (ECBLC). “People talk about leveling the playing field, but very few legal entities actually do it.”
Across the board, the data is damning. In California, people from racial-ethnic groups account for more than 60 percent of the population but less than 20 percent of the lawyers. Nationally, minorities make up just 9 percent of law firm partners. Only 11 percent of Fortune 500 general counsels are African American, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American.
Minorities are also underrepresented as judges and prosecutors. According to a recent study, whites comprise 83 percent of state judges and 81 percent of assistant U.S. attorneys. Asian Americans make up 10 percent of graduates in top U.S. law schools, but only 2 percent of state judges.
Judicial clerkships further reflect that imbalance. Whites made up 58 percent of the students at Top 30 law schools in 2015, but 82 percent of federal clerks. African Americans comprised just 4 percent.
“These extreme racial disparities both derive from and create racial injustice,” says Savala Trepczynski ’11, executive director of Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice. “They’re part of a cycle. Who ends up in our profession—and at the top of it—has a lot to do with who lives in well-resourced, free communities and who doesn’t.”
She adds that, “When the power brokers almost exclusively mirror and are connected to those same well-served communities, we reproduce the very dynamics that created the original inequities. All law schools need to ask themselves if they’re inadvertently contributing to the problem or advancing the solution.”
Juvenile system figures foretell how such inequities eventually play out. According to 2016 California Department of Justice data, African-American youth are far more likely than white youth to be arrested (4.4 times), detained (7.6), given probation (3.3), removed from their family’s home (4.4), and moved to adult court (5.9).
At a November criminal justice conference co-sponsored by Berkeley Law and the Heritage Foundation, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky noted that, “Every study shows how a black or brown person is more likely to get stopped than a white person, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be charged with a longer sentence.”
Indeed, images of “white supremacy” are shifting from Ku Klux Klan rallies to institutional entrenchment—from racial profiling, gerrymandering, and workplace discrimination to racial imbalances within law schools, firms, and courts.
“It’s clear that the problem of continued racism is not about a few bad-acting, self-declared white supremacists, but a culture of white supremacy that privileges whiteness—individually, interpersonally, institutionally—in ways that often block access and opportunity for people of color,” Steinbach says.