LexInsight Blog

The letter of the law is black, but the color of law is white.

Jun 13, 2018 7:00:00 AM / by Joyce Angela Jellison-Hounkanrin, J.D.

black and white

I realized this my first day of law school; as I sat in the front row of my section I made a conscious point of searching the sea of faces for other black students.

I was the fly in the buttermilk.

The brown and black faces were so few and far between that as I sat, all at once excited and anxious about the journey ahead of me, I felt dismayed.  Then, I comforted myself with ignorance. I convinced myself that perhaps, my experience was an anomaly, surely there was more diversity within the legal profession than what my precursory glances yielded.

The American Bar Association reported in 2017, that blacks comprise 4.8 percent of all lawyers in the United States. Contrasting the lack of black lawyers with the racial disparities in America’s prisons is all at once exhausting and a call for action.

According to research by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP), the racial disparities in America’s prisons give reason for pause: In 2014, African Americans constituted 2.3 million, or 34%, of the total 6.8 million correctional population. African Americans are incarcerated at more than 5 times the rate of whites.

African Americans are sentenced differently than whites. A criminal justice fact sheet comprised by the NAACP supports this hypothesis, “If African Americans and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates as whites, prison and jail populations would decline by almost 40%.”

There is the stark reality that a black person entering the criminal justice system, either as an offender or victim, may never encounter another person of color – not a prosecutor, judge, defense attorney, victim’s advocate or even more grim, a juror.

The balance of justice is not without shades of grey.  Complex and multilayered, the lack of black lawyers speaks volumes on a several issues: Equality in educational access; the politics of race as it is lived in America and how it is intricately interwoven with privilege.

“Minority law school enrollment recently topped 30 percent, but law firms are not making substantial progress in hiring and promoting minority lawyers, according to a Law360 survey,” writes Debra Cassens, a senior writer for the ABA Journal in an article that first appeared in the ABA Journal on August 23, 2017

Further noted by Cassens is the fact that law firms in general are lacking in diversity, “Nearly 85 percent of lawyers at more than 300 firms surveyed are white, “a number that has not meaningfully budged over the past three years,” according to a summary of the findings.”

I began my journey to becoming a lawyer at the age of 12; at the dawning of puberty and in perhaps one of the most blistering hot summers I have experienced, my mother enrolled me in a “law camp”.

I spent my summer learning due process, the bill of rights and arguing whether the constitution was a living document or an antiquated dry piece of paper with flowery writing.  It was a time of relative innocence; long before I would have learned of interconnected, racially bias systems that work in tandem to keep groups that have traditionally marginalized and silenced, on the very fringes of society. This was several summers before I would regularly drive almost two hours one-way to a Massachusetts Correctional Facility to collect prisoner’s stories as part of a concept of encouraging incarcerated men to share the stories of their lives with the outside world.  These were invisible men who had been eaten and digested by the behemoth that is the prison industrial complex.

These men walked with the weight of justice or lack thereof dragging their shoulders slightly down, as if there were an invisible string gently tugging them closer to the center of gravity – yet there remained an air of resolute defiance in their collective gaze. I would learn soon enough, that many of these men became, “Jailhouse” lawyers; men who spent hours hunched over law books in the prison library, hand writing appellate briefs with cramped fingers.  Necessity or rather the hunger for justice forced them to become well-versed in criminal law and procedure.

The legal community must be a fair representation of the individuals it serves. A homogenous, non-diverse profession inevitably leads to the silencing of underrepresented groups, otherwise the law becomes dangerously narrow sighted. The legal profession with it’s’ lack of diversity is fertile ground for the interests of the majority being served while the minority group is voiceless.

I often think back to that one summer when I was 12 and the possibilities were endless. The future stretched seductively before me and at least then, I saw myself reflected in every good thing.

Black lawyers matter for numerous reasons, at least for me – the most urgent of these is the call to justice, equality and liberation.

Topics: For Contract Attorneys

Joyce Angela Jellison-Hounkanrin, J.D.

Written by Joyce Angela Jellison-Hounkanrin, J.D.

Joyce Angela Jellison-Hounkanrin, J.D. is a graduate of Massachusetts School of Law. She is the founder of Boston Community Law School, a non-profit organization that facilitates community discussions and workshops on social justice.