Injustice Essay, UDC´s David C. Clarke Antioch School of Law
I must admit to finding this essay one of the most unsettling and emotionally difficult to write pieces in my writing career. While there are certainly more cutting incidents and more superficially significant incidents which I have experienced in my forty two years, I have chosen to share this event for two reasons. First, this incident strikes me as an example of the subtle damage done by fear, bias, and the perceptions and uses of power in the absence of mutual trust and full voice in decision-making processes. Second, this particular instance seems to have set in my consciousness a deep understanding of the need for cooperation not only between oppressed communities, but also of the need for each of us to understand the stories and ways of communicating of other people.
I was about seven years of age, a fair-skinned girl of African-American descent, riding through the Lincoln or the Holland tunnel in a car driven by a young Jewish woman, who happened to be both my mother´s roommate, and my defacto babysitter most of the time. As we came to the entrance of the tunnel, a pall of fear came over her face. We were being pulled over by a police officer, a barrel-chested white man, who appeared both unhappy and menacing as he got out of his car. Although I did not comprehend the issue at the time, she certainly felt that being pulled over was an injustice to her on the part of the police officer. She turned to me, the fear palpable in her voice, and said
“now look, this cop will think you are my daughter, and that means he will think that I am dating a black guy, so keep your mouth shut and don´t make any Smart Alec remarks.”
By that age, based on the treatment I regularly received from my classmates in school who took me for a mixed race child, I was well aware that interracial relationships of any kind were unacceptable, even in the New Jersey of 1976. I found myself as full of fear as my visibly nervous guardian. All I could do was to sit and watch, mouth clamped firmly shut, as the officer approached.
To this day, I have no recollection of the events after her fateful words to me, but I will always retain the memory of the chilling effect those words had on me, as I realized that not only my schoolmates, but even adults whom I would never meet, hated me for my mere appearance. I came to admire the courage and patience of this young Jewish woman who took the time to introduce me to both her culture and even to my own, as we listened alternately to Jewish music and to records by African musicians. She emphasized that I should learn about both my own heritage and about the heritages of others. She opened to me a world of possibility, while reminding me that I must always be cognizant of my own origins, and that no person´s origins were without both pain and responsibility. The damage of both self-hatred and discrimination caused by fear of and bias against those who appear to be different from ourselves can best be overcome through inclusive sharing of stories. That kind of openness between communities can create space for cooperative communication. Out of this process can emerge new and creative applications of shared power which enable all parties to safely contribute to building structures which both protect the dignity of all members of society and enable each person to rise to his or her full potential. These processes require high levels of both mutual trust and mutual respect which allow for the differences in power levels to be negotiated in participatory venues which deliberately include the voices of all who are affected by such decision-making processes. This inclusion both requires and generates cooperation between individuals and communities as first stories, and then problems, and then potential solutions, are shared and debated. While solutions must begin in the community, sometimes the end result of such discussion must be finalized in the legal system via reformulation of the legal codes, discovery of already existing codes, as in the case of DC´s “Lost Laws”, or simply providing voice for those who cannot make themselves heard. All of these processes require a sense of shared values and mutual respect. As citizens of a democracy, “we the people” must work together “to form a more perfect union” where the interests of all are protected and promoted equally.
Fear and distrust are most effectively dispelled by building upon our shared values, emphasizing the egalitarian ethos upon which our founding documents are based, and working to make those ideals a practical reality. Cooperative understanding of stories and concerns is a key part of the process needed to banish hatred and bias on the road to building full participation and voice for all. To paraphrase a song we sang frequently in school, our origins carry both a patient faith that the difficult past can be overcome, and a roll-up-your-sleeves type of hope that the present brings us ever more opportunities to repair this pain-filled world. As I reflect upon this incident, there is no way in which I could or even would have responded differently at that time, but I carry forward from thence a fervent faith and hope that through cooperation between communities we can help to lift every voice so that all are clearly heard. Through the kind of legal training provided at the UDC David Clarke School of Law, I hope to serve as a more effective facilitator of both short-term and long-term cooperative empowerment.
(re-reading this essay, it occurs to me that it showed my interest in history and Cultural Change/Cooperation (sociology?) more than Law, which is actually an Adversarial System in our society…)
(Shira) Destinie Jones