Stunned at the depth of unprofessionalism, I sat there and listened as questions about my personal life were raised in the name of addressing any potential conflicts that I had with existing clients. Looking at the court reporter summoned to this meeting, I felt my emotion leave my body as I geared up to play the game once again. Unfortunately this game had become all too common for me as I spent the past 18 years trying to strike the balance between being a zealous advocate and stomaching the gross disrespect wielded upon me as a criminal defense attorney. It seemed, in our system of justice, my decision to defend the voiceless meant I was involuntarily inducted into a club that was shunned and ridiculed on a regular basis.
As I sat there I could not help but wonder what this “witch hunt” was really about. And, quite frankly, if I had the benefit of “white privilege”, would this have been handled in the same manner. Once again, the presumption of ignorance had been bestowed upon me as a black, female lawyer. In this instance, a two minute phone call could have cleared up any concern about whether or not I addressed the potential conflict. Yet, I was forced to create a record that unveiled parts of my personal life that should not be subject to court preservation.
As I pondered the events of the day I could not help but think back to another disheartening experience as a criminal defense attorney. On this occasion, I was ordered to court by a Superior Court Judge who felt it was necessary to question a client’s decision to hire myself and my law partner, another black female. This young man had been charged with capital murder and received the benefit of having two attorneys appointed to represent him by the capital defender’s office. Certainly, these two white male attorneys were competent and able to provide an adequate defense. However, this young man and his family made the decision, as they were entitled to, that they wanted to hire our firm to represent him as he fought for his life. Angered beyond belief, but silent, I stood beside this young man, already stressed by the process of being charged with an offense that could potentially lead to him receiving the death penalty, as this Judge, in the presence of a courtroom full of onlookers, repeatedly asked my new client if he was sure that he wished to fire the two fine lawyers appointed to his matter in order to hire us. Seeking to reinforce the message that he was attempting to send, the Judge glared at me with disdain and indifference throughout the entire inquiry.
Throughout my years of advocacy, I have always had to overcome the presumption of ignorance bestowed upon me as a black, female attorney. While it seemed always taken for granted that my white counterparts would be prepared and ready for intellectual battle, there was a sense of surprise or astonishment when I was prepared to do what I had been trained to do. And, if I dropped the ball in any way, it seemed my failures or shortcomings were magnified by a group that was anxiously awaiting to broadcast those failures.
Sadly, many of my African-American colleagues sense this presumption of ignorance as well. Unfortunately, in an effort to survive, we are silenced and forced to submit to the ridicule and presumption of ignorance attached to our black skin.
Ironically, some of our white counterparts are well of aware of the “presumption of intelligence” bestowed upon them. Recently, a white male colleague was talking to a black male colleague and shockingly revealed the obvious disparity that existed in the courtroom when it came to the manner in which judicial officials dealt with black lawyers and white lawyers. Having the benefit of “white privilege”, this attorney shared how surprised he was to see black judges treat him with a level of professionalism and courtesy that was rarely extended to black attorneys.
As I listened, I could not help but wonder if he would be the spokesperson against the presumption of ignorance. Somehow, I believe a white man bringing attention to the disparity would gain more traction than any attempt by me to dismantle the presumption of ignorance.
Sad, but true!