Businesses, non-profit organizations, and government agencies have been creating diversity and inclusion divisions in the past decades, due to recognition that the demographics of the U.S. have changed. Texas is a minority-majority state, with African Americans being the largest minority group, according to the 2020 U.S. Census. If an organization wishes to continue to grow and succeed into the next millennium, issues of diversity and inclusion must be addressed.
For a criminal defense attorney, understanding issues relating to race, diversity, and inclusion can help one be a better lawyer. Here is why.
Race in the Criminal Justice System
One cannot be a good criminal defense attorney and not be aware of issues involving race and racial bias in both policing and the criminal justice system. Over-representation of Black men in the criminal justice system is well documented. Black men make up approximately 13 percent of the male population, but make up to 35 percent of those incarcerated. One in five Black people born in 2001 is likely to be incarcerated, compared to one in 10 Latino people and one in 29 white people, according to a 2019 Vera Institute of Justice report.1 More than 70 percent of the people currently on Texas’ Death Row are Black or Hispanic, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice January 2022 report.2 A good defense attorney must understand the discrimination faced by many in the communities of color in order to understand why the criminal justice system is in it’s current state. It’s important to understand the historical and systemic racism that exists in these institutions to understand why your client was pulled over, why your client was searched, and how your client’s race plays in their case and/or sentencing. To ignore the racial aspects involved in policing and the bias that has been studied and documented to exist in the criminal justice system, may cause an attorney to fail in preparing for their case.
Understanding Race and Diversity Will Help You Understand Your Client
If the pandemic has reminded us of anything, it’s that we are social creatures…and social creatures have a need to be understood and heard. For many clients from communities of color, their attorney may appear to be vastly different than themselves in comparison. We may not look like them, talk like them, or even live in similar neighborhoods. These things may cause a client to build walls and see us as untrustworthy. To build rapport and trust, we must show these clients that we empathize with them and want to understand their story and history. To do this, we must be truly open to listening with an ear towards understanding. I often represent black clients and have been accused of being biased against them, on multiple accounts, because of the historical tensions between the Asian and African American communities. I could deny that such tensions exist or say that those things were in the past. But if I did that, it would invalidate what my client has said and the fear they are feeling having me as their lawyer. By acknowledging that these tensions exist, I open a door towards a conversation that will help guide me to the fears and anxieties my client has about their case. My acknowledgment also opens my client up to tell me the goals they have for their case. Attorneys are oftentimes more counselors-at law than attorneys-at law.
Understanding Race and Diversity Will Help You in Trial
Most attorneys practice in major cities. All the large cities in Texas are minority majority. That means more jurors from communities of color are part of our jury pool than in prior decades. We miss an opportunity to connect with the jurors if we do not acknowledge that race has played a critical part in their life experiences. Bias, race, and racial bias are in the forefront of many jurors’ minds in the wake of cases such as George Zimmerman, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery.
As a lawyer, you must address how the police are viewed by communities of color to understand how your trial may be affected in instances where the main witness is a police officer. For some communities, the police have been known to threaten and harass their own. For others, there’s a fear of police because they’re from other countries, where the police are corrupt and brutal. An attorney must understand the racial and cultural dynamics of these communities. You will not connect with your jurors, and therefore not help your case, if you are not aware of and do not discuss these issues with the jurors beforehand.
We are Here for You
Discussions of race and racial bias can be scary and emotional. People are afraid of being called racist, stupid, or uncaring. However, the first step towards understanding is the desire to learn. Our members at the Diversity, Justice, and Inclusion Committee are here to help answer your questions without judgment. There are no stupid questions if you’re asking to learn and understand. We want to have this dialogue with you to help you be a better lawyer, as well as a better TCDLA member. Monique Sparks and myself are the co-chairs of this Committee. Reach out to us anytime. Let’s talk.