Brandon Greene opens up about being a young black lawyer navigating his job and his peers in the midst of current events.
It goes without saying that the last couple of weeks have been tough for black folks in America.
As I sat in my office yesterday awaiting the grand jury verdict in the Eric Garner case, I was neither waiting with baited breath nor was I waiting with any sense of hope that the cop who choked Eric Garner to death on tape would have to face a jury of his peers.
I instead waited with a perverse sense of assurance that Eric Garner’s family, like Michael Brown’s family days before, would be disappointed with and disenfranchised by the justice system.
This feeling, though unsurprising, was still sickening and disheartening given my profession. As a young attorney of color, only two years into practice, I was looking at the landscape that is before me with a sense of despair, a deep lack of faith in the power of the people to truly move our country forward and for people of color in general and black men and women in particular to finally achieve some measure of equity, if not equality, under the law.
This feeling that lingered in the pit of stomach was devastating because it was so different than the feelings I had in 2010, when I was entering law school.
My classmates and I rode into law school with three of the most prominent Americans in the country being black attorneys—President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Eric Holder.
Many of the black law students of color came from inner-city communities and as such came with a deep desire to use our time in law school and in practice to improve the plight of our people.
Throughout law school we dedicated ourselves to leadership positions in our local black law students association and our regional black law students association. We served as judges for the Boston Debate League, a program that gives high school students of color the skills to argue and debate both sides of an issue. We put on programming on the school to prison pipeline. We organized a caravan to the Supreme Court to attend the Fisher affirmative action case. And we organized a demonstration for the death of Trayvon Martin.
We did all of this because, as law students of color and future attorneys of color, we felt a duty to use our newly acquired power to speak and act on issues that are impacting our communities.
Now as licensed attorney, I question whether or not the power we sought actually exists. Whether I was naïve or just unrealistic.
When the seemingly inevitable non-indictment in the Garner case came down, I became paralyzed at my job.
I could no longer truly concentrate on the tasks before me. I needed to talk or to plan or to organize. I needed to take action.
But I couldn’t.
As a black male attorney, there are very few of me in any setting. As a result, I often times tread carefully so as to not offend or say something objectionable, just as I was instructed to during a pre-law school training put on by the Council on Legal Opportunity (CLEO).
Just days prior I had written and published a piece titled Young, Black, and Powerful.
Yet when I asked my friends who are all multi-credentialed young black professionals—the kind who are or should at least feel Young, Black, and Powerful—if I should share the piece with my job, they all, uniformly counseled me not to do so.
You see we are not yet Young, Black and Powerful. We are Young, Black, and playing it safe in unchartered territory as the firsts in our family to have achieved this level of education, in professional sectors where were are anomalies.
Lofty ideals of changing those sectors and the world in which those sectors exist take a back seat to paying dues and working to change the system from within. And therein lies the problem.
This is troubling when the dues paying is in a system that has since its inception fundamentally failed black people.
I was paralyzed when the Eric Garner verdict came down and I was equally perplexed as to how anyone in my job could continue working on what they were working on.
As the only black employee at my job perhaps I am over-sensitive. Perhaps other people were just unaware of what was happening or too busy to give it their attention. Either way, I cannot understand.
The inability to even safely have a conversation or share a relevant piece I have penned is the opposite of the safe zone I had as a law student member of the Black Law Students Association. It is also contrary to the revolutionary vision that drove me to law school, with tales of the Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund speaking, writing, and working change the landscape for black people in America.
This is the paradox of the black attorney. There are too few of us to feel safe. There are too few jobs for us be outspoken and there is too much work to be done for us to be silent.
As I watched on Twitter as young activists were organizing actions in response to the Garner verdict, I desperately wanted to participate.
After all, I was an activist and an organizer before I was a lawyer.
But now I am a lawyer. WAS an activist and organizer is the operative phrase.
I wonder if I gained power or if I traded it in.
I was Young, Black and Powerful.
Now I am Young, Black and Professional.
A cop is not being charged after executing a man on video—and I am nervous about speaking out let alone engaging in an act of civil disobedience that could potentially result in my arrest.
My status in a relatively conservative profession almost forces me to uphold the status quo. Even if I don’t want to.
My grandmother used to always quote Matthew 16:26 “what good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
Good question right?
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