Jeremiah A. DeBerry is a partner and the director of diversity and inclusion at Mayer Brown.
A Big Law partner and diversity director reflects on the "debilitating" effects of anti-Black racism and the need for everyone to come together for change.
I wanted to take a moment to reflect on the recent tragic death of George Floyd. His death has spurred a national, if not global, movement unlike anything we have seen in our lifetime. For me, as a Black man in America, dealing with the pernicious effects of anti-Black racism has been a part of my daily life. Believe me, it is real and it is debilitating. Since my high school days at Kingswood-Oxford in Connecticut, I have fought for equal rights and social justice. I am fortunate that my role as partner and chief diversity professional at a global law firm affords me the opportunity to continue to fight the good fight.
As a father of two Black teenage sons who I have taught that with hard work, dedication and a “failure is never an option” mentality that there are no limits to what they can achieve, recent events have caused them, understandably, to question whether or not these teachings remain true. So, in addition to having “The Talk” with them about how to interact with law enforcement in order to avoid tragic or fatal outcomes, I have to continually encourage them to reach for their goals despite the daunting challenges they will face simply because of their skin color. These are difficult, but necessary conversations.
I am exhausted. Exhausted because of the roller coaster of emotions I feel each time, in the midst of this pandemic, daily protests and civil unrest, I recount for my inquiring and well-meaning white colleagues and friends my experiences with racism. The indignities I have suffered are far too numerous to list here, but I include a representative few:
- As a teenager, being followed through various stores in a shopping mall and being asked to leave the mall by a security guard who said, “Sorry, you know you can’t afford anything in this mall, so get out.”
- In college, being indiscriminately stopped and pulled out of a taxi cab by Boston police officers and having all the contents of my luggage thrown on to the streets of Boston while being held at gunpoint, only to be told by the police, “Sorry, case of mistaken identity,” and then being left to pick up/retrieve all of my belongings alone as the unapologetic officers returned to their cars and left the scene.
- As a college freshman, being accused of plagiarism and academic fraud because in the words of my English professor, “This can’t be your work. I’ve never had someone like you (i.e, a Black freshman) write so well.” No formal charges were ever filed.
- As a Wall Street lawyer in New York City, being unable to hail a taxi because taxi drivers routinely and intentionally drive past me in order to pick up white passengers, even though I am in a suit and the white passenger is in sweats.
- After serving as lead lawyer/negotiator for a half-billion-dollar transaction, being mistaken for a paralegal by the team of opposing lawyers during our first face-to-face meeting following months of telephone negotiations. At the face-to-face meeting, the opposing lawyers assumed that I was the paralegal on the transaction (referring to me as John, the name of the paralegal, during initial introductions) and that the only white male on my team (the paralegal) was the lead lawyer (referring to him as Jerry during initial introductions).
- Being detained and questioned by my office building security, along with five other Black men, because a white woman alleged that she was inappropriately touched in an elevator by a “Black man in a blue suit.” The detained Black men, who were in blue suits, ranged in height from 5-foot-7 to 6-foot-3. None of the detained men was ever charged with any offense and the alleged victim recanted her entire story as there was no video evidence to support it.
Those are just a few of the experiences I have had that reflect the challenges and hurdles all Black American males, including highly educated ones, face. They are all examples of what we in the Black community commonly refer to as the Black Tax—those additional inconveniences, injustices and inequalities that every Black person routinely endures in America. The tax is unavoidable, despite the wealth, education level or professional success one may have achieved. Indeed, my advanced educational degrees and professional success as a lawyer have not shielded me from the sting of racial oppression and its inescapable and enduring psychological effects. It is a lifetime tax, with no opportunities for a deduction, reduction or elimination. It is suffocating and ever-present.
The fear, anxiety, anger, frustration and pain that overcame me when I saw the recording of George Floyd’s murder for the first time were overwhelming. I am still not sure that I have completely processed the impact that it has had or will continue to have on me. While tragic, the unforgivable and criminal acts of a rogue Minneapolis police officer may have, ironically, created an opportunity to, once and for all, meaningfully address the plague of racism in and on America. The time for talking has passed. It is now time to act and rid our society of those institutions and practices that have dehumanized Black Americans for far too long. Ending police brutality and punishing those who engage in such abhorrent behavior is just the beginning. We need to fight for and secure economic and educational equality. We also need to reform the criminal justice system to ensure that the laws of this land are enforced uniformly without regard to race or any other immutable characteristic. I sense that the collective will of our country to make real and lasting change in race relations has never been this strong. So now is the time to act.
Now is also the time to understand that Black Lives Matter is much more than just a slogan; it is a statement of empirical fact that demands acknowledgement and recognition from those who seek to divide the nation and deny the basics of human rights to an entire group of people.
I ask that each of you stand with me and commit to helping America honor its pledge to be a free and just society for all, not just a privileged few. It is time to put our political affiliations and differences aside and come together to fight for justice. This is a human rights issue that we all should support and stand up for. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously stated, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Let us all do our part to continue the bend of that arc in the right direction.
Dr. King also said, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people, but the silence over that by good people.” We are all good people. Let’s not be silent.
Reprinted with permission from the July 13, 2020 edition of Law.com © 2020 ALM Properties, Inc. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
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