By: Takeia R. Johnson
Mirroring American society writ large, Black women lawyers find ourselves in the most precarious position in the legal profession. On nearly every quantifiable measure of success in private practice — salary, representation in the associate and partnership ranks, and decision-making authority — Black women are ranked last or close to it. (See 2017 IILP Annual Review) Black women lawyers have also been leaving the practice of law at disheartening rates for decades. Black feminist scholar-activist Patricia Hill Collins explains the various dimensions of oppression that Black women face as a “web of economy, polity, and ideology [which] function[s] as a highly effective system of social control designed to keep African-American women in an assigned, subordinate place,” and which “works to suppress the ideas of Black women intellectuals and to protect elite White male interests and worldviews” (Collins  2009: 7).
Economically, Black women lawyers are paid less across legal arenas (e.g., large law firms and public service legal organizations), which is, essentially, exploitation of their labor for the profit and/or sustainment of legal organizations. Politically, Black women lawyers are least represented among women lawyers working in private practice, most represented among women lawyers working in the public sector, and overall, represent a dearth of lawyers with decision-making authority. Moreover, while Black women lawyers may attain partnership in private law firms, they face an additional challenge of attaining a level of power that provides high level decision-making authority.
Ideologically, Black women lawyers are subject to what Collins calls “controlling images”—stereotypes meant to “manipulate ideas about Black womanhood” and “to make racism, sexism, poverty, and other forms of social injustice appear to be natural, normal, and inevitable parts of everyday life” (Collins 76-77). One such controlling image is that of “Sapphire,” who is stereotyped as the angry, untalented, unintellectual, and lazy Black woman. If not Sapphire, Black women are stereotyped as “Mammy,” the all-giving, harmless, and hard-working (because she is grateful for the opportunity to work in middle-class white corporate America) Black woman. The “Oprah” controlling image is a modern version of the Mammy. The goal of this stereotype is to fortify the idea of the safe, smiling, critical-thinking but-not-radical-enough-to-incite-change Black woman. This is the image of pre-Formation Beyonce, when white people did not see her race and were happy with Single Ladies Beyoncé. These controlling images become so ingrained in the culture of the workplace that, while they may be utilized unconsciously, ultimately result in Black women lawyers earning less money for the same work or working twice as hard for less earnings. The overall consequence is that Black women lawyers’ labor is exploited.
The lack of representation of Black women in the legal profession, along with the outsider-within status of Black women lawyers who are in fact practicing law but do not control the law or the profession, means that we have what could be deemed a symbolic presence in perhaps the most enduring and influential “social institution of knowledge production” (Collins 2009: 7).
When we talk about diversity and inclusion, we don’t talk about it in terms of injustice and oppression, as I have outlined above. We don’t consider the elite and privileged legal profession to be a space in which oppression originates, survives, and reifies other institutions of oppression. We don’t call it a manifestation of white supremacy. Those labels are much too radical. The fear is that those labels will alienate white male lawyers whose stamps of approval will legitimize D&I efforts. Diversity and inclusion efforts will continue to sputter and stall as long we sanitize these efforts so as not to offend or embarrass.
Black women have resisted this oppression since we first gained admission to law schools and membership to the ranks of lawyers, judges, politicians, and professors. Historians have documented the many ways that Black women have defied and attempted to reframe the perception and narrative of minorities in the legal field and in society. Outside of the legal field, we can also look to Black women activists and organizers as exemplars of fighting for change. One of the main ways that these women resisted systems and situations of injustice was through the use of testimony.
Indeed, honesty is a direct path to change.
Danielle L. McGuire recounted in her book At the Dark End of the Street the numerous stories of silencing and violence that Black women survived during the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power Movement. She showed how “African American women bore the ultimate burden of testimony” (277). Despite the dangers accompanying testimony, Black women organizers, activists, and community members knew the importance of telling their stories. Testimony is a central aspect of Black feminist thought and organizing because, as McGuire explains, reclaiming our narratives and testifying to each other and the world positions each Black woman’s testimony as that of the “everywoman.” This testimony creates a sense of community that encourages women to then tell their own stories, to link their experiences with the everywoman. Testimony is a catalyst of coalition-building.
Silencing, however, is a tool of suppression. It is frustrating when our testimony is reduced to mere anecdotal evidence that is not generalizable to larger populations, like the legal profession, of which Black women are members. Dismissing personal testimony of individual and community-wide experiences is a form of oppression because it reduces the significance of symbolic and physical violence experienced by minorities.
Diversity and inclusion in the law means creating space for testimony and highly regarding such testimony as important and incontrovertible evidence of discrimination and oppression both within the profession and the legal system as a whole. Understanding that testimony is an essential aspect of resistance, radical protest, and direct action will set the legal profession on a path of reform that will actually produce consequential results. D&I can be set on a path of radical resistance, the kind that leads to radical change like what we saw during the Civil Rights Movement and what we are currently witnessing in the Movement for Black Lives, the MeToo movement and the anti-gun violence and gun reform movements.
What does radical change in the legal profession look like to you? Leave your testimony below in the comments section.