by Bradley Bannon, NCAJ President
Like many of you, I watched in horror last summer as the convergence of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, culminated with the martyrdom of paralegal Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old counter-protester who was made to pay for her commitment to equality with her life.
In the aftermath, I also watched in horror as the President of the United States made equivocal remarks that put Heather and her anti-racist group on the same moral plane as the group of racists they showed up to counter-protest.
Earlier in the year, before those events became another example of a racial divide that has plagued our state and country since birth, I had decided to dig deeper into the modern perpetrators of that divide—the ones less obvious than a bunch of neo-Nazis having a tiki torch parade.
That’s when I started to understand what is meant by “white privilege.” I’d heard that term many times before and received it as an insult, loaded with the implication that, as a white man, I didn’t really deserve any of the fruits of my hard work—or, more to the point, that my work wasn’t really that hard to begin with.
I felt similarly about the term “implicit bias.” For as long as I could remember—from shutting down racist jokes on the playground as a kid, to fighting for the rights of the accused in a criminal justice system infected at every level with disparate treatment of people based on race and ethnicity—there was not an ounce of racial bias in my body, implicit or otherwise.
So when I started to look further into the divide, and what could be done to reduce it, I started in a defensive posture. Fortunately, my defensiveness soon yielded to something even more powerful: my appreciation for facts and intellectual honesty.
I took Harvard’s Implicit Association Test on Race and learned that, in the corners of my mind I can’t control, I have a strong preference for white people over black people. I attended the Racial Equity Institute’s two-day Phase I workshop, sponsored by Organizing Against Racism. I started doing some suggested reading: “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander; “Slave by Another Name,” by Douglas Blackmon; “Blind Spot: The Hidden Biases of Good People,” by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald; and others.
I learned that it takes only a little bit of genuine curiosity to understand how racism in our country and its institutions is like any other virus: it has constantly changed forms to survive and thrive. And it has infected systems built up over hundreds of years in the United States. Banking systems. Employment systems. Housing systems. Retail systems. Voting systems.
It’s not hard for an open mind to accept the fact that systems of gender and racial preference, invented and expanded by white men over centuries in which they were favored in law and fact, would continue in the present day to greatly benefit white men, in practice if not by actual design.
The preferences are so ingrained in our culture, I realized, that I could subconsciously perpetuate them even as I consciously abhorred them. And once I got past my initial defensiveness about that dichotomy, I chose to receive that knowledge as a gift and a call to action.
No single person created these preferential systems. No single generation did it. And no single person or generation will be able to undo it. But as a white man, I know I am valuably positioned to push back against them. I am, after all, an insider.
That does not make me the creator of the problem, but it makes me a perpetuator of it if I deny it, or ignore it, or allow my knee-jerk reaction to loaded terms like “white privilege” and “implicit bias” prevent me from recognizing the undeniable truths beneath them. And doing something about it.
Like many who have chosen to stand as guardian of the injured and the accused, I feel called to change myself, this country, and its systems for the better. In my day job, I have recently pivoted toward civil rights work, but I continue to represent people accused and convicted of crimes, in a system that was originally designed and has always been used to control, disenfranchise, and marginalize people of color. In my volunteer work, I have used my position and privilege as a leader in NCAJ to fight for greater equality and fairness in the criminal and civil justice systems.
This past year, with the honor of the NCAJ presidency, I have focused on diversity, inclusion, and equity within the organization, so that it may further serve and strengthen its mission of protecting people’s rights—regardless of race, ethnicity, gender (including gender identity), sexual orientation, disability, religion, nationality, socioeconomic status, or any other categorization.
I’m not doing these things because I overestimate my importance or influence. Or because I think the traditionally marginalized are incapable of successfully pushing back and gaining ground.
I’m doing it because I should. Because I want to be who I think I am. Because I want this country to be what I always hoped it would be. And because I want everyone to have the same shot—in this nation, state, profession, and organization—that I did by accident of gender and the color of my skin.
Since it began in the 1960s, NCAJ has moved the legal systems of North Carolina closer to that goal, but we have more work to do. And that work starts with any effort that hopes to succeed, and something that NCAJ has been quite good at over the last half-century:
Part 2 of this series, “The Educators,” will appear next week.