This week, Loretta Lynch made history as our country’s first Black woman attorney general.
In a world where White men still disproportionately dominate positions of power, Lynch will serve as an inspiring example to many, especially Black women and girls. Just as Barack Obama’s presidency has helped transform expectations of what Black men can achieve, Lynch’s mere presence at one of the highest levels of government will have an immeasurable impact.
That’s before we even talk about the incredible power Attorney General Lynch now wields to make a difference on some of the most important issues facing Black people today. As the nation’s top law enforcement officer, Lynch is in a unique position to hold violent police accountable, reform discriminatory drug war policies, and defend voting rights. Her life history and career as a federal prosecutor are full of encouraging signs that she'll have the interests and rights of Black folks at heart.
When President Obama nominated Lynch, he told part of the story of her family: “Loretta rode on her father’s shoulders to his church, where students would meet to organize anti-segregation boycotts. She was inspired by stories about her grandfather, a sharecropper in the 1930s, who helped folks in his community who got in trouble with the law and had no recourse under the Jim Crow system.”
Lynch has had experiences with racism that are all too familiar to talented Black women and men. In high school, she was the top student in her class, but administrators made her share the title of valedictorian with two other students (one white, and one Black). Lynch has described how, as a young lawyer, she would often be mistaken for the court reporter. Racist assumptions and stereotypes will never change overnight, but Lynch’s visibility as attorney general will help.
Over the course of her career as a federal prosecutor, Lynch has spoken many times about the need for reform in the criminal justice system. She’s talked about the need to reexamine drug war policies that disproportionately impact Black folks and other people of color, and said that “arresting more people or building more jails is not the ultimate solution to crime in our society.” With nearly a million Black people behind bars, many for minor, non-violent offenses (a situation that professor and author Michelle Alexander has famously dubbed the “New Jim Crow”), it’s exciting to have an attorney general who sees mass incarceration as a problem to be solved, not a winning strategy for fighting crime.
Lynch has direct experience with the crisis of discriminatory and violent policing. As a prosecutor in New York, she oversaw the aggressive prosecution of five white police officers who beat and tortured Haitian immigrant Abner Louima. And she has said that it's law enforcement's responsibility to repair its broken relationship with Black communities: “Frankly, the onus is on law enforcement because we are the ones who have taken the oath to protect and to serve the people of this city.”
The attorney general has also spoken forcefully about the need to fight back against laws designed to suppress the votes of Black people. Republicans showed that they are committed to their voter suppression strategy by using Lynch’s Senate confirmation hearings to tout discriminatory voter ID policies designed to disenfranchise people of color, students, the elderly, and the poor. So we should be thankful that we have an attorney general who is committed to defending the voting rights that Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights leaders fought so hard to secure.
Lynch could be a powerful force for change on many of the issues that matter most to Black America. But as she assumes office, she'll have a lot of competing responsibilities. As with any attorney general, we need to stay vocal to make sure Lynch feels pressure to look out for our rights, and feels the public support she needs to fight for reform.
The stronger our collective voice, the easier it will be for Lynch to take decisive action. As we congratulate Attorney General Loretta Lynch and celebrate what this means for Black people, we should also remind her of our biggest priorities and tell her “we’re counting on you.”
Rashad Robinson is the Executive Director of Color of Change.