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Studying the Law While Black

By: Chinnapong

If you’ve ever tried to stand up for yourself in a Black household, especially a Caribbean household, you’ve probably been met with the snarky response that your argumentative attitude would suit you well in a courtroom as a lawyer.

Rarely do conversations with my friends come up without referencing the disagreements I had with teachers and students who didn’t expect a young, Black girl from Brooklyn to have the energy to debate with them. I thrive on picking apart details in statements, both lyrical and critical, to understand the author’s or speaker’s point; the words we say and the undertone of emotions we attach to them can often reveal the truths we struggle to control. Now with four years of undergraduate studies under my belt and a dual degree, I have dedicated my summer–yes, my whole summer– to studying for the unnerving and tedious, stress-inducing Law School Admissions Test (the LSAC). My excitement to pursue this career and become an Entertainment Lawyer has grown from a mere idea to a solid staple on my list of manifestations, but through my excitement there is clarity: I am a Black woman pursuing an education of the law knowing good and well the law doesn’t protect me.

This striking line strikes a chord for many, if not all Black people. We have seen the footage of Rodney King being beaten by police in California reincarnated into the video of Eric Garner taken down by his neck and George Floyd’s neck bearing the same weight that snuffed out his life. These memories, full of images of our ancestors lost to the weight of their bodies against the unapologetic pull of gravity from a tree, are past, present, and future realities of the collective Black experience. My decision to go to law school to have power in my understanding of the law has been a motivation but so has the trauma I’ve felt as a Black woman. To be the first person in my immediate family to pursue this career, I’ve had to seek specific guidance about what I should expect from those outside my immediate circle of support.

With this looming reality over my head, I was blessed to have the opportunity to meet a few individuals who kept their experiences honest without discouraging me. I spoke to Michael Sloan, Esquire, of Michael Sloan Consulting about his experience through Loyola University to owning his own company.

Growing up in California in the 70’s, he went to school out of his district, in Beverly Hills, he experienced the implementation of words we merely talk about. Integration in school systems gave students the opportunity to interact with students from outside their communities, and learning aside from academics happened as a result. Born to a mother who pursued law school, he remembers her telling him, “Whatever you want to do, become a lawyer first so you can understand the rules by which we live in our society,” a similar sentiment my dad recites to me. Knowing his passion was to be a businessman, he went to Loyola University in California with his mother’s mantra in mind. As we spoke, he recounted his time as Student Bar Association President and in a word, his experience was “interesting.” After he won the election, half of his board that was elected at the same time resigned to pursue other passions like Law Review, and when it came time to get information from the previous president, Michael was met with unanswered questions and the cold shoulder. Without relenting on his requests, Michael continued his inquiries and was undoubtedly surprised when his dean approached him with the accusation from the former president that he had physically threatened him. Instead of hearing his side of the story, his dean told him to let it go and make his own decisions for the club.

“That’s a way whites in our society try to ruin any progress by AA by coming up with a stereotypical view as Whites have accepted because they don’t look at us on an individual basis—they look at us as a group. And no one in the group is different from anyone in the group.” People are always going to find it easy to believe any allegation about a Black person.”

The need to work harder to establish ourselves in a white-dominated field does not lessen or suddenly evaporate for Black women pursuing a career in law. While reflecting on her career in law, the Honorable Robin Miller Sloan, judge for the Los Angeles Superior Court in California, dredged up similar sentiments. She stepped into her power when she finally started to listen to her elementary school teacher who told her, “You must not know who you are,” a reference to her grandfather, Loren Miller’s legacy as a lawyer and a judge, a similar legacy her father followed. Before affirmative action and quotas came about, Justice Sloan went to public school under the push of integration, similarly to her husband. During this time, Black students went where white schools were and this change in the student population led teachers and students to think these Black students were handpicked because of their intellectual abilities; this set off a chain reaction. “If [the students] thought I was smart, the teachers thought I was smart. That means I wasn’t going to get the treatment that a lot of us get. They don’t have any faith in our ability to be an intellectual equal.” Attending law school in Sacramento where governors and lawyers populate, she found herself in a conservative culture that forced her to evaluate who she was and what she wanted to say.

She struggled academically but continued to remind herself that getting this degree was within her power, a sentiment that directly goes against the grain of a white precedent. “There are parts of the journey that are difficult, I won’t lie to you, but I don’t regret it for a minute.” Justice Sloan exudes confidence and realism that allows her to take command of her courtroom and impress people to not only listen to her but learn from her.

After feeling encouraged to stay on my path to law school after my conversations with husband and wife duo, Justice Sloan and Mr. Sloan, I spoke to a young law student forced to navigate her education during the pandemic like many of us had.

Since HBCU’s were created there has been a need for safe Black spaces. Jasmine Davis, a rising 2L at Howard University School of Law, beamed as she told me about the confidence her professors instill in her. “We need you in the field,” is a constant reminder she hears while on campus. As a “social engineer,” the term Howard Law uses to refer to its students, Davis does not run from her identity as a Black woman. Instead, she sees her degree as an embodiment of her academic success as a Black woman: “This is a Black empowerment law degree right here, something you won’t get [anywhere else].”

There is a crab in the barrel mentality that surfaces in the Black community and probably isn’t a stranger to others, so it was refreshing to speak to individuals who have been through and are going through a pressure cooker type of life experience while still making themselves available as mentors and support systems to young prospective lawyers, like myself. Without a doubt, one thing is clear: education is the key to being the change we, Black people, want to see in institutions that historically shut us out. And the best part is: it’s attainable. The work is hard, but when we truly know who we are, who can tell us otherwise.

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