Midwest Voices

Brian Noland: In working toward justice, minorities are underrepresented among the nation’s lawyers

Protesters marched through Ferguson, Mo., last month, continuing to raise questions about the justice system and fairness for African-Americans. Will more black lawyers help reduce disparities?
Protesters marched through Ferguson, Mo., last month, continuing to raise questions about the justice system and fairness for African-Americans. Will more black lawyers help reduce disparities? The Associated Press

The legal profession has been labeled the least integrated in the United States by no less an authority than the American Bar Association.

Of more than 1.2 million lawyers, only about 5 percent are black.

This is significant because outcomes in the administration of justice in the U.S. are still not colorblind, and evidence suggests that a more integrated legal profession would reduce such disparities. Such integration could prove more meaningful than the frivolous 86ing of the grand jury system or more reasonable efforts to reduce crack-cocaine sentencing disparities and impose implicit bias training and oversight on law enforcement officials.

These ideas represent important steps but could prove mere Band-Aids on bleeders. After all, the rule of law and the administration of justice are only as equitable as the rule makers and administrators.

Racial minorities were legally barred from practicing law for most of American history. In some states, like Texas, blacks couldn’t practice until the 1950s. In many states, even if blacks were allowed to practice, they were limited to serving only black clients and only in the black parts of town.

In 1938, one Malcolm Little, a black eighth-grader in Michigan, told his white teacher that he wanted to be a lawyer when he grew up. “Malcolm, one of life’s first needs is for us to be realistic…. But you’ve got to be realistic about being (black). A lawyer — that’s not a realistic goal for” a black person, she said, using the demeaning N-word.

In the 1930s, when the dream of the young Malcolm X was deferred, black lawyers accounted for more than 2 percent of attorneys only in Washington, D.C., and Virginia. More than 85 years later and that dream arguably remains unrealistic.

That fewer blacks take the SAT than the eligible black population, score worse than white counterparts and graduate from high school at 65 percent indicate that until this “pipelining” problem is repaired, a large enough black population eligible for law school will not exist to improve the disparity.

Black males, especially, are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. If current trends continue, one of three black men will go to jail in their lifetimes, more than five times the rate for white men, according to The Sentencing Project.

While racial minorities represent 16 percent of Missouri’s population, they only comprise 5.94 percent of all practicing attorneys in Missouri, according to a Brennan Center for Justice study. Kansas City has more than 5,036 lawyers in good standing. Yet, only 52 lawyers are black in the 40 firms that participate in the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association’s Diversity Action Plan, a voluntary program in which firms pledge to recruit and retain minority attorneys.

The foundation of Malcolm X’s lost faith in the promise of America is not dissimilar to what many feel today.

Reasonable minds may disagree about the propriety of the process and outcome of the trial and ongoing tribulations in Ferguson, Mo. That such events have created or strengthened a crisis of confidence among racial minorities in the administration of justice is, however, unequivocal. In a poll taken by Rasmussen Reports tied to Ferguson, 84 percent of black voters (and 56 percent of other minority voters) consider the American justice system “unfair to black and Hispanic Americans.”

Blacks with law, medicine, and other professional degrees earn 52 percent as much as their white counterparts. But this is explained partly by hopeful trends showing that blacks, compared with similarly situated whites, consistently choose fields directly addressing social and racial inequalities such as education, social work, community and nonprofit organizing, or government or nonprofit law practices rather than corporate law.

Federal district courts with greater representations of black judges and black prosecutors are less likely to sentence defendants to prison, and as the proportion of black prosecutors rise, the disparity between black and white imprisonment could vanish, according to one study.

Change will require expensive, complicated solutions, including affirmative action and the slow march to quality education. The cost of equality is great, but we have seen too clearly and consistently the price of unequal justice. We can pay now, or accept that the flames of Ferguson will continue spreading.

Brian Noland of Kansas City is a lawyer and civic activist who has worked in political campaigns for Mayor Sly James and President Barack Obama, among others. Reach him at oped@kcstar.com.