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Equal Justice Works Shares an Excerpt from Verna Williams’ Remarks to the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati’s Annual Racial Justice Breakfast

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Photo of Verna Williams standing at the podium and sharing her remarks at the 2023 YWCA Racial Justice Breakfast
Photo of Verna Williams speaking at the 2023 YWCA Racial Justice Breakfast

Equal Justice Works CEO Verna Williams spoke at the YWCA of Greater Cincinnati’s annual Racial Justice Breakfast. Read an excerpt from her remarks below.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the affirmative action programs at Harvard and University of North Carolina as violative of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Race is so inflammatory a category, according to the Court, that the state may not use it—even to remedy past discrimination, except for the most limited circumstances.

Attempting to anchor its ruling in history, the majority opinion dutifully marches through the unfortunate mistakes the Court has made in the past—such as Dred Scott and Plessy v. Ferguson, building to Brown v. Board of Education’s redemptive arc. The Court manages to read even that soaring decision as supporting limited consideration of race in higher education, which became even more constrained, thanks to the Court’s rulings in Bakke, Grutter, Fisher, and now Students for Fair Admissions. In the majority’s U.S., race-based remedies have become less necessary over time; indeed, Grutter forecast that they would be phased out in a matter of decades.

Make no mistake: targeting Harvard and UNC was the first salvo in yet another skirmish in the culture war. But for all the outrage about division supposedly caused by teaching the truth about our history, so-called advocates for parental rights and liberty have adopted antidemocratic, unconstitutional methods in their attempt to create a whitewashed national narrative. Guided no doubt by focus groups, they seek to fan the flames of fear to stoke discord in their quest to preserve a status the majority of us has rejected. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, most workers support DEI efforts at work, for example.

In dissent, Justice Jackson advises us how to respond: “The only way out of this morass—for all of us—is to stare at racial disparity unblinkingly, and then do what evidence and experts tell us is required to level the playing field and march forward together, collectively striving to achieve true equality for all Americans.”

What does it mean to confront racial disparity unblinkingly? I’d start with understanding how we got here, perusing Justice Jackson’s opinion, which articulates clearly and robustly the history surrounding ratification and implementation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

In discussing the second Founding, Justice Jackson explains that Congress was responding to state tyranny against the newly freed Black citizens. Just as in 1789, these Framers developed provisions to combat state oppression, amending the Constitution and authorizing Congress to take the steps necessary to make new guarantees a reality. To that end, Congress passed measures specifically to assist Black people, such as the Freedman’s Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1866 recognizing that two centuries of race-based subjugation could not be overcome by a racially neutral legal regime.

Justice Jackson also charts the many ways state, local, and federal law time and time again failed to live up to the promise of the Reconstruction Amendments. From excluding Black people from the Homestead Act and enacting zoning regulations to limit Black progress during the Great Migration, to discriminatory lending policies of the Federal Government, Justice Jackson observes that “government policies affirmatively operated [one could say, affirmatively acted] to dole out preferences to those who, if nothing else, were not Black.”

Then, she connects the past to the present, noting that the myriad preferences white people have received throughout our history have compounding effects – resulting in wealth, education, and health gaps that flow inexorably from centuries disparate treatment. For example, “in 2019, Black families’ median wealth was approximately $24,000.46 For white families, that number was approximately eight times as much (about $188,000).”  In education: “Black Americans in their late twenties are half as likely as their white counterparts to have college degrees.” Additionally, because of wealth disparities, Black college graduates have twice as much debt as their white classmates. Health disparities, she notes are “the predictable result of opportunity disparities… [they] lead to at least 50,000 excess deaths a year for Black Americans vis-à-vis white Americans. That is 80 million excess years of life lost from just 1999 through 2020. Meanwhile—tying health and wealth together—Justice Jackson says the typical Black American — while she lays dying — “pays more for medical care and incurs more medical debt.”

Justices Jackson and Sotomayor make plain that this nation never has been color blind. Indeed, states, localities, and the federal government created an intricate racialized web that reserved opportunities and access to white people. The disparities created early on have resulted in compounded and expanding gaps affecting all aspects of life. In a very real sense, state-sponsored and state-sanctioned discrimination have impeded upon life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for too many for too long… that’s what an unblinking look at racial disparity tells us.

Turning to the second part of Justice Jackson’s prescription – Leveling the playing field. That’s a question for all of us.

Here’s what we’re thinking at Equal Justice Works.

The Legal Services Corporation reports that 92 percent of low-income people’s legal needs go unmet in this country. When we factor in people living above the federally mandated limits for legal aid – those folks living at or above 200 percent of the poverty line, the need expands exponentially because they can’t afford their own lawyers and don’t qualify for legal aid.

This situation is simply untenable.

Specifically, in far too many cases dealing with child custody, bankruptcy, domestic violence, discrimination – in other words, cases where outcomes have meaningful consequences – people lack representation. At Equal Justice Works, our primary strategy for addressing this massive problem is funding and placing Fellows in public interest jobs. When I joined the organization, I wondered how race fit into our work.

Consider our Housing Justice Program.

Equal Justice Works launched this program…because evictions have a disproportionate effect on communities of color, women, and children. Without access to safe and stable housing, individuals and families can face a variety of negative outcomes, including long-lasting and devastating economic hardships and health problems.

This program operates in areas where evictions and housing instability have reached epidemic proportions. During a two-year term, Fellows, who include lawyers as well as community organizers, work collaboratively to provide legal advice, referrals, and full representation for tenants in eviction proceedings; engage in outreach and education activities; and work with community partners to address systematic barriers that contribute to housing instability.

This program started out in Richmond, Virginia, a city with an eviction rate that is second highest in the nation behind Charleston, South Carolina. I’m so pleased that thanks to funding, we have expanded this program to include Charleston and Columbia, South Carolina; as well as Charlottesville and Fairfax, Virginia; and Baltimore and Easton, Maryland. All areas identified by the Eviction Lab as having some of the highest eviction rates in the nation. And this program is just one example of how our Fellows are confronting racial inequality and working to level the playing field.

In addition, my colleagues and I seek to integrate our values of diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout our work. In that regard, we plan to develop a racial justice program. We have embarked on antiracism training at the organization and will continue to provide such training for our Fellows, as well. We also are exploring development of a pipeline program that would bring more people of color into the legal profession, which is 80% white, AND a fellowship program for legal assistants, law techs, community organizers – in other words, non-lawyers who can provide much needed legal assistance. Finally, we also seek to develop our research and data analytics capacity to help make the case for why representation matters.

With this strategic vision, Equal Justice Works seeks to rise to the new challenges presented by this critical moment – it’s a vision we crafted with our many partners – public interest organizations, law firms, law schools, corporations, individuals, and law students – who got this organization started in 1986. Then, as now, we collectively are committed to making the words above the U.S. Supreme Court’s door a reality. Equal Justice for All. For me, it’s a commitment to getting into what the late John Lewis called “Good and Necessary Trouble.”

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow