By Subria Whitaker • May 05, 2019
THE COALITION OF BLACK VOICES: Past, Present, and Future
"What we assumed to be the substitution of black students’ concerns before us, was actually the coalition of black voices: past, present and future."
[Earl B. Dickerson Chapter, Black Law Students Association]
My regard for advocacy inspired me to pursue law and dedicate my life to pursuing liberty and justice for all. As a 2L at the University of Chicago, I aim to be an active scholar, campus volunteer, and community leader. However, my experience at the Law School includes frequent instances of racism and bigotry that have taken a toll on me: emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and academically. In January, a tenured Professor purposefully spoke the full N-word during class. Every Spring in Constitutional Law II: Freedom of Speech, he ends his lecture on “Fighting Words,” by retelling this anecdote from the beginning of his tenure on the same lesson:
The Professor asked Mr. Green, a black student, what he thought of the fighting words doctrine. He then asked a white student in an adjacent row, what he thought of Green’s argument – a response that prompted Green to lunge forward and attempt to choke him.
Green: The doctrine is no longer relevant.
Classmate: That’s the dumbest argument I’ve ever heard, you stupid N****r!
Despite several upset students dating as far back as the 1980’s, the Professor continued this practice for almost 40 years. Yet, in fear of retaliation from the former administration, students kept quiet and only warnedeach other privately. My peers and I were tremendously hurt and angry; but we refused to feel voiceless any longer.
Consequently, I asked members of the Black Law Students Association (BLSA) to join me in protest and wear black the following day. But what was intended to be a silent protest with signs, turned into a face-to-face conversation with the perpetrator. On his way to get lunch, BLSA members and I approached the Professor with an invitation to talk – right then and there. The Green Lounge that typically echoed in excitement, fell silent; students, administrators, supporters, and protestors, stared and listened eagerly. Of course, he claimed his rationale for using the slur was simply to educate. Although what he considered a productive exercise of the First Amendment, we argued to be offensively stereotypical, hateful and ultimately distracting. Nevertheless, he wouldn’t commit to stop saying it. So we left the conversation feeling defeated and further disrespected; my passion and frustration, even brought me to tears.
But in class that afternoon, the Professor apologized and vowed never to use the word [in class] again. Apparently, we convinced him that such use isn’t sufficiently important to justify the hurt and distraction it causes. The Dean of the Law School also responded, stating that he, “admire[s] the students who challenged a distinguished faculty member’s long-held view with well-focused and powerful arguments.” Although I do not feel I am a valued member of the Law School community, I belong, or that I am respected; I am certain that my voice has power. In fact, I recently spoke on the fight for inclusivity in law schools, where I shared this story as a panelist for More Than A Token: Standing Up for Accountability – a session hosted during the 16th Annual Norman C. Amaker Public Interest and Social Justice Retreat at Loyola University Chicago School of Law.
Looking back, I initially expected to use my skills and time serving marginalized communities, perhaps by being present and speaking [up] for those who cannot or will not [adequately] speak for themselves. However, this experience illustrates what happens when advocates uplift – rather than replace – the voices of those missing from conversation.I imagine that my future public interest career will require me to speak up on behalf of myself or others in the same way.By listening to one another, we were able to construct a collective voice that amplified the concerns of a marginalized community. What we assumed to be the substitution of black students’ concerns before us, was actually the coalition of black voices: past, present and future.
Both my commitment to serve others and determination contribute to the legal profession, are fueled by my understanding of this resolution.I am working diligently to develop a public service background that includes a variety of nonprofit organizations and government agencies. Accordingly, I am spending my entire summer as a full-time, volunteer Law Clerk for both the Office of the Illinois Attorney General, and the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender. I aspire to be a civil rights attorney and advocate for criminal justice reform; and with this scholarship, I will be one step closer to that goal. In the words of the Honorable William H. Murphy, Jr., “give me a place to stand and I will move the world."
If given a place to stand as a 2019 Summer Public Interest Scholarship Recipient, then I will move the world – in honor of Ms. JD’s mission, each scholarship donor, and every woman standing before me to lead the way.