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#BlackLawyersMatter inspires movement to increase representation in law

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black lawyers matter

Photograph by Joyanne Panton

When third-year law student Micah Green came across the hashtag #BlackLawyersMatter in an online article, he quickly realized it was more than just a catchy phrase.

Green decided to create a website and put the hashtag on T-shirts and other apparel, which he sells to raise money for scholarships at his school, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University College of Law in Orlando.

But Green’s website isn’t just a retail store: Beyond the T-shirts, he’s hawking enlightenment about the cause. “It’s more so information,” Green says. “We are spreading information.”

The origination of #BlackLawyersMatter has been attributed to attorney Yolanda Young, who runs the website On Being a Black Lawyer. The hashtag has been spreading through the African-American legal community, with recent law grads posting photos to social media sporting the T-shirts. Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump also wore one while he spoke at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016.

Green says the fact that about 95 percent of prosecutors in this country are white and only about 5 percent of all attorneys are African-American is a problem—one that’s playing its way out in our judicial system with unfair sentencing and high rates of incarceration. Green hopes that the hashtag will propel awareness, and that people who are upset about unfair treatment will realize that protesting isn’t the only avenue for change.

“People [should] stop protesting and start reading legal books and learn that the pen is stronger than the knife,” Green says.

Shani C. Mitchell thinks her work as one of the few black prosecutors in Rochester, New York, provides crucial balance. She became involved with Green’s crusade when he asked her to participate in a fundraiser after he read an article she wrote about mentoring youths for careers in law. Mitchell says she supports Green’s efforts because more African-American prosecutors are needed to make a difference. For example, according to NAACP statistics, five times as many whites use drugs as blacks, yet blacks are sent to jail for the offense at 10 times the rate of whites.

“As a black person, I believe I can review these cases and wield my power—that being my [prosecutorial] discretion, which betters the community and the defendants as a whole,” Mitchell says.

But lawyers of color aren’t just needed in the criminal context, says Atlanta-based attorney Chris Chestnut. They also can have a huge impact in civil suits, particularly in personal injury cases, he says, in which lawyers have to comprehend the totality of a client’s circumstances. This might mean taking into account the impact that someone’s life had for his or her family and the community as a whole. He says you can’t limit a person’s worth to the value of his or her assets.

“What if he [mentored or] coached Little League? You have to go into the community to extract that narrative,” Chestnut says.

Chestnut says that kind of investment and empathy is rare. “Black lawyers matter very much,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: "#BlackLawyersMatter: Hashtag has inspired a movement to increase representation in law."

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