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A Message from Dean Johnson on Racial Injustice

June 23, 2020

Dear alumni, 

Black Lives Matter. My faith tradition tells me that this is so. My own sense of right and wrong does as well. My deep commitment to the ideal of justice for all demands that it be so. And yet, history, both long-past and very recent, ripples with evidence that shows our society simply does not value Black lives in the same way that it values mine.

In recent weeks and months, we have collectively watched example after example of violence against Black lives. The killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer with the participation of three additional police officers was particularly difficult to watch because of the utter disregard for human life and the apparent sense of impunity with which the men given a badge and a gun by the state acted on that day. But that was only the latest act of violence against someone simply for having been born Black. Not even three weeks passed, and we saw yet another example of a Black man, Rayshard Brooks, tragically and senselessly killed by law enforcement.

These are not isolated incidents. In this age of smartphones and security cameras, we have seen so many examples of brutality against Black lives, whether perpetrated by the state through its agents, as in the horrifying case of Breonna Taylor, or by private actors, as in the deeply chilling case of Ahmaud Arbery. By now it should be clear that the story of racial injustice in America is not a story of a few bad apples; racial injustice in America is a horror story that began to be written 400 years ago. It is a horror story that includes the enslavement of Black bodies, a civil war fought to preserve the right to enslave Black bodies, the lynching by angry, racist mobs of thousands of Black bodies, Jim Crow laws and legally enforced segregation, Dred Scott, Plessy v. Ferguson, redlining, mass incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. For too long, white America has simply taken for granted aspirational notions of equality and of justice for all, while not paying heed to the Black voices that have been trying to tell us all along about the brutal reality of the Black experience in America.

We have been too quick to ignore it or to explain it away. “There must be more to the story.” “He must have done something to deserve this.” “He could have avoided this.” How many of us, when we first saw the news reports concerning the tragic killing of Rayshard Brooks, rationalized it in our minds by focusing on the struggle or on his flight from police, discounting or ignoring the violent conduct of the police officer and the denial of due process? This young man feared for his life. Tragically, we know he had good reason to be afraid. Instead of focusing on the struggle or his flight to excuse the continuing violence against Black lives, we should be asking ourselves other questions. How can this happen, over and over? How can it possibly be normalized for a police officer to shoot a man as he flees for his life? Why did Rayshard’s daughter have to spend her eighth birthday without her dad? How did we, as a society, fail this young man? He was a husband. He was a father. He was a man. And we failed him.

 As members of the legal profession, the burden to wrestle with these questions and to struggle against the injustices experienced by Black folks in America every day falls squarely on our shoulders. As lawyers, judges, legal educators, and members of the bar, we have a shared obligation to ensure access to justice and to pursue the equitable administration of justice.

The incidence of violence against Black lives makes it clear to me that we have failed, as a profession and as a society. I confess that I, for one, have not done nearly enough. I am deeply sorry.

 It is true that our colleagues in the profession who serve as public defenders, legal aid lawyers, and civil rights lawyers are doing the hard work of seeking justice on behalf of the most vulnerable among us. I’m proud of that work and am grateful for it. In fact, I am proud to be a lawyer and to be part of the profession that is called to protect and uphold the rule of law. The aspirations and the ideals of the legal profession are noble.

 But racism in America is institutionalized. The legal profession is overwhelmingly white. The legal academy is overwhelmingly white. SLU LAW, a Jesuit law school located within the city of St. Louis, is overwhelmingly white, and that is not acceptable. We should have significantly more Black faculty members than we do. I will offer no explanations, justifications, or excuses. To date, we have failed in that regard. We must admit it, we must own it, and we must do better.

Similarly, positions of influence within the legal profession, including law school leadership roles, continue to be dominated by white folks. Is this because only white people can lead law schools? We all know that that is not the case. We therefore must wrestle with the actual causes for it. The causes that make it impossible for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) folks to have the same opportunities that I have had are the same set of underlying causes that have led to violence against Black lives; anti-Blackness permeates policing, the criminal justice system and the systems that make up the legal profession and the legal academy. If we are ever to make meaningful progress, we must first be honest with ourselves about that.

Because we are participants in a flawed system, every member of the legal profession now has a choice to make: to be an intentional architect of a more just society, or to allow, through our inaction, racial injustice to endure. In my view, as members of a Jesuit law school community, it’s not just a choice; it’s a calling. We are called to insert ourselves in the world on behalf of the marginalized and those who seek justice. We are called to action. And if not now, then when? If not you and I, then who? If we don’t seize this opportunity at this moment, I fear racial justice will never be a reality. 

None of this is to suggest that there isn’t also white struggle. Of course, there is. As some of you know, I grew up in economic poverty on a family farm in a poor rural township in Minnesota – the kind of poverty that includes no health insurance, no reliable vehicle, no clothes that weren’t first someone else’s, and even no running water in the first house in which I lived. To be clear, I was immeasurably blessed in so many ways, but I also watched my parents work their fingers to the bone to try to make ends meet. I recall vividly the sound of my mother crying at the kitchen table for fear of losing the farm when she believed the kids were all asleep. I can still remember my father handing me two single dollar bills – the only money he had left, until he sold more livestock or did another farm-related job to generate revenue – so that I could have lunch at a school event on a Saturday, knowing that he wouldn’t that day. 

Recognition of that struggle is not in any way at odds with also recognizing systemic racism, oppression, a long history of anti-Blackness, and the racial injustice that infects our institutions, including our legal institutions. Having experienced firsthand that struggle also doesn’t preclude me from being mindful of my own privilege. I know that I have been given numerous opportunities and the benefit of the doubt on many occasions. I have never feared that I would be hunted down while going for a run. I do not experience sleepless nights when my 22-year-old son is away, fearing that he might be pulled over and not survive the encounter. 

It is critically important to me to pay forward all the gifts of grace that I have received throughout my life, and to do so mindful of my own privilege. Part of that is to speak out – to not be silent – even while acknowledging that words are not enough. Thoughts and prayers, while so important and valuable, are also not nearly enough. I will never give up on the power of prayer, but it is also time to act. It is past time. 

So, what can we do? I confess to you that I have felt helpless at times. And I do not pretend to have the answers. As a white man, too often I have been given a platform to speak that I had not earned and did not deserve. Too often I have failed to step aside, be quiet, listen, and learn. I don’t want this to be one of those times. For that reason and others, I have attempted to focus on listening to, learning from, and amplifying Black voices, especially over the past three weeks, and I’m going to continue to do that. But I also know that there are things each of us can do, and I feel in a visceral way the fierce urgency of now. There are things white folks ought to do to understand better what our BIPOC colleagues, friends and neighbors experience every day. There are things all of us can do to fight institutionalized racism. And there are things that SLU LAW as an institution simply must do. 

Today, I therefore also write to offer some concrete actions that we will undertake – actions that I communicated to the students, faculty and staff earlier this month. Among other things, I have pledged the following to the SLU LAW community:

·         We will finalize a more comprehensive faculty diversity hiring plan, which we will implement.

·         We will more aggressively pursue opportunities to hire adjunct faculty members who will enhance the diversity of the law school, and we will then work to make sure they feel supported and included.

·         We will enhance existing and develop new diversity pipeline programs, including programs that reach younger audiences – in high school and even earlier.

·         We will prioritize fundraising for scholarships that will support diversity and equity in the student body.

·         We will strengthen the School of Law’s connections with the African American Studies program and with the Office of Diversity and Community Engagement on the main campus to identify additional opportunities, events and resources likely to be of interest to our community.

·         We will establish this summer a Diversity and Equity Council, made up primarily of BIPOC alumni, but also including students and members of the faculty and staff. I will consult the Council regularly, will listen to the Council, and will heed the advice of the Council.

·         We will work to establish and support a better-connected network of Black law school alumni, and we will create opportunities for students to engage with that network.

·         We will review our curriculum and find ways that we can enhance the diversity and equity aspects of the curriculum we offer.

·         We will offer an educational speaker series that includes but is not limited to lawyers, including speakers who are likely to be of interest to the non-legal community, to bring the community into Scott Hall. 

And that is not all that we will do. I made this pledge to my students; I make it to you today. I promise that I will work hard to fulfill it. Please hold me accountable. And please let us know if you would like to be part of these actions. 

I would also like to extend some invitations to each of you. 

As the national narrative shifts, let us never lose sight of the fact that another person was killed simply for having been born Black. We must remain focused on that. It is critically important that we remember George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and now Rayshard Brooks, as well as so many others, and that we remain committed to the hard work. 

Listen to Black voices. Read the work of Black scholars and commentators. Read Black history. Listen to your Black colleagues and clients and friends. Believe their stories. It isn’t their responsibility to educate us, but we should hear what they have to say and reflect on what we hear. Let’s then be intentional about acting on it. 

And please, let’s actively and intentionally work together to be anti-racist, to end oppression and racial injustice, and to achieve that as-yet-unrealized dream of liberty and justice for all. As lawyers, we have a duty to try. As members of the SLU LAW family, we are called to do so and to advocate for a world where, despite what history has shown us, Black Lives Matter. 

In solidarity,

William P. Johnson
Dean and Professor of Law