Report from a Basement Classroom: Struggling with Tough Questions about Race
“I don’t trust the system,” a muscular black man laments to the blond-haired blue-eyed woman sharing an interview table with him. She deftly changes the subject to holes in the prosecution’s case. The air is stuffy in the windowless basement room they share. Fluorescent lights cast everything a bright shadowless glare. After five minutes of discussion, he returns to his preoccupation. “I’m a black man. I’m practically already convicted and sentenced. I mean look what happened to Kalief Browder– brother spent 3 years in jail before his case was dismissed and he just committed suicide.” The young woman powerfully delivers what amounts to a draft of a closing argument of the man’s case and is promptly interrupted by someone in the corner who shouts, “Time!”
The man leaves. The young woman turns to face six of her peers and two coaches. Now that the actor has left, a new discussion fills the room. This time it’s among public defenders. We all agree that the actor/client’s concerns about race and fairness should have been addressed head on and not dodged. We flail about finding the right words to say, and wrestle with the questions: How do you tell a client that you don’t trust the system either? How do you confirm an accused man’s worst fears that the deck is stacked against him because of his race? How do you convince someone of a different class, race and gender that you will still fight as hard as you can for him in a rigged system?
I cannot provide answers to these questions, but I promise you there is a generation of brilliant, passionate and dedicated defenders struggling to answer them while they hone their trial and client communication skills. As news of the murder of another Black youth by the criminal justice system breaks our hearts, public defenders at the New York State Defenders Association Basic Trial Skills Program are struggling to find the courage to have necessary and honest conversations with our clients and ourselves about race and our role in the system.