President's Page--Together We Can Make the Difference
‘‘Eenie, meanie, miney, mo.’’ I was probably five or six years old, and I was repeating this ditty to my new friend who was about my age. I had recently learned the ditty on the playground. I thought it was a harmless, nonsense rhyme, but I was wrong: the version I learned contained a word I did not then understand, the racial insult to African Americans. I continued reciting the ditty to my friend. Suddenly my new young friend burst into tears and ran into the house. I wandered around the yard, wondering why my new friend was so upset. Shortly, his mother came outside, towing my young friend, still in tears. She was very angry. She demanded to know what I said. I told her. She grabbed her son and dragged him, sobbing, inside. His mother forbade him to play with me, and I never saw my new black friend again.
At first, when my parents explained to me the meaning of what I had said, I was bewildered and felt as sorry for myself as I did for the other youngster. I had no intention of hurting him. It took me many years to begin to have a true appreciation of how deeply I must have hurt my new friend, as well as his mother. I now know that I can never fully comprehend their heartache.
I have carried the memory of that experience throughout my life, and it has influenced me profoundly—for the good. I hate to think about the deep and perhaps lifelong wound I caused that young man, and the influence it had on him.
I am grateful that I learned this lesson so young. As a schoolboy growing up in the diversity of Benton Harbor, I began many lifelong relationships with black families. With all, there is shared friendship and respect. For some, I have deep admiration and love.
Over time, I have come to know that there is no such thing as different genetic races; different physical characteristics, of course. We are one race: the human race. There may be plentiful reasons not to like another person, but skin color should not be one of them.
Diversity is in our professional interest as lawyers. Sociologists have produced much evidence that students learn better and more in a diverse setting. Research presented in The University of Michigan Law School admissions litigation1 shows that white students who have the most exposure to racial diversity during college demonstrate:
•the greatest growth in active thinking processes;
•growth in their drive to achieve, their intellectual self-confidence, and their goals for creating original works;
•the highest post-graduate degree aspirations;
•the greatest growth in values placed on their intellectual and academic skills; and
•the positive results continue after graduation from college.
African American and Latino students show similar positive results from diversity.
In the U-M admissions litigation, Robert E. Webster, a former president of the State Bar (1989-90) and a former Oakland County Circuit Court Judge (1973-82), eloquently testified to the importance of diversity in our profession.
In sum, the ability to empathize and work effectively with people of diverse races and backgrounds is critical to our profession. It is an ability that must be developed as proficiently, and as soon, as it possibly can. For it is finally this simple: we cannot represent someone as effectively, cannot counsel someone as insightfully, and cannot persuade someone as convincingly, if their race or background makes them a stranger to us.
From my childhood to now, there is undeniable progress in acceptance of diversity. Not enough, but progress. Much of the progress has been assisted by the courageous, selfless efforts of lawyers who have heroic commitment to equality and fairness. We, as lawyers, must build on the foundation their triumphs have laid.
Equal access and fairness are the bedrock of our justice system. Society has granted to the legal profession stewardship over our justice system, and with it comes the responsibility to assure that the bedrock is sound. Each of us needs to accept a fair share of that responsibility. Each of us needs to fortify that bedrock; to secure it for the future. The author Harper Lee, a nonlawyer, understood our responsibility and described it through the words of an Alabama lawyer, Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird. Atticus explained to his daughter, Scout, when she asked why he was despised by certain townspeople for defending Tom Robinson, a black man, accused of raping a white woman:
Scout, simply by the nature of the work, every lawyer gets at least one case in his lifetime that affects him personally. This one’s mine, I guess.
Have you had yours?
I believe that in the heart of every lawyer is the desire to make a difference in another person’s life. Sometimes, we do not recognize that yearning. Sometimes, we do not know how to satisfy the yearning. We must understand that one’s contribution need not always be in a grand way. A warm smile to someone who looks different is simple but meaningful. Performing random acts of kindness can be richly rewarding. If we always carry the thought of helping others in our minds, we will find abundant opportunity and rewards.
For our justice system, our profession, ourselves and our progeny, we need to do this. Together, we can make the difference.
1. The University of Michigan Law School has posted on its website the admissions litigation documents. The expert witness documents can be accessed at http://www.umich.edu/~urel/admissions/legal/expert/index.html See particularly the testimony of Patricia Gurin at § V.E., ‘‘Empirical Results from the Analyses Conducted for this Litigation,’’ and of Robert B. Webster. The plaintiffs in that litigation have posted documents to their website at http://www.cir-usa.org/mich1.htm