Anti-Racist Mentorship: Turning Good Intentions into Meaningful Change, 0321 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 3 Pg. 10

PositionVol. 50, 3 [Page 10]

50 Colo.Law. 10

Anti-Racist Mentorship: Turning Good Intentions into Meaningful Change

Vol. 50, No. 3 [Page 10]

Colorado Lawyer

March, 2021



The legal profession has struggled for a lifetime to create equity within the profession. In recent years, numerous scholarly and opinion articles have recognized cross-race legal mentorship as a necessary component of achieving this goal.1 But while these authors, researchers, and academics are correct in their assessment of the necessity and benefit of cross-race mentoring relationships in the legal profession, it is imperative to understand that such relationships are a result of centuries of social stratification within the profession.

The relationship between a white mentor and a mentee of color is predicated on years of historical practices, political decisions, and attitudes that have unequally distributed economic and intellectual resources within the legal profession.2 Successfully navigating legal institutions (law firms, bar associations, etc.) is based on colonialist notions of social hierarchy, assimilation, and credentialing, about which the white mentor is supposed to have some insight to provide a lawyer of color.[3] Yet we know that success in the legal profession is not merely a navigational issue and is predicated instead on matters of access and opportunity.

This article contains lessons I have learned as a well-intentioned white mentor seeking to move beyond merely helping lawyers of color survive the profession to actually eliminating the social, political, and economic arrangements and practices that necessitate these survival tactics in the first place.[4] I specifically call on my white colleagues to learn from and teach one another. We are responsible for creating and maintaining the privilege we hold in this profession, and as such, we bear responsibility for ending it. We cannot be anti-racist lawyers and mentors in a vacuum. It will take many of us to step into the role of an anti-racist mentor to change the structures within the profession that continue to perpetuate the ongoing disparities for lawyers of color. If enough of us are willing to engage in this journey of anti-racism, we can rapidly transform our awareness into meaningful action.

What is Anti-Racism?

The current national conversation on race, justice, and policing has focused attention on the role of the legal profession in perpetuating white supremacy and racism in America.[5] People often think of white supremacy and racism in terms of individual actions. These words may conjure up images of people in white cloaks or neo-Nazis with shaved heads. But racial discrimination is not always so overt. Structural and systemic racism is all around us. We are born into it. It is deeply embedded in our culture and our communities, including the legal profession. It is so pervasive that lawyers often don't even notice how policies, institutions, and systems disproportionately favor some while disadvantaging others.

"White supremacy" is the existence of racial power that denotes a system of structural or societal racism that privileges white people over others, regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred.[6] White racial advantages occur at both a collective and an individual level, and white supremacy denotes that white people and white ways of being—of beauty, of working, of thinking, and so on—are treated as the baseline, the norm, and all other ways are treated as deviations on that norm.[7]

People often mistakenly believe that simply being "not racist" is enough to eliminate racial discrimination and white supremacy. The problem with this perspective is that many people are not only unaware of their own unconscious biases about race, but also don't fully understand the institutional and structural issues that uphold white supremacy and contribute to racist behaviors, attitudes, and policies.[8]

The concept of anti-racism has its roots in abolition and has been around throughout the 20th-century civil rights movements. More recently, thanks to the work of Ibram X. Kendi and other scholars, activists have used the term "anti-racist" specifically to make the point that it is not sufficient to merely be non-racist. As Kendi explains in his 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist:

The opposite of racist isn't "not racist." It is "anti-racist." What's the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an anti-racist. One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist. One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in-between safe space of "not racist."[9]

To be an anti-racist, Kendi and others say, requires an understanding of history—an understanding that racial disparities in America have their roots, not in some failing by people of color, but in policies that serve to prop up white supremacy.

The legal profession and its institutions are not exempt from the influence of white supremacy and the racist systems, structures, and false meritocracies that perpetuate such supremacy. As a result, legal mentors are also influenced by these factors and as leaders within the profession have an obligation to confront the racial inequities of our profession as an anti-racist.

Educate Yourself and Do Your Own Work

It might be uncomfortable to acknowledge white supremacy within ourselves and our profession's institutions. Such acknowledgment may cause feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness. This fragility, however, does little to create a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive legal profession.

Part of becoming an anti-racist mentor is acknowledging our own positions of power in a white supremacist system. I acknowledge that I am a white person, and as such, I cannot talk about what it feels like to experience racism or to fight against it...

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