Who Gets to Be Vulnerable

This essay is a review of Jesmyn Ward’s first novel, Where the Line Bleeds

One of the high points of 2017 was my discovery of Jesmyn Ward. I picked up Sing, Unburied, Sing in the late fall and immediately became transfixed by its impactful prose. After finishing it, I knew that I wanted to explore this talented author’s other works.

Following a few other reads, ranging from Little Fires Everywhere to An American Marriage, I encountered Where The Line Bleeds – her first book. I completed the novel earlier this year, and it sent my mind soaring.

Set in fictional Bois Sauvage, Mississippi, it follows the lives of twin teenage brothers during the summer after their high school graduation. It explores the themes that are often found in Ms. Ward’s other pieces – including race, financial woes, and drug addiction – while conveying its various messages in extremely relatable ways.
As Joshua and Christophe, the protagonists, navigated their ways through job hunts, romances, and family drama, I found myself contemplating my own journey and considering how precarious some of its roads can be and have been.

To put that reflection in greater context, I must travel back in time by nearly a decade. Though I am now an attorney working in D.C., I was once a twelfth-grade student living in suburban central Ohio. I committed to attending Howard University early on in my final year of high school, so I fully embraced my newly-appreciated ability to just be a teenager and have fun.

Like Christophe and Joshua, I chilled with my friends, smoked pot, and spent time thinking about what the future had in store. Unlike the twins, I was spared the apprehension of not knowing what was going to immediately come next, but I definitely connected with them on the general anxiety of being a young Black American man.

It is worth noting that a source of tension arises in the novel when Joshua gets a job on the docks and Christophe remains unemployed. This occurrence follows an admittedly hilarious scene in which Joshua and Christophe show up high to fill out applications for positions on the docks. Christophe eventually turns to the twins’ cousin, Dunny, who puts him on the weed selling game.

As Christophe delves deeper into the trade, he begins to associate with another member of their community, Javon, even more. A daily practice emerges in which Christophe hangs out at Javon’s home during the daytime, simultaneously hosting clients and being constantly aware of the potential presence of the police.

This portion of the novel made me recall an incident close to my high school graduation. I joined a few of my friends – two white guys and a Black young woman – for a night of typical senior revelry. We ultimately decided to smoke a joint near an undeveloped plot of land across from one of the shopping centers in our suburb.
Casual conversation turned into a ritual with which many teenagers are familiar – the blunt got passed around the car as we each puffed in turn. Smiles emerged among the barely veiled haze, and we began to speak about the upcoming graduation ceremony.

As the rolled cigarillo approached its final roach form, we noticed a police cruiser approaching the back of the van. I imagine that we all registered its presence at the same time. One of my friends surreptitiously tossed the contraband out the window, and we became silent. The officer walked up and posed the typical commands and inquiries.

License and registration.

What are you kids up to?

I stayed quiet as one of my white friends took on the primary speaking role. We all subconsciously knew that this method of engagement would be the best way to escape legal trouble. After a few minutes, the officer wrapped up his exchange with us and wished us a good night – though he more than implied that he should make our way home.

On the ride back to our neighborhoods, the same friend who had done the talking wondered out loud if the outcome would’ve been different had it been just me and our woman-friend. It captured our thoughts well in that moment. I’ve pondered that exchange off and on for the past nine years, particularly given where we all ended up.

We became lawyers, world adventurers, and non-profit starters. The factors of that night aligned in a manner that made it possible for us to be afforded the best outcome – to merely walk away unscathed.

As I read Where The Line Bleeds, I was certainly reminded that not everyone gets off so easily in this racist and oppressive system. Though a police officer doesn’t enter Javon’s home in the story, one could ostensibly imagine what would have happened if one did come in that space.

An additional frustration comes from envisioning my own alternate reality vis-à-vis the realities of myriad other Americans. Even if my friends and I had been arrested and charged that night, our parents would have been able to step in, hire lawyers, and minimize the damage to our future trajectories. For Christophe and Joshua, young men who had to deal with a relatively absent mother and a drug-addicted father, the stakes – and risks to their freedom – would have been much higher.

The combined effect of reflecting on the event before my high school graduation and reading Where The Line Bleeds inherently pushed me to consider this current political moment quite pensively. After finishing the book, a question formed in my mind and remains there:

Who gets to be vulnerable?

Stated another way, who gets to be human?

In this climate, which is marked by rampant racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, the imperative nature of these questions gains magnitude every day.

Did me and my friends, as suburban high school kids, get to be vulnerable?

Do Christophe and Joshua get to be?

Do Black and Brown victims of the prison-industrial complex, currently behind bars, get to be human?

Do drug-addicted folks in the Northeast get to be?

The answers to these questions likely vary – fueling the root problem. Each person, with their unique qualities, skills, and personality, should feel uninhibited in their pursuit of vulnerability. That is the fundamental power of Ms. Ward’s phenomenal writing – she creates stories that reinforce the humanity of some of the most marginalized people in our society.

As she indicated during her second, historic National Book Award acceptance speech last November, the joy and sorrow of poor Black Americans along the Gulf Coast are universal. The triumphs, fears, and excitement of Christophe, Joshua, and all the members of the Bois Sauvage community should resonate with each of us. Moreover, they should inform our approach to investments in public benefits, education, and substance abuse treatment – optimally unclouded by the racial bias that has traditionally pervaded these American systems.

Take the opioid crisis, for example. It is quite jarring to witness the current, negative impact of heroin, prescription drugs, and other harmful substances on so many Americans. However, it is also disheartening to juxtapose the federal government’s response to this crisis to its reaction to crack cocaine just a few decades ago. A punitive, harsh-on-crime approach has been replaced by a restorative one focused on public health solutions.

In this situation, it is clear that the differences in these reactions turn on the race of the people who were most impacted. It would be hard to imagine Jeff Sessions directing the Justice Department to not prosecute the Black citizens of Bois Sauvage who are addicted to drugs. On the contrary, given his actions as the Attorney General so far, he would instruct his prosecutors to slam the book on them and, quite ludicrously, recommend the death penalty for some of them. These actions would stand in stark contrast to drug treatment practices in racially homogeneous places like New Hampshire and Vermont.
Even considering all of this, and though we live in difficult times, I am encouraged by a number of things – most relevant in this setting is the end of Where The Line Bleeds. Without explicitly ruining the conclusion of the story, I must express that it wraps up with a hopeful refrain.

Christophe and Joshua both realize that, as humans, the challenges and adversity that they face all play into the resilience they develop. Despite the struggles that exist on the horizon, ranging from financial insecurity to caring for their ailing, nearly-blind grandmother, they likely have a sense that the full-circle nature of the universe will pan out in their favor. I personally think back on my life so far and realize that theme has been a recurring one. From living as a bright-eyed teenager full of limitless possibilities to working as a civil rights lawyer during the Trump Era, I recognize the beauty and interconnectedness of it all.

I thank Ms. Ward for her timely and gorgeous writing, a characteristic that has been a hallmark of the work that has built her amazing career. More importantly, I’m grateful for the characters that she has deftly created – people who make me reflect on the qualities that unite us all.

They, along with Ms. Ward, motivate me to continue to fight for a world in which all people can fully experience their humanity and vulnerability.

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Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City)

 

What’s better than a long weekend?

A trip to an incredible international city over a long weekend.

After considering a couple of options, my law school buddy, Harry, and I excitedly agreed to visit Mexico City for the first time; we hopped on a plane there as Frederick Douglass Weekend began. Fortunately, we found a direct flight out of Dulles (and back a few days later), as well as an affordable Airbnb right off of Nuevo Leon – one of the main streets near the center of the city. As soon as we got settled in, an exploration characterized by fantastic food, breathtaking art, and soulful people commenced. Here’s a recap of the trip, complete with photos and various musings:

Night 1

Harry and I ventured outside to find some food and explore the neighborhood. After several minutes, we stumbled upon a restaurant that had a mariachi band in full swing. We ordered a couple of Pacificos and enjoyed the catchy music, diving right into the familial feeling of the space. Upon learning that the kitchen had closed for the evening, we walked back toward the Airbnb and settled on a restaurant called Los creadores del Taco al Pastor. Only a few minutes after sitting down, we were consuming flavorful tacos de chorizo and taking in the temperate night air. As we finished the meal, fatigue fully set in, and we retired to the Airbnb for the night.

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Arriving at customs after landing in Mexico City

Day 1

We woke up early the next morning to take on the first grand adventure: a tour of the ancient Teotihuacan pyramids. About a week prior to taking off, we booked a day-long excursion through Trip Advisor, and we were both pretty hype leading up to it.

Before we journeyed to a nearby Four Seasons to get picked up, we stopped by Ojo de Agua, a quaint breakfast spot in the neighborhood that would soon become a regular feature of the trip. After reviewing the impressive menu, we both decided on the chilaquiles, mine with pulled pork and his with an egg. A refreshing jug of mango juice and two vibrant coffees accompanied this hearty meal. Although it was all delicious, we quickly wrapped up to ensure that we would make it to the rendez-vous point on time.

 

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First breakfast in Mexico City

 

We arrived at the hotel in good time, and, following a few more stops to pick up passengers, we were off. Our knowledgeable tour guide provided insight on various aspects of Mexico City as we made our way to the site of the pyramids. Admittedly, I was reading Hillbilly Elegy the entire time, but I was still plugged into her lively descriptions of myriad things.

After stopping at a shop outside of the actual site, which entailed trying mezcal (more on this later) and picking up souvenirs, we made it to the site. Two majestic pyramids – the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon – stood proudly among an impressive set of smaller ruins. We climbed both of them and explored areas in between for a couple of hours. Such an impactful initial experience set the tone for what the rest of the day and trip would have in store.

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A somewhat stern selfie

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Harry capturing a pic of the Pyramid of the Sun

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A photo of one of the smaller ruins

After a filling lunch at a buffet near the pyramids, we made our way to the Basilica de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. This beautiful edifice stands out because of its historic lore – according to legend, the Virgin Mary made an appearance on its grounds over 500 years ago. On certain days, millions of people can find themselves observing the ornate decorations and detailed architecture with one another. It certainly served as a fitting end to the tour.

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Approaching the Basilica from the tour bus

 

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Harry taking in an awe-inspiring view of the Basilica

Night 2

Following a comprehensive and exhausting trip to the pyramids & Basilica, Harry and I decided to visit a neighborhood bar to try some mezcal. Mezcal is a smoky and distinctive Mexican liquor that is quite similar to tequila. Following a five-minute walk, we found ourselves at La Clandestina. The bar provided a laidback setting, great drinks, and a delicious combination of guacamole and pork rinds (made a mental note for any future dinner parties I host). Still full from the buffet lunch, we skipped grabbing a formal dinner and caught some rest for the second full day.

Day 2

Waking up refreshed on a beautiful Sunday morning, Harry and I picked up coffees from Ojo de Agua, walked around the neighborhood for a minute, and caught a ride to the Historic District of Mexico City. Little did we know that the best breakfast of the trip awaited us.

We made it to El Cardenal, a restaurant that could hold its own against any brunch spot in D.C. After a forty minute wait, we sat down and were immediately greeted with a pastry tray. As we both admitted later, we were a bit reluctant to take one for fear of messing up our appetites. After a brief pause, we acquiesced and slid our respective pastries onto our plates – the best decision of the trip.

Folks, it’s hard to put into words how delicious, light, flaky, and airy these pastries were. It felt like we were eating clouds picked from the sky on a mild summer day. My only regret of the trip is that I didn’t take a picture of them. Our meal of huevos veracruzes (egg enchiladas covered in mole) and mango juice was phenomenal as well, but the pastries stood out as the best things we ate on the trip. I can’t recommend this place highly enough.

After breakfast, we walked to the center of the Historic District and marveled at the exciting activity around us. The scene made us both recall previous visits to Barcelona. We continued our sojourn to a nearby market, where we encountered products ranging from candles to live birds. After exploring the market for a bit, we decided to head to the Museo Nacional de Anthropologia.

The museum, housed in a magnificent building near the city’s financial district, tells the stories of the people who have contributed to Mexico’s rich history. Though we only spent around 75 minutes inside, the structures and narratives conveyed vivid, lasting images. It served as a nice transition to an anticipated lively evening.

 

 

 

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View of the inner courtyard of Museo Nacional de Antropologia

 

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Best selfie of the trip

Night 3

Harry had an idea in the week leading up to the trip – to check out a Lucha Libre match. It turned out to be a marvelous one. We stopped by the Airbnb to catch a quick nap, and then we headed to the venue.

I already knew it would be a great event when we found two chicharrones quesadillas outside of the venue for thirty pesos (just under $2). Harry grabbed two ringside tickets, and we settled in for a highly entertaining two-hour match. As we enjoyed our micheladas (sans the thick tomato paste that covered the rim), several wrestlers entered the ring to put on a highly theatrical show. I never watched much WWE, but it certainly gave off that vibe – based on my limited knowledge. It was a blast from start to finish, and it was a great treat to be so close to the action.

 

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A still of the main event and the michelada

Following the match’s conclusion, we ventured to Place Garibaldi – an open plaza filled with mariachi bands and great activity. We decided to stop at one of the bars near the center of Place Garibaldi to get some mezcal and chill out. Following a couple of hours of good conversation and great music, we went back to the neighborhood, grabbing a few more tacos de chorizo from Los creadores del Taco al Pastor before calling it a night.

Day 3

The final full day felt more like a Sunday than the previous 24 hours. We woke up and completed our third and last trip to Ojo de Agua – settling on coffees and almond croissants. Following breakfast, Harry wanted to check out more of the markets near the Historic District, and I decided to take a longer walk around the neighborhood. Accordingly, we split up for a couple of hours.

 

I meandered throughout Condesa – our gorgeous neighborhood for the weekend – and found myself near some of the large skyscrapers in the business district. Of note, I ran into a few elaborate structures on the street, including one of the great, late Muhammad Ali.

 

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Muhammad Ali in the business district of Mexico City

I ended up making a large circle and rested at the Airbnb for a bit. When Harry returned, we determined that we wanted to get lunch near the Frida Kahlo Museum in southeast Mexico City. Though we later learned that the museum is closed on Mondays (along with a number of other ones), we enthusiastically headed toward its neighborhood. When we arrived, we ended up walking through a delightfully quaint part of Mexico City, complete with cobblestone roads and small shops. We eventually happened upon a restaurant that delivered the best lunch of the trip. Although I neglected to catch the name of the dining establishment, the green sauce that covered the enchiladas I ordered still stands out prominently in my mind.

 

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Lunch at an unknown restaurant near the neighborhood of the  Frida Kahlo Museum

Following the satisfying lunch, we took off to one of the final excursions of the trip – the Xochimilco Canals. Located about half an hour southeast of central Mexico City, these canals offer the perfect setting for a relaxing evening on the water. After arriving and grabbing some waters and brews for the boat ride, we met a cool couple from Chicago, Katie and Eddie. The four of us decided to team up for a two-hour ride that would only cost us 250 pesos a piece. Soon thereafter, we were drifting on the calm river, enjoying the perfect weather and easy-going discussions. At one point, a mariachi band joined us and serenaded the boat. We all basked in wonderful R&R that it provided.

 

 

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A photo from the ride on the canal, capturing the sun’s majesty

Night 4

As we rode back to Condesa from the canals, we realized how quickly the trip was coming to a close. So many memories had already been compiled from the previous 72 hours, but we still wanted to make a few more – namely by concluding the trip with a nice dinner. After doing a little research in the Airbnb, we picked Azul Condesa. The restaurant sat just under half of a mile from the Airbnb, but, upon arriving, we learned that there was a wait. We killed the time by completing one more walk throughout the neighborhood and grabbing our final glasses of mezcal at the bar next door to Azul Condesa.

After about an hour, Harry got a text indicating that our table was ready. What followed was a meal second only to the Sunday breakfast at El Cardenal. We glided through a multi-course meal, ranging from shrimp in a spicy, delectable sauce to desserts with incredible custards. For our entrees, Harry had enchiladas and I had a filet of beef – both of our dishes were covered in the most succulent mole we’d ever eaten. Best of all, this feast came out to about 600 pesos (approximately $40) for each of us.

We drifted to the Airbnb contentedly and packed our bags for the trip home.

Concluding Thoughts

I highly recommend Mexico City as an international travel destination. The art, the culture, and the food are unparalleled. It’s an affordable town that has plenty of attractions to keep you engaged – whether you’re staying for a weekend, a week, or a few months.

Before I sign off, I have to share the best memory and the best picture of the trip.

Best memory: Blasting Bodak Yellow in the car from Place Garibaldi back to Condesa

Best picture:

 

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Descending the Pyramid of the Moon and plotting my return to Mexico City. Photo Credit: Harry England

Hasta luego, Mexico City. Muchas gracias.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An Insider’s View of Today’s SCOTUS Arguments on Voter Purging in Ohio

This piece appears on Advancement Project’s blog. 

Earlier today, the Supreme Court of the United States held the oral argument for Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. This case concerns the maintenance of states’ voter rolls under the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act (HAVA).

Originating in Ohio, the primary issue of the case concerns whether a state can use a voter’s inactivity to purge that voter from the state’s rolls. The state of Ohio maintained that these federal statutes supported its procedure, known as the Ohio Supplemental Process; the A. Philip Randolph Institute argued that the Supplemental Process violates the NVRA & HAVA. Advancement Project filed an amicus brief in this case that focused on how Ohio’s past racially discriminatory voting practices may have contributed to the inactivity that was at the heart of the controversy in this case.

During today’s oral argument, counsel for the Ohio Secretary of State, the Solicitor General of the United States, and counsel for the A. Philip Randolph Institute delivered remarks on behalf of their clients. The attorney for the Secretary of State attempted to justify the Supplemental Process by associating the use of the Supplemental Process with the possibility of identifying voters who moved. Throughout the argument, this premise proved to be tenuous at best.

Of note, while questioning the lawyer for the Ohio Secretary of State, Justice Sonia Sotomayor discussed the ostensible disproportionate impact of this purging process on minority voters. She pointed to Ohio’s elimination of Golden Week — a voter registration drive that benefited a number of Black and Brown people in the state as one reason that a voter may choose to not vote. She also expressed the negative impact of long hours and extensive lines on voter participation for people of color. She subsequently noted that there is a strong argument for discriminatory impact in this case.

The solicitor general offered the government’s perspective in the case, and Justice Sotomayor conveyed another concern. Since the passage of the NVRA in the early 1990s, Democratic and Republican presidential administrations have maintained a consistent position on the statutory interpretation of these statutes. However, under the leadership of this current administration, the Justice Department shifted its position on the matter. Justice Sotomayor noted how unusual it was for the Office of the Solicitor General to change its perspective so drastically. Several minutes later, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg chimed in and reaffirmed that the prior position of the United States was that non-voting is not necessarily a reliable indicator that a person moved.

During his argument, the lawyer for A. Philip Randolph Institute emphasized that the Ohio Supplemental Process relies on six years of non-voting and leads to the vast over-purging of voters. Following a line of questioning from Justice Stephen Breyer, he noted that 70 percent of people who received the confirmation notice from the state of Ohio did not respond to it; moreover, he stressed that this did not mean that they necessarily moved. As counsel for the Ohio Secretary of State delivered his rebuttal, a concluding troubling point emerged purged voters receive no notice once they are officially removed from the rolls.

Following this action-packed oral argument, my colleagues at Advancement Project and I anxiously await the Court’s decision in the case in a few months.

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The Day Fear and Ignorance Prevailed

One year later, I reflect on a day that stands out in infamy – November 8, 2016. This piece also appears on Advancement Project’s Medium page.

 

The cool breeze of a brisk November Tuesday felt familiar. Oddly enough, it provided a warm and welcomed form of energy. After an exhausting election season, the country seemed poised to deliver a clear and decisive message that rebuked bigotry and hatred — at least in my mind. I ventured to my polling place in Columbia Heights in Washington, D.C., and eagerly awaited the opportunity to vote in another presidential election. A few hours passed, and I soon found myself in the middle of a surprisingly normal work day.

 
I refreshed the New York Times application on my phone more than a few times over the course of eight hours. Each time ended in a sigh of relief — the expected victor maintained a steady lead as the polls closed. My optimism about the expected results imparted a sense of calm balance. I left my office with a colleague to watch the election returns at another friend’s home. We laughed, broke bread and prepared to celebrate the election of the country’s first woman president — a victory that would ostensibly establish the security of the first Black president’s legacy. The air of joviality quickly transitioned into one of ominous solemnity.

 
We moved to a viewing party at a nearby restaurant; things started to feel more peculiar as the growing number of red counties registered in my mind. Around 9:30 p.m., the horror fully settled into my psyche. We journeyed to one more destination with a fleeting feeling that the initial returns were a fluke. Each passing second came with a growing sense of dread.

 
I caught a Lyft to my house with a numbness spreading through my body. I slept fitfully and eventually woke up at 3:30 a.m. to the official notification — fear and ignorance prevailed. I tried to make sense of it but it defied any logic that existed. The shock translated to pain as I walked to my office and passed numerous Black and Brown children with melancholy and heartbroken looks on their faces.

 
It’s certainly been a draining and infuriating 12-month period. Even in the midst of personal accomplishments, such as joining Advancement Project as a staff attorney, the frustration grows in intensity with each new hateful policy proposal or tweet. All of it has created an intriguing paradox. I am honored and excited to be where I am in my career. However, I also recognize the tremendous amount of work that is being created by this administration’s stark racism and the rebuilding that must occur, regardless of when this regime concludes.

 
During these troubling times, I hold strongly to faith, family and community. I remain grounded in the fact that the ongoing fight for justice existed prior to the current administration and will continue after it is out of power. I pledge to be resolute, attentive and innovative as I confront unrelenting civil rights challenges. I also commit to not back down from supporting local communities and amplifying the voices of the marginalized.

 
I am in the freedom fight for the long haul.

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Reflections on a Season of Transition

Forgive my silence for the past few months – life’s transitions often fall into and flow through one another. After an excellent year at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, I joined Advancement Project as a staff attorney last month. Orientation gave way to a staff retreat, reunions, introductions and engaging work. I love my job, but time slips away swiftly from week to week. And, of course, there’s the physically taxing process of registering the daily horrors that emerge from the Trump Administration.

Most recently, I worked with my colleagues to write an amicus brief for Husted v. APRI, a case before the Supreme Court during the October 2017 Term. The matter concerns the National Voter Registration Act and whether a state can essentially remove a voter from its rolls for not voting. The brief supports the A. Philip Randolph Institute; it argues that Ohio’s history of voter suppression, particularly vis-a-vis Black and Brown voters, causes the inactivity that the state uses to kick voters off of the rolls. I’m immensely proud to stand along side other voting rights advocates, and I count it as an incredible honor to have worked on such a brief so early in my legal career.

With securing the right to vote in mind, I look forward to moderating a panel in Denver next week for the Fall Conference of the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division. The event will focus on the rise of suppressive tactics in election administration, and it will include the perspectives of a Colorado state representative, a law professor and two voting rights advocates in Denver. I hope the panel will provide an avenue for a rich strategic discussion in the midst of a perilous political climate.

On the organizing side of my work, I’m excited to attend the March for Black Women on September 30th. Far too often, the voices of women, trans folks, and non-binary & gender non-conforming people are met with unwarranted vitriol and skepticism. I intend to always stand in solidarity with ALL Black people, and I urge myself & other Black men to listen attentively and provide support wherever its needed. If we don’t, we risk feeding the toxic patriarchy that resulted in 45’s election. (for more context, see, e.g., one of Damon Young’s latest VSB posts) Most importantly, I pledge to trust Black women, now and always.

To conclude, though it’s an excellent time in my life professionally, I recognize the sheer exhaustion that so many folks are experiencing during this time in the United States. I certainly count myself as a member of that group. More thorough reflections are forthcoming on my perspective as Black man living during the authoritarian reign of the First White President. For now, I intend to keep settling into the new job, writing, organizing and tirelessly fighting for justice. All these actions are both necessary, cathartic and freeing.

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Dear Friend – The Millennial Moment

Proud to support my high school colleague, Janice Bonsu, and her teammates at The Millennial Moment. I urge you to visit their website for more information on this fascinating project. In the meantime, check out my letter by clicking on the link below:

Millennial Moment Letter – Hairston

 

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HBCUs: Much greater than a brief photo opportunity

This piece appears on various publications associated with the Trice Edney News Wire, including The New Pittsburgh Courier

I love historically Black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs. I’m certainly biased, as I’m a graduate of Howard University in Washington, D.C., but my admiration for these institutions extends across my lifespan and the generations that preceded me.

A host of my friends, family members and colleagues are HBCU alumni, and these institutions continue to contribute a great deal of vibrancy to American life and our system of democracy. My first major case as a lawyer centered around the desegregation of Maryland’s four HBCUs, and I recently wrote two pieces dedicated to the significance and personal history of HBCUs.

I am particularly proud of these institutions for what they have managed to do despite the perennial challenges of systemic racism and inadequate investment.With all of this in mind, I find myself troubled by the news that broke on Monday, February 27, 2017. A number of articles on various news outlets, as well as posts on social media, quickly made it known that the Trump Administration, ostensibly under the direction of President Trump’s assistant, Omarosa Manigault, had organized a meeting with numerous HBCU leaders. A photo opportunity emerged, and a peculiar picture, with President Trump, Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway and the HBCU presidents & chancellors, soon made its rounds on the Internet.

To conclude the day’s events, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos issued a statement asserting that HBCUs are ‘real pioneers of school choice.’ As a young civil rights attorney and HBCU graduate, I do recognize the validity of some assertions made by the Trump Administration in reporting what transpired during the listening session. For instance, enhancing the infrastructure of a number of HBCUs could certainly play a role in increasing the competitiveness of these institutions in the twenty-first century. However, a brief photo opportunity and press release associating HBCUs with school choice both severely mischaracterize the history and promise of these 105 colleges and universities throughout the United States.

At their founding, many HBCUs opened their doors to students who had been previously denied an opportunity to access a postsecondary education. As they have evolved, these institutions have fortified themselves as supportive spaces for students to refine their commitment to social justice and learn of the significant contributions of members of the black diaspora to the world. When I think of my experience at Howard, I recall marching to the White House in 2011 to protest the execution of Troy Davis, traveling to Annapolis to call for an end for the death penalty in Maryland and partnering with grassroots community organizations to canvas in Baltimore as a part of the University’s Alternative Spring Break initiative.

Yes, increased funding, stronger programmatic offerings and better facilities would all undoubtedly assist HBCUs in reaching their full potential in the current global landscape. What the new administration must also understand is that HBCU graduates often leave their campuses with both degrees and a mission to achieve racial & social justice.

For many HBCU alumni, myself included, that photo opportunity does little to mitigate the damage already done by the Trump Administration’s policies to these principles, including the travel ban, the rescission of the Obama Administration’s Title IX guidance for transgender students, and the Department of Justice’s decision to remove itself from a crucial challenge to a discriminatory voter ID law in Texas.Additionally, the dark picture painted by President Trump in his inaugural address, which placed emphasis on American carnage and a need to restore law and order in this nation, contradicts the rhetoric released by the Administration concerning HBCUs.

As communities of color continue to mobilize against militarized schools and police shootings of unarmed black people, among other issues, the missions of HBCUs and these activists find themselves inextricably linked. Harmful policies advocated by the Trump Administration, including widespread availability of school vouchers and increasing funding to local law enforcement officers, stand only to exacerbate the push-out of children of color and limit their access to a quality public education.

The school-to-prison pipeline already hinders the promise of many young children of color by replacing school resources with those of the juvenile justice system; these practices indirectly result in a diminished applicant pool for HBCUs and make it that much harder for these institutions to fulfill their missions grounded in justice and equality. HBCUs constitute strong and powerful portions of the American story. To demonstrate an earnest interest in these institutions, President Trump and his administration must remain cognizant of the historic and current purpose of HBCUs. Increasing the available resources for these colleges and universities is one part of the process, but another part, arguably of more importance, is implementing policies across the executive branch that honor and support the goal of HBCUs to achieve a society free of discrimination and bigotry.

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The Essential Nature of HBCUs

This piece originally appeared in Diverse Issues in Higher Education on February 2, 2017.

Even though my formal education is finished, I still find myself conversing about my college choice in various circles frequently. These casual dialogues often pose some form of the same question.

Did you always know that you wanted to attend a historically Black college or university (HBCU)?

My answer remains fairly consistent.

Yes, for me, it was not a matter of if I was going to attend an HBCU; it was a question of which HBCU I was going to attend.

My response then triggers unforgettable memories from my earlier years. The lush grass on the rolling hills of Alcorn State University. A powerful address by Julian Bond on the campus of Shaw University. The infectious, familial spirit that characterizes Clark Atlanta University. A fitting tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Morehouse College.

I reflect on these veritable institutions and marvel at their mere existence. Most of them were established as the United States attempted to rebuild after the Civil War. A number of them opened their doors to eager students, regardless of race or gender, and they fashioned their missions to be grounded in principles of justice and equality. They quickly learned how to fulfill their goals without the necessary financial resources to do so. The result has been a rich history that has greatly influenced the story of America.

On a personal level, HBCUs have paved the path for me to occupy my current role as a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C. My great-grandmother served as the switchboard operator for Alcorn in the early part of the 20th century, and she earned her baccalaureate degree from the same institution. Her daughter, my 90-year-old grandmother, received her primary, secondary and undergraduate education from Alcorn and sent each of her thirteen children to the school. Within 35 years of one another, my mother and sister studied chemistry in Alcorn’s hallowed halls. My father capitalized on the lessons he learned at Winston-Salem State and Shaw to become a community-oriented businessperson and compassionate preacher. A number of aunts, uncles and cousins also happily call themselves HBCU alumni.

All of their experiences and sacrifices culminated in my enrollment at Howard University in 2009. I counted it as an incredible honor to be able to continue the legacy of HBCUs through my own journey. As I walked across Howard’s famous yard for the first time, I stopped to consider the contributions of my forebears and other family members to that moment. My gaze turned from Frederick Douglass Hall to Alain Locke Hall, and a simple smile formed on my face. My expression emerged from a sincere recognition of my responsibility to uphold and further the HBCU narrative. Seven and a half years later, that brief period on the yard continues to serve as daily motivation for my work at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

As a legal fellow and staff attorney in the organization’s Educational Opportunities Project, I am currently working on a civil case, representing the Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, to ensure that Maryland fulfills its constitutional duty to desegregate its four HBCUs. These schools, Coppin State University, Bowie State University, Morgan State University, and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, along with the 101 other HBCUs in the United States, extend the opportunity to acquire a postsecondary education to many who would otherwise be unable to access one.

I am so proud to be an HBCU alumnus, and I consider it a distinct privilege to be working on an HBCU desegregation case as a newly minted lawyer. A true testament to the tenacity of HBCUs is their ability to adhere to the spirit of their missions and continually fortify the American narrative with fewer resources than predominantly White institutions (PWIs). I am undoubtedly a beneficiary of this indelible characteristic of HBCUs.

From elementary school children learning about Thurgood Marshall to high school seniors reading the poignant prose of Toni Morrison, the current and historic relevance of HBCUs is readily apparent. As young people steadily mobilize around social issues such as policing reform, these institutions will undoubtedly continue to provide intellectually engaging spaces that equip students with the tools to achieve positive societal change.

I will personally strive to preserve and protect the legacies of these formidable institutions so that, one day, several generations from now, young HBCU students can smile, while reflecting on the role that countless HBCU alumni, and a smaller number of civil rights attorneys, played in creating those students’ reality.

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The Rich History and Current Relevance of America’s HBCUs

This piece originally appeared in AFRO News on February 2, 2017. 

On January 9, 2017, the remedial phase of The Coalition for Equity and Excellence in Maryland Higher Education, et al. v. The Maryland Higher Education Commission, et al. kicked off in Baltimore. This lawsuit, originally filed by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Kirkland & Ellis LLP in 2006, alleged that the state of Maryland had failed to dismantle the vestiges of segregation at its four historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Using the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the plaintiffs asserted that the four HBCUs in Maryland – Bowie State University, Coppin State University, Morgan State University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore – remained unconstitutionally segregated.

The current proceedings entail an evidentiary hearing that will ultimately address what remedies must be put in place to comply with the memorandum opinion issued by Judge Catherine Blake in October 2013; the court found that the state of Maryland had violated its constitutional obligations and maintained segregation in its higher education system. This case potentially represents one of the most significant developments in higher education desegregation jurisprudence in the past three decades. It could create an avenue for a number of beneficial programs to flow to the HBCUs throughout the nation, particularly those that are state-supported. Of particular note, the litigation finds itself in the midst of an on-going societal debate concerning the relevance of HBCUs.

To provide some background, the Higher Education Act of 1965 grants the designation of HBCU to any postsecondary institution ‘that was established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of Black Americans.’ There are currently 105 HBCUs in the United States. Geographically, these institutions primarily span across the American South and Midwest. Their locations range from Texas to Alabama, from Oklahoma to West Virginia, and from Florida to Maryland.  An HBCU is also located in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

A large number of the nation’s HBCUs were founded in the century between the end of the Civil War and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, they mainly served as training grounds for preachers and teachers. A host of HBCUs extended the gift of a postsecondary education to both women and men as soon as they began educating students. In the twenty-first century, though the nation’s 105 HBCUs represent less than 3% of the colleges and universities in the country, they enroll 11% of America’s Black college and graduate students.

Since their founding, HBCUs have played a significant role in defining the economic and cultural position of the United States in the global community. According to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics ten years ago, the economic impact of HBCUs was $10.2 billion in 2001. The same study notes that, with regard to output (revenues), the nation’s HBCUs would rank 232nd on the Forbes Fortune 500 list of the largest companies in the United States. In the decade since the report was issued, this impact of HBCUs has undoubtedly grown in magnitude.

Despite the positive contributions of HBCUs to American society, numerous challenges remain in their paths that hinder their ability to achieve their full potential. Arguably, the most notable among these modern tests is a national conversation concerning the role of these institutions in a steadily shifting educational landscape. Take my alma mater, Howard University, for example – a troubling letter released by the then-Vice Chair of the Board of Trustees nearly four years ago, though inaccurate in its prediction that the university would close in three years, continues to shed light on the struggles experienced by a number of HBCUs, including Howard. Especially in Maryland, an extensive history of second-hand, state-sanctioned treatment experienced by the state’s four public HBCUs established persistent barriers to their ability to adequately compete and culminated in this lawsuit, which quickly approaches its eleven-year anniversary.

Personally, as an HBCU alumnus, these on-going debates often register in my mind. When I reflect on the legacy of HBCUs, I not only consider the supporting role that I play as a young civil rights attorney, but also the contributions of a host of family members, friends and colleagues to the ever-evolving narrative of HBCUs. Though they have traditionally been provided with fewer resources than their counterparts, these institutions perform and deliver under pressure. As the remedial phase of this litigation unfolds, I hope many will contemplate the past and present threads of the HBCU tapestry, such as David Wilson and Kamala Harris, and conclude that HBCUs are indeed relevant and worthy of commensurate investment.

 

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A Tribute to Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott

This piece originally appeared on the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law‘s blog. 

The warm rays of sun welcomed us on to I-40 just as we passed downtown Oklahoma City. My father and I found mutual excitement in the road trip that awaited us. After a summer of preparing for and taking the bar exam, I was particularly enthused about the journey that would lead to the start of my career. Like the sun, the future seemed fairly bright.

Despite these positive feelings, a sense of nervousness also registered in my mind. The primary cause of me being on edge was a reflection on the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Korryn Gaines over the summer. The killings of police officers in Louisiana and Texas certainly didn’t help.

Like many Americans, these losses of life weighed on me heavily. The killings that took place in Baton Rouge especially hit home because I went to law school in the city. Though I’d engaged in racial justice work before, each event added more burdens to my psyche than the last. As I drove east with my father, the thrill of an imminent career as a civil rights attorney constantly mixed with the dread of the continual loss of Black lives. It resulted in quite the paradox.

My father and I, two Black men, could have easily found ourselves in that position. At the young age of 40, Mr. Crutcher essentially represented the mid-way point between my age and that of my father. During our trip, Lord forbid that the rental truck we drove break down on the interstate. This sense of fear characterizes the experience of Black people in the United States, both now and historically.

All of these events make me recall the trepidation experienced by Dr. Robert Pershing Foster, one of the protagonists in Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, The Warmth of Other Suns. Dr. Foster migrated from Monroe, LA to Los Angeles in the middle of the twentieth century.

During the Jim Crow era in which he found himself, Dr. Foster made his journey half-way across the country without the ability to stop at a hotel and rest when he grew tired. His trip became that much more perilous because of his dangerous level of fatigue. Though temporary accommodations are much more accessible in the twenty-first century, the fear felt by Dr. Foster, Mr. Crutcher, my father and me transcends generations. It is a fear that is as American as the national anthem.

Perhaps more unsettling than Mr. Crutcher’s death is the fact that my father and I could have been gunned down as we walked through Charlotte a few weeks ago. Reports of the killing of Keith L. Scott flashed on my phone as I rode to work. In the surreal manner that I easily placed myself in Mr. Crutcher’s shoes, I did the same thing with Mr. Scott’s story.

I went to law school and embarked on a career as a civil rights attorney in an attempt to right at least some of the societal ills that plague this country. Although I will strive to employ effective legal strategies to address issues rooted in systemic racism, I do wonder where the morality and compassion are in these situations.

Would Korryn Gaines have been slaughtered had she been viewed first as a mother? Would Terence Crutcher have bled out on that highway had he been viewed first as a brother? Would Keith Scott still be living and laughing had he been viewed first as a neighbor?

The immense amount of work that awaits our nation must be informed by these questions. If not, the blood of slain Black men and women will continue to drip from the flag that symbolizes the land of the free and the home of the brave. I will work to my dying breath to ensure that, in a few generations, the young person of color that embarks on the journey to a bright future from America’s heartland can do so without a crippling sense of dread of what is to come.

In light of the challenges ahead, I particularly urge Black lawyers to continue to lend their support to protesters and demonstrators. Effective advocacy is critical to ensuring that equal justice is administered under the law and showing the world that Black lives do matter.

 

 – Andrew Hairston
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