non-profit, public interest law

Disconnection from the community in today’s civil rights movement

I recently finished reading “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander. Although I quoted a few facts regarding the racialized nature of our criminal justice system for a recent blog post, I wanted to expand on another topic this book discussed very, very well.

Alexander examines the failure of civil rights organizations across the U.S. to really address the issue of mass incarceration, and in doing so, she identifies some of the biggest problems that I too have noticed in the modern day civil rights movement. She helped me better articulate a lot of my own experiences and observations into words.

With all deliberate speed, civil rights organizations became “professionalized” and increasingly disconnected from the communities they claimed to represent. Legal scholar and former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer Derrick Bell was among the first to critique this phenomenon, arguing in a 1976 Yale Law Journal article that civil rights lawyers were pursuing their own agendas in school desegregation cases even when they conflicted with their clients’ expressed desires. Two decades later, former NAACP Legal Defense Fund lawyer and current Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier published a memoir in which she acknowledged that, “by the early 1990s, [civil rights] litigators like me had become like the Washington insiders we were so suspicious of…We reflexively distanced ourselves from the very people on whose behalf we brought the cases in the first place.”…Instead of a moral crusade, the movement became an almost purely legal crusade. Civil rights advocates pursued their own agendas as unelected representatives of communities defined by race and displayed considerable skill navigating courtrooms and halls of power across America.

This shift is truly noticeable today, and unfortunately, many organizations with the goal of promoting civil rights have lost much of the compassionate and community-oriented approaches that defined this movement in the first place. Whatever happened to truly being part of the community, and pursuing whatever approaches needed to bring the change demanded by those who are struggling?  Whatever happened to putting clients first, above all else?

As Lani Guinier wrote in her excellent memoir “Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback into a New Vision of Social Justice” (which I am yet to read, by the way):

In charge, we channeled a passion for change into legal negotiations and lawsuits. We defined the issues in terms of developing legal doctrine and establishing legal precedent; our clients became important, but secondary, players in a formal arena that required lawyers to translate lay claims into technical speech. We then disembodied the plaintiffs’ claims in judicially manageable or judicially enforceable terms, unenforceable without more lawyers….As lawyers and national pundits became more prominent than clients or citizens, we isolated ourselves from the people who were our anchor and on whose behalf we had labored.

Finally, Alexander concludes by writing that the grassroots movement for civil rights had largely turned into a legal campaign, and “lawyers have a tendency to identify and concentrate on problems they know how to solve — i.e., problems that can be solved through litigation.” Unfortunately, many civil rights challenges require different approaches that expand beyond litigation. Alexander’s conclusion mirrors mine, and I have a stronger belief after my own experiences that many social justice issues cannot be solved with simply a legal approach. Ultimately, civil rights organizations must find ways to re-connect with the community they claim to represent. Unless organizations become (1) truly grounded in the communities we purport to serve, (2) fully client centered, and (3) willing to do whatever it takes [whether this fits into a legal approach or not], civil rights will not be achieved in this country.


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