I prioritize diversity and inclusion because implicit bias is a very real problem that adversely affects our entire system of justice.
I’m always disappointed when I hear fellow lawyers question the State Bar of Wisconsin’s diversity and inclusion efforts because they think lack of diversity and inclusion is not as important as other challenges to our profession. Here are a few examples why increasing diversity and inclusion is one of my top priorities:
I was at a local bar function, digging something out of my purse, when I heard a lawyer say to a colleague: “What are those boys up to now?” I looked up to where the lawyer was directing his colleague’s attention, naively searching for the troublesome children he seemed to be annoyed with. There were no children. I did see a well-respected judge speaking with a highly regarded attorney, both of whom are middle-aged black men. The two white men laughed until they saw my shocked and horrified face. They quickly walked away from me – the girl who didn’t appreciate their joke.
A law student was in court with a volunteer attorney providing pro bono assistance as part of the Eviction Defense Project (EDP). Both were professionally dressed. The volunteer lawyer was trying to negotiate a deal with the landlord’s lawyer. The landlord’s lawyer turned to the law student, a woman of color, and said: “You need to be out by the end of the week.” The landlord’s attorney, a regular in Milwaukee small claims court, mistook the professionally dressed student for the tenant. Now before you think this might be an honest mistake, let me explain something. Anyone who practices landlord-tenant law in Milwaukee knows about the EDP’s volunteer attorneys and law students. They are there four days per week. There is no legitimate way to mistake a professionally dressed individual for a tenant unless there are other biases at play.
com jmkastner gmail Jill M. Kastner, UCLA School of Law 2000, is president of the State Bar of Wisconsin. She practices in civil poverty law to ensure housing stability for veterans at Legal Action of Wisconsin Inc., Milwaukee.
I didn’t personally witness the second example, but it upset me more than the first because of how disrespectful it was to the law student. As a woman, I’ve been mistaken for the court reporter, a paralegal, and most recently, the court clerk. In this very real example of double-barreled bias (both gender and race), this woman of color was mistaken for the tenant being evicted. My colleagues of color tell me that instances of mistaken identity are an even greater problem in criminal court – where lawyers of color are mistaken for criminal defendants.
How can people believe they will be treated fairly in our courts if they see a lawyer being mistaken for the defendant for no reason other than skin color? How can we expect diverse law students to stay and practice in Wisconsin if they experience bias in our courtrooms or see blatant disrespect for a judge of color at a local bar event?
I prioritize diversity and inclusion because implicit bias is a very real problem that adversely affects our entire system of justice. Having a more diverse and inclusive profession will help us better advance the cause of justice for everyone in Wisconsin.
Please join me in our efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the State Bar, the legal profession, and the justice system as a whole.
How can we expect diverse law students to stay and practice in Wisconsin if they experience bias in our courtrooms or see blatant disrespect for a judge of color at a local bar event?