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Excerpted From: Leah Goodridge, Professionalism as a Racial Construct, 69 UCLA Law Review Discourse 38 (2022) (27 Footnotes) (Full Document)

LeahGoodridgeOn a Friday afternoon, I appeared with a colleague in New York City Housing Court on behalf of a client in an eviction proceeding. Aside from the unfortunate nature of the case, it was supposed to be a routine court appearance. But Housing Court is known to be unpredictable, and that afternoon, it lived up to its reputation. While appearing before the judge, opposing counsel--a white woman--yelled at me, interrupted me, talked over me, sighed and rolled her eyes when I spoke. Before this appearance, we had only seen each other in passing. Dumbfounded, I spent half of the time making legal arguments and the other half wondering whether my presence in court, as a Black woman, was the main factor in the attorney's scorn. Curiosity inched closer to certainty when I learned that my junior colleague, who is white, appeared by herself on the same case just weeks before. We danced around it--“That was ridiculous!” “Oh man, Housing Court”--until we finally made our way to: “She wasn't like that with me. She treated me with respect.”

That weekend, still reeling from humiliation, I reimagined the court appearance. Would I have appeared too sensitive if I said that opposing counsel's conduct is racist? Is it professional to use the court's time to address racism and misogynoir when the negotiations for my client are still in progress? The answers were unclear, but what was certain was that if I had behaved like opposing counsel, I would have been seen as unprofessional and aggressive, and likely admonished by the judge. Professionalism was a one way street--it applied to me but not my opposing counsel.

I wanted to scream. I wanted to tell both the judge and opposing counsel that they upheld systems of racial hierarchy. I did not. Instead, I shouted words on paper.

These words are my screams.

I am one of the 4.7 percent of Black attorneys in the United States and have been practicing law for the past decade. In this Essay, I question whether professionalism is a tool to subjugate people of color in the legal field. Professionalism encompasses: (1) communication style, (2) interpersonal skills, (3) appearance, (4) how well a person adheres to the standards of their field and employer, and (5) efficacy at the job. Through this analysis, professionalism is revealed to be a racial construct.

The canon of Critical Race Theory shifted the understanding of racism from intentional hatred by individual actors to a set of systems and institutions that produce racial inequality and subordination. Criminal justice is a system of laws and individuals who enforce them. While everyone is beholden to the laws, the criminal justice system disproportionately ensnares people of color within its grasp, resulting in harsher punishment. Similarly, professionalism is a standard with a set of beliefs about how one should operate in the workplace. While professionalism seemingly applies to everyone, it is used to widely police and regulate people of color in various ways including hair, tone, and food scents. Thus, it is not merely that there is a double standard in how professionalism applies; it is that the standard itself is based on a set of beliefs grounded in racial subordination and white supremacy.

In Part I, I examine three main aspects of legal professionalism: (1) threshold to withstand bias and discrimination, (2) selective offense, and (3) the reasonable person standard. Each Subpart starts with a day in my life as an attorney to illustrate how these elements play out. Professionalism in the legal industry often carries the silent expectation that people of color, women, people with disabilities and people who identify as LGBTQIA have a high threshold to withstand discrimination. Professionalism as a racial construct is not limited to attorneys and paralegals--it also extends to individuals participating in the legal process. For example, Black people have been excluded from serving on a jury because they “failed to make eye contact, lived in a poor part of town, had served in the military, had a hyphenated last name, displayed bad posture, were sullen, disrespectful or talkative, had long hair, wore a beard”--many of which are under the guise of professionalism. In addition, I discuss how harmful and racist behavior in the legal profession are normalized to the point that challenges to such conduct are seen as unprofessional. Lastly, I analyze how the law functions in a colorblind fashion, having the effect of making any emphasis or focus on race seem impolite or--unprofessional. In Part II, I explore recommendations of how to deconstruct professionalism as a tool of white supremacy.

[. . .]

In writing this Essay, I had an internal tug of war in speaking about my experiences and those of many people of color in the legal profession. I struggled with the reality that some will be more offended by reading the truth of professionalism as a racial construct on these pages than the fact that it exists in the halls of courthouses, law firms and legal organizations. I almost quelled my own voice and the fire within. Then I remembered the court appearance in 2020, after George Floyd's murder, where the Black judge and I both had weary eyes which met, for a moment, as opposing counsel rattled on about the eviction moratorium. I remembered brunch with friends when they spoke about being the first generation of Black, Latinx, and Asian immigrant parents and internalizing the bias threshold--sacrifices their parents made to come to this country meant ignoring and tolerating racism at work. I remembered the many times I watched people of color shy away from staunch racially progressive positions under a belief that disassociation would help them appear more professional. I remembered the conversations with relatives, friends, and colleagues of color, venting and processing a racist incident and in determining how to respond, the pendulum swinging between comfort of white peers, self-respect, and rage. And I remembered using chemicals to destroy and straighten my natural hair during job interviews in law school in the hopes of increasing my chances of securing employment. I remembered all of these contours of professionalism as a racial construct. And I remembered my own duty to disrupt the system and get in good trouble.

Leah Goodridge is the Managing Attorney for Housing Policy at Mobilization for Justice.

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