Dismantling systemic racism, protecting multiracial democracy
After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 and the turbulent summer that followed, Clifford Chance joined nearly 300 other US and global firms to form a national network dedicated to advancing racial equity in the law. Law Firm Antiracism Alliance board member Jeff Berman talks about the past 18 months’ work and the challenges that lie ahead.
Many law firms, including Clifford Chance, have longstanding pro bono programmes and partnerships with non-profit legal services organisations (LSOs) under which they provide assistance to people of colour who are dealing with the consequences of racism in their lives. Some take on larger-scale advocacy work that more directly confronts the laws and policies that encourage, perpetuate or permit systemic racial injustice.
Until very recently, however, law firms had not taken steps to muster the vast resources of the private bar and mount a truly collaborative pro bono effort focused on dismantling systemic racism.
Today, the Law Firm Antiracism Alliance (LFAA) is a network of nearly 300 law firms with offices in every state of the US and more around the world. Its mission is to coordinate the resources of its alliance firms to create large-scale, impact-oriented pro bono projects that address racial inequities. LFAA supports its mission with a sophisticated online platform to connect LSOs with alliance firms across the country, giving local and regional LSOs access to a nationwide pool of pro bono talent.
LFAA has also organized 19 separate working groups to focus on topics ranging from voting rights and policing to child welfare and immigration. The working groups are staffed by alliance firm lawyers, who collaborate with nonprofit organisations, academics, think tanks and other policy experts to produce research on laws, regulations and institutional practices that enable systemic racism. In the Americas, more than 20 Clifford Chance lawyers have joined and continue to devote significant time to at least one of the LFAA working groups.
While it’s important to highlight our work with LFAA as one of 25 firms with a representative on the board of directors, law firms are no more than supporting players in the long and ongoing campaign for racial justice. The lead roles are played by the LSOs, civil rights organisations and community-based groups and organisers who have been doing this work every day, for years, with hard-won expertise and heroic commitment. To work within this movement, we need to bring our talents but also our humility, to speak out but also to listen, to show up but also to stand aside.
That said, I’m happy to celebrate LFAA’s achievements in the 18 months since its founding. In August 2021, for example, LFAA responded to US Attorney General Merrick Garland’s request for help in addressing the eviction crisis stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic by mobilising the private bar to assist low-income tenants eligible for aid under the federal Emergency Rental Assistance Program (ERAP). LFAA and several alliance firms took the lead in organising a nationwide training to teach lawyers how to help pro bono clients access ERAP funds.
In September 2021, LFAA filed its first amicus curiae (‘friend of the court’) brief in a case before the state supreme court of Louisiana. This sought to apply retroactively the US Supreme Court’s decision to declare unconstitutional Louisiana’s law allowing non-unanimous jury verdicts in criminal proceedings, so previous non-unanimous convictions may be overturned. The Louisiana law – a facially neutral but obviously racist ‘Jim Crow’ measure designed to disenfranchise Black jurors in trials of Black defendants – is a classic example of systemic racism in practice.
Finally, in December last year, LFAA held its 2021 Summit, a three-day virtual convening with more than 500 in attendance. Among other topics, expert panels addressed critical threats to racial justice, including voter suppression, police violence and the shortage of affordable housing, and discussed the connections between racial justice lawyering and law firms’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The Summit’s keynote speaker, Nikole Hannah-Jones, concluded her comments on the role of slavery in the development of the US legal system with a sober assessment of America’s drift toward authoritarianism.
One of the lessons of the US south’s Jim Crow era worth remembering today is that systemic racism is both a cause and an effect of authoritarian governance. In a racially diverse country like ours, supporting democracy means opposing racism. The flip side is certainly true: a racist backlash against Black and immigrant progress gave rise to today’s revolt against multiracial democracy.
We’re approaching an inflection point. LFAA believes, and I agree, that protecting multiracial democracy in the coming months will be necessary if we hope to dismantle systemic racism in the years that follow.