On the morning that we awoke to videos of George Floyd’s slow, horrifying death, I had been Dean at the University of Maine School of Law for just 6 weeks, having left the job of Chief Justice for the opportunity to lead the Law School. I was suddenly aware of the difference this change in my job made in my ability to speak out loud about that horror.
I understand that this ego-centric thought about the death of another human being may sound jarring. However, having spent decades limited by judicial canons that urge judges to be ever cautious about being seen to “pre-judge” any situations that may be litigated, the freedom to speak out is all new to me.
Then it occurred to me that, as a white woman, my own thoughts might not be welcomed in this unutterably sad context. I have been benefited by privilege my entire life, and perhaps it is not helpful or appropriate for me to speak about the pain and the rage that my loved ones of color feel so deeply. Will my voice make things worse?
I was, therefore, grateful to read the comments of Dean Angela Onwuachi-Willig of Boston University’s School of Law. As the first African-American woman to serve in that role, she wrote eloquently about her own hesitation – as a woman of color – in writing about the horror of George Floyd’s death. She said, “I listened to friends and spoke with other black women Deans who felt equally silenced – all of us cautioning each other against speaking out through a public message.”
If black women were concerned about speaking publicly, and white women hesitate to speak out, the voices of our gender could be muffled.
Although she and I have not yet met, Dean Onwuachi-Willig’s ultimate conclusion convinced me that we must all speak out. “I knew not only that I had to write, but also what I must write. I have no inspiring words to share about creating change in our society. You already know that law can be an effective tool for fighting certain kinds of injustice. You already know that every member of the legal profession has a duty to strive for justice.”
I therefore add my voice to the collective cry. What we have done is not enough.
This does not mean that the anti-racist efforts in Maine have been without any successes. I now have the honor of working in an institution where racial equity has been intensely important for years. Professors have written with passion and skill about the inequities in specific aspects of our system of justice, and they have brought close examinations of the role and impact of racial injustice into the curriculum and classroom discussions.
The Law School’s Cumberland Legal Aid Clinic has, for years, provided free representation for those who have no champion. Its Refugee and Human Rights Clinic program has done amazing work helping new Mainers in their communities, as well as in the courts and detention facilities. The Juvenile Justice Clinic has changed the world of systemic responses to our youth—including the disproportionate contact between law enforcement and youth of color—through advocacy and education initiatives. The PLUS Program and the 3 + 3 Program provide an improved opportunity for students of color and students from poverty to obtain a Law School education. We can all be proud of the work of Maine Law.
Regarding State government in Maine, so many people have focused on needed changes. We have created task forces, held conferences, changed the laws, nearly emptied our children’s prisons, and worked in concert in our attempts to bring racial equity to Maine.
But it is inescapable.
What we have done is not enough.
What I have done is not enough.
So where do we start? First and foremost, we must listen. We must listen to those who have raised their voices, and those who have yet to be heard.
Then we must redouble our efforts to bring diversity to the pathways to power. Despite all of our work, the faces in the seats of power in Maine remain all white. No person of color has ever sat on Maine’s Supreme Judicial Court, or lived in the Blaine House, or led the State’s House or Senate.
We must find a way to expand the paths to those seats of power for a much broader diversity of human beings. Those pathways begin with healthy and supported childhoods and access to excellence in education from childhood through higher education. That’s where the University of Maine System and the Law School can help. There is so much more to discuss, and the conversations must be renewed now.
But first, I believe we must do this. We must feel the pain, the horror of George Floyd’s death. We must not be distracted by the events that followed. And we must allow that pain to stay with us while we redouble our efforts to make justice real for everyone. There is no single answer, but, as Dean Onwuachi-Willig wrote, “every member of the legal profession has a duty to strive for justice.” Let us strive together.