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March 10, 2013

Color Blindness

by John Phillips

Color Blindness

By

I am the son of a middle class family from Alabama and Mississippi.  I was taught to be color-blind, but never really had the opportunity to learn about the anthropology of race relations and the evolution of those with a different skin color than mine.  We were just programmed with the basics.

When black history month came around each year, we’d learn more about the famous leaders of a different skin color, but it was almost always was presented as “education by affirmative action,” breeding some degree of discrimination in and of itself- that these lessons were different.  It’d be better if we had been told these stories all year long, not piece-meal and out of context.  As such, much of it didn’t stick.  I knew what Rosa Parks did, but not who Emmett Till was.  I knew who Martin Luther King, Jr., was, but not why he had to be the voice he was.

For instance, it was relatively new to me that after slavery was abolished, until approximately World War Two, the south essentially found a backdoor to slavery by arresting former slaves and forcing free labor from them as prisoners from 1865 to 1945.  This not only helped create the reputation of the African American as a criminal (despite the completely discriminatory nature in both types and lengths of punishment so as to make sure the unpaid labor force was in tact), but also slowly caused some degree of acquiescence within this community that this was the next stage in their oppression. I literally, at 38 years-old, learned that this week.

This week, I attended a two-day, invitation only, closed-door summit of “the most thoughtful and creative media influences, foundation executives, and advocacy organizations to discuss what it really takes to transform authentic perceptions of black men and boys.”  Heck, they even paid my expenses to have me there, which was totally unnecessary and appreciated.  It was an invitation largely meant for my clients, Lucia McBath and Ron Davis, I suspect, but I found myself excitedly opening my mind even further as the trip approached.

My mother often told me stories about how my great-grandfather ultimately was elected judge despite some not liking his and, then his lawyer son’s, efforts to draft wills and give other legal help to the African American population in rural Mississippi.  I’d often pictured them, white faces as a table of black faces doing some public service- some greater good.

Recently, I learned that my great-grandfather and grandfather weren’t doing this to be charitable, they were doing this because the color of the faces were irrelevant. Let me re-state that- my literal forefathers were not doing this to be charitable, they were doing this because the color of the faces were irrelevant.

When I became a lawyer, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew it wasn’t will drafting or criminal defense.  I went into insurance defense of injury and death claims because that was who was hiring.  I love medical science and biology but hated the sight of blood, so, it was a decent fit.  I thought I had it all when I became a named partner at a young age and, even more “success,” when I was working less and getting paid more.

After eight years of that, and one too many kicks to the ribs, I spent some time at the largest personal injury firm in the country.  I was simply doing the reverse of what I had done before and soaking things up like a sponge.  Worse yet, I was ignoring passion for profit.  I learned what being kicked really was like and felt like a McDonald’s worker, serving up fast food but no nourishment.  I had found myself in an even more corrupt model, where opulence was supposed to be the reward for decadence- if we reward the lawyers they will ignore the massive disservice they are doing to the clients.  I left both jobs, with hard feelings, not fitting in whatsoever.

Moving around alot as a kid, I had always been bullied since I was very yroung- it was always a new school, a domineering sister or a myriad of other issues.  I honestly don’t even feel like that same person any more- content and complacent with the status quo.  Being the victim isn’t fun. Being beat-up physically, mentally or both sends you one of two places- content and frustrated to the point you die inside, or a person who slowly builds up rage and emotional turbulence.  And the thumbnail of bullying I experienced doesn’t compare to some seen on a daily basis by those who didn’t have a path they could just walk and find themselves out of the woods because my parents were so supportive.

After a couple years in my own firm, I realized what we truly do- we help the bullied. We help the kicked dogs. It’s why I will never find contentment in the practice of law again- a good thing.  It’s why I still shake my head at those lawyers on television who have the money and power, but waste it to serve up junk law and put profit over real service.  Every day may not be magical, every day may not bring justice, every day may not even be worth the sacrifice.  But the special days –like some of the ones we are experiencing right now- make the past more meaningful.  It’s a team effort.

Which brings me to Jordan Davis.  With that at as a background, the conversations I have had since Jordan’s murder have been not just eye opening, but soul jarring. It’s not white versus black or guns versus fear.  It’s a strange new world where civility is dying.

What I learned in a day and a half at the conference furthers that passion to serve and change the world my 13 month old son grows up in, hopefully ultimately radically changing the world his son grows up in.  Like my grandfather and great grandfather, I am going to be as bold and fearless as I can seeking to assist where I can to be a steward of justice.

So, don’t expect my rants and posts to stop, friends. I am just getting started.

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