Making Black lives matter in the criminal justice system - a Howard League seminar review

As a black American woman passionate about social justice, I am eminently aware of my race and its relation to others around me. I often consider how my race will affect my future profession and do not have the privilege of appearing before others without wondering what preconceived, racially motivated notions they may have about me. I hope for my career focus to be in business ethics, and even in the transnational business field, racism runs rampant.
The speakers in the Howard League antiracism seminar explained that in the legal system, many lawyers lack understanding of racism and anti-blackness within criminal justice, a fact that did not surprise me because of its widespread presence in all other aspects of society. However, it is even more clear to me now how important intentionality is when dismantling racism in our everyday practices, and more specifically, in the legal system.
On Wednesday, 30 June 2021, the Howard League hosted a virtual event to launch Making Black lives matter in the criminal justice system – an antiracist guide for lawyers. This seminar advised legal professionals of intentional actions they can take to practice antiracism and mend the disproportionate treatment of black people in the legal system. The guide will act as a tangible roadmap to combat oppression.
Howard League’s legal director, Dr Laura Janes, began the evening by highlighting that 80 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom is white, while less than 5 per cent of the population identifies as black yet one-third of children in prison are black. Based on racial demographic statistics, these deliberate disparities are being sanctioned. As an individual working professionally in the law, acquiring knowledge such as included in this seminar is a prompt to make antiracism one of your main vocational goals.
Five incredibly influential and revolutionary speakers followed the introduction with anecdotes, examples, and solutions to fight against racism in the justice system. Ife Thompson (barrister, activist, and founder of BLAM UK (Black Learning Achievement and Mental Health) and Black Protest Legal Support) stated that 'the criminal justice system is rooted in anti-blackness'. In my time in the United Kingdom so far, I have found that America is often ostracised for its racist reputation and labelled as the only racially polarised country in the world. While I am not denying the extreme racial injustice that occurs daily in my home country, I have discovered that America is not unique in its racist customs. Institutional racism is a global issue affecting black people worldwide. From my perspective, America simply does not deny their racism as much as other countries, including the UK, which makes the US 'appear' more racist when it is really a difference between overtness and covertness. The perception of America to non-black people around the world is that it is indubitably racist while their home countries are not. My experiences show that America is simply more blunt, unabashed, and overtly racist, while the remainder of the Western world is covert. This covertness does not mean it is less impactful. At times, concealed racism can be worse than conspicuous racism, because it tends to be institutionalised bigotry. Whether in systems such as education, criminal justice, or media, black people are undoubtedly being unfairly treated around the world, and once one understands the depth and stretch, one can better approach how to fight against it.
Thompson described how racial injustice takes a fold throughout the entire system. Since black lives are impacted negatively by all aspects of society, movements in support of black lives must also touch all sectors of society. She stressed the impact of simply acknowledging these racist incidents are taking place. The bare minimum is refusing to be neutral in the conversation. For example, the concept of 'not seeing colour' within neoliberal ideologies must be discarded amongst the culture of lawyers and legal professionals and should be replaced with deliberate anti-racism, further proving the vitality of this new guide from the Howard League.
Professor Abenaa Owusu-Bempah, assistant professor of criminal law and criminal evidence at the London School of Economics, highlighted how institutional racism towards black children begins from a young age and results in a higher likelihood that they will be in contact with the criminal justice system in adulthood. As young children, black kids are stereotyped as violent, malicious, unmotivated, and threatening. This in turn causes an exaggeration of black children’s normal behaviours and their adultification. Scenarios like these remind me of the black restaurant consumer paradox. Many servers or waiters/waitresses do not expect black consumers to tip or behave adequately in restaurants due to racist stereotypes and preconceived biases. In turn, they do not serve their black customers efficiently and intentionally perform badly based on racial motivation. After receiving bad service from their restaurant workers, black consumers justifiably do not tip a large amount or at all based on their negative dining experience. Since these black consumers did not tip, the servers’ inaccurate generalisations are seemingly proved right, and the cycle continues. As a lawyer, it is crucial to understand that due to many childhood experiences, your black client may have distrust in the system, which is within reason. With that in mind, lawyers must not negatively misinterpret the behaviours of black clients due to their own unconscious bias nor should they avoid factoring their client’s race into their interactions with the justice system.
Black individuals must be calculated in their approach to the police system and have to be aware of how different interactions with this system might look for them versus a white peer. Aika Stephenson, solicitor and founder of Just for Kids Law, spoke about the need for intentional antiracism at the police station. Like other forms of oppression, police brutality is often mistaken as a horrific occurrence unique to the United States, however, these incidents occur nearly equally as much in other countries. Stephenson stated that statistically, it is five times more likely for black people to have violence used against them by the police and it is eight times more likely for black people to be taxed during an arrest. As a legal professional, one must build a relationship with their client to know whether their arrest was even necessary and whether excessive force was used, fuelled by racially motivated hatred. Knowledge of exactly what occurred during the duration of the entire arrest is vital in combating racism in policing. During police interviews, Stephenson also urged that lawyers should call out potential micro aggressions from officers to stop false narratives they may be attempting to create. However, this fight does not only begin and end within the scopes of policing.
The next speaker, the prestigious barrister Garry Green of Doughty Street Chambers, exhorted that the justice system does not exist in a vacuum. All aspects of it are intertwined with society; outside forces influence the system and vice versa. He explained this connection using an example from a system that all British people know and love: football. He mentioned that despite scoring a goal in every game England has played in the 2021 Euros, black football player Raheem Sterling has been mentioned in the media an alarmingly small amount compared to his white counterpart Harry Kane. Even in entertainment, black lives do not seem to be valued and are often exploited for mass enjoyment and discarded when they’re finished being beneficial or profitable. Green discussed antiracism in the courtroom and identified that racism can occur several times in the court process and can thus affect the behaviour of your black client. From harassment from security guards to underrepresentation from authorities in the courtroom, black people can feel uncomfortable as soon as they step into their trials. The Ministry of Justice used to demand the nationality of defendants before assessing a case. This proves racism is so deeply entwined with the inner workings of the system that judges did not even formally make decisions without being influenced by the knowledge of the client’s identity. I can only imagine how daunting it must feel to a black defendant in today’s system. This just further proves why lawyers must make a conscious effort to not settle with the current system.
In the post-court process, it is crucial for a lawyer to remain diligent in assuring justice and care for their black clients. The final speaker, Naima Sakande, Women's Justice Advocate at APPEAL, made a point to inform the audience of sticking to any promises made to the client throughout their entire justice system process. As mentioned before, many black clients already do not trust the justice system, so as their lawyer, you must remain faithful and reliable to not increase their reasonable doubt. While listening to the seminar, I noticed a common tip given was for lawyers to be consistently reflecting on all aspects of a case to assure there was not any bias or discrimination occurring that they might have missed the first time. Oftentimes, both the client and the lawyer do not process that certain events were racist or discriminatory until time has passed, and this realisation sometimes occurs in an untimely manner, so it ends up being too late for any actions to be reversed. Constant reflection and assessment of the situation are crucial in being anti-racist in the legal system as to catch any missed opportunities for just treatment of black clients. Racial discrimination is so ingrained in the system, it has become normalised. Most professionals in the system do not even notice the subtle or obvious actions of prejudice they are enabling because the system was built that way. Therefore guides like this one created by the Howard League are so vital because blatant intentionality of dismantling the unequal system is required if you have any sort of power or authority in the legal field.
Those with authority in this vocation such as lawyers or other legal aid professionals are the catalysts for change - they’re the perfect bridge between the client and the system itself. With that said, it was a pleasure to soak in such striking information from such established individuals at this seminar. Attending an event centred around antiracism in the criminal justice system is so inspiring and positive despite the disheartening state of the world now. Seeing the push for equality, especially on a global scale, continues to motivate me to encourage equity in the fields I am passionate about as well as vocations that are unexpected or often looked over. The Howard League team behind this antiracism guide and several other activists around the world are the gleams of hope that are equally fuelling and grounding in my endeavours to achieve global equality.
The link to the free guide is below:
Criminal law, Civil justice, Legal aid, Practice and procedure
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