Confronting issues around race, and racism, in the statehouse

January 9, 2020

Interior dome of the Rhode Island Statehouse

Interior dome, Rhode Island Statehouse. Credit: David Biette

When Michael Coard considers how he ended up pursuing a career in law instead of a life in crime, he points to a pivotal event in third grade: the day when he “got lucky” and scored high on a citywide test.

That achievement led to admission at a top Philadelphia school, which set Coard on the path to college and law school. Most of the classmates that he left behind in his North Philadelphia community were not so fortunate. Instead of gaining the tools they needed to build a meaningful career, they received an inadequate education that failed to prepare them for college, the working world, or life in general, said Coard.

Some ended up becoming his clients. For nearly three decades, Coard has represented people from his community and others like it who are charged with capital murder. Their trajectory reflects the experience of young people across the country who attend under-resourced schools in predominantly black neighborhoods and end up in the criminal justice system, he said.

“Most of my clients who shoot and kill people would be sitting right here if they had the opportunity I did,” said Coard, speaking at a meeting of CSG/ERC’s Council on Communities of Color last August. “It’s not the young black men that are the problem; it’s the system that creates them. If you give eight out of ten of my clients an education, they wouldn’t be my client.”

The discussion, which was held in conjunction with the CSG/ERC 2019 Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, was one of two gatherings organized by the council last year to explore the historical culture of racism in American life and the need for more conversations on racial justice and equity within state government.

Two panelists sitting at table with mike

Michael Coard, attorney and adjunct professor, Temple University, and Kiah Morris, former Vermont state representative, speaking during the CCC panel discussion in Pittsburgh in August 2019.
Credit: Sebastian Marquez Velez

Coard said the lack of educational options in underserved communities is one example of state-sanctioned oppression that has persisted for hundreds of years. “It’s not like in 1865 blacks got their freedom,” he said, referring to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which put an official end to slavery. There were decades of violence and discrimination enabled by the Black Codes from 1865 to 1866; the Redemption period following Reconstruction, from the late 1860s to the late 1870s; and the Jim Crow era, which lasted until 1965, a year after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, said Coard.

One of the manifestations of this continued discrimination is the racialization of public spaces, in which people make 911 calls for simply feeling uncomfortable in the presence of people of color, said Coard. The council has been examining incidents of unnecessary 911 calls, and exploring strategies to prevent them, to improve the safety of people of color.

Coard described a legal tool in Pennsylvania that he believes could serve as a potential solution. The law permits individuals to file a private criminal complaint against another person — in this case, against the person who called 911 — before a district judge. The individual bringing the complaint must show that the charge meets a specific standard of proof and is approved by the district attorney.

Confronting Racism in State Legislatures

Across the Northeast, state lawmakers admit that they are challenged by issues of race, racism, and racial justice. During the meeting, members examined how race influences the work of elected officials of color in the statehouse — and how their experiences diverge from those of their white colleagues.

“Doesn’t it make you feel a little uncomfortable to talk about race?” Rhode Island State Representative Raymond Hull asked the dozens of legislators from the region who joined the meeting. “If I single you out for being white, it’s because I love you,” said Hull, looking around the room. “It’s because I need to work with you, because you hold a lot more cards than I do.”

Hull said one of the biggest struggles among his colleagues of color is ensuring that they are allowed to express their views openly in the statehouse. “I want to be heard,” he said. Hull recalled growing angry during Black History Month, when a legislator who was speaking on the House floor suddenly had his time cut short, with no explanation.

Former Vermont State Representative Kiah Morris shared her story of being admonished for quietly leaving the legislature’s chamber when a House colleague referred to a Black Lives Matter resolution in a way that was offensive to her. When another representative rose to speak in support of the resolution, white members who opposed it turned their chairs so that their backs faced the speaker, but they were not reprimanded.

“The rules were clearly different,” said Morris.

Later, Morris received online threats from white supremacists who opposed a legislative gun reform package, even though she was not a sponsor of the bills.

“These are dynamics that silence good legislators of color and stymie equal access to power in legislatures,” said Morris.

Morris and other participants said that the lack of a level playing field will persist until there are more elected officials of color in legislatures across the country to lend a voice to the needs of their communities.

Connecticut Superior Court Judge Erika Tindill, speaking during the CCC panel discussion in Pittsburgh in August 2019.
Credit: Sebastian Marquez Velez

“We will not be able to address racism because we can’t have conversations about it — because we are unwilling or unable to separate white people from whiteness, which is the standard,” said Connecticut Superior Court Judge Erika Tindill.

Nova Scotia MLA Tony Ince said there is a deep need to have those difficult conversations in Canada, where black people are underrepresented in political and cultural life. Black communities have existed in Nova Scotia for 400 years, but most people are not aware of that history, since it is not taught in schools, said Ince, who serves as minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs.

“There’s an old African proverb, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’” said Ince. “We need to go together.”

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