Richard Zitrin: Being ‘Anti-Racist’ is Not Enough

Richard Zitrin

I was talking with Eva Paterson about my recent renewed reflections about racism. After we talked, she asked me to write something from my perspective: a white guy who has considered himself an anti-racist for most all of my 73 years. Some of this perspective goes back as far my pre-teen years and what my parents and mentors taught me. But when I got to California at age 26, my experiences and observations put me on a fast track towards greater awareness.

A week after arriving in San Francisco, I landed a job working as a law student in a case involving six prisoners of color, four Black, two Latino, who stood accused of five murders and numerous other felonies stemming from an August 1971 conflagration at San Quentin State Prison. I worked primarily for Johnny Spain, who among the six men, known as the “San Quentin Six,” was the only Black Panther and a close friend of George Jackson, also killed that day. Hanging out in both the prison and the courtroom, I saw how each man was literally enslaved. Moved only while chained around the legs and waist, with an iron brace encircling the neck, they looked as if they were heading to the auction block. Locked down 23 hours a day, they never were allowed to go outside for exercise of any kind. I was grateful that I was the one who got to draft the “conditions of confinement” complaint that resulted in federal lawsuit that put an end to many of the most horrific practices.

Johnny and I talked often back then about his life outside prison. I quickly realized that not only was Johnny’s prison experience beyond my emotional comprehension, so was his life story. I could listen and understand the words he was saying. But I was aware I could never begin to know what it was like to walk in his shoes.

But I’m not writing this to convince you or even explain who I was, what I did, or how much I understood. I’m writing to tell you about all the things that for decades I didn’t understand, some that I completely missed the boat on until the recent killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and others and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. BLM leaders have been telling us white folks to dig down deep and look within ourselves to better understand our own complicity in a society of systemic racism. So was my daughter Maya, who was shaken and angry as she grappled with her previously muted feelings about being the only person of color (she might say “biologically multi-racial but socially identified as Black”) in a privileged white family. I listened to their voices that said “stop talking and start listening!” (usually not my go-to place) until Eva asked me to write this article and convinced me it was time to speak.

Until this May, I thought I had a good understanding of white privilege. I mean beyond the super-obvious stuff: Black friends being mistaken for “the help”; Black drivers being arrested for “resisting arrest” when “routine” (and often illegal) traffic stops (broken taillights, failure to signal a lane change) escalated; role assumptions continuing to be made in courtrooms and boardrooms.

I’ve certainly been aware that my privileged background gave me an unfair advantage over many, indeed most, people, and led me to much of the work I’ve chosen to do trying to “even up” the score. I remembered my white privilege every time I jogged from my law office through downtown streets and needed a bathroom. I knew that despite my slovenly and sweaty t-shirt and shorts, I could still duck into a fancy hotel, giving a nod of familiarity to the doorman, and make a bee-line for the men’s room, while my friend “Cedrick,” the accomplished high school math teacher and basketball coach who favored hoodies outside the classroom, would be stopped before he ever got inside.

But frankly, in examining and reflecting on my own attitudes these last few months, I’ve concluded that these are just iceberg-tip examples of the systemic racism that governs most everything in our society. Here are some issues I’ve been thinking about:

A Much Steeper Path

I have long thought about how Black folks must walk a much more challenging path than I’ve had, whether they are poor laborers or lawyers who went to Stanford. But I feel now that I grossly underestimated the extraordinarily pervasive nature of systemic racism. I walk around the streets of San Francisco without fear. My Black friends, women and men, do not. Ever. I spend a fair amount of time in the Tenderloin, and never think a cop is going to stop me. Not so Cedrick. And especially not so for Cedrick’s teenaged son.

I’m aware that my Black lawyer friends and the law students I mentor faced, and overcame, that more challenging path. But until the last few months I didn’t fully appreciate that they still face it, no matter who they are, every day, in so many small ways that cumulatively are huge. I am learning that events like Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. getting busted on his own front porch are commonplace, almost expected occurrences for people of color. My Black friends don’t often talk about what’s happened to them, but if I listened more carefully, I would have recalled and internalized what I’d read and heard.

I revisited two incidents that occurred a few months apart in New York City in 2015. Two well-known athletes, NBA player Thabo Sefolosha and tennis star James Blake, were detained by New York policemen. In April, Sefolosha was arrested in a nightclub after an altercation he wasn’t involved in. The cops broke his leg during the arrest. In September, Blake was taken to the ground by NY cops in front of his hotel for no reason whatever.  

Blake received an apology from the police commissioner and agreed not to sue the city if a “fellowship to investigate police misconduct and advocate for victims of brutality” was established. But the cop who took him down sued him, claiming defamation because Blake called him a “racist goon.” Really? The case quickly got thrown out.

Sefolosha was charged with three crimes that had nothing to do with the altercation and everything to do with his broken leg: resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and obstructing government administration. The DA offered to dismiss the case in six months, but Sefolosha refused because he wanted a jury to acquit him. He was acquitted, and then sued the city, settling for $4 million, most of which he donated to help in the defense of others.

In thinking back recently about these incidents, involving two shining examples of stand-up people, I realized something I’d blanked on before: that both Thabo and James not only suffered the humiliating experience of being taken down by cops but then were put in the position of having to do more to display courage and high-mindedness. Clearly, part of the crime against Thabo Sefolosha was his being put in the position of having to risk a criminal record in order to maintain his dignity.

I realized that I had grossly underestimated the day-in, day-out pain and, frankly, the diminished expectations about others that Black people face just going through life. The day after Trump’s election, I went to my usual Wednesday noon pick-up basketball game. I imagine I looked pretty depressed. My friend “Darnell” saw something and came over to me to ask what’s wrong. I said “the damn election.” And Darnell replied, “Oh that. Same old same old.” I heard that “so what else is new?” reaction from other Black friends. That woke me up a bit, but by the Spring of 2020, I guess I had dozed off again.

“Savior”?

Since I’ve spent much of my time, money, and energy working on diversity issues and on behalf of members of the African American community, after this spring’s events I took a step back to look seriously at my own motives. I had to consider the extent to which I have been a “white savior” insensitive to the how my efforts might affect the people I was trying to help. I knew I was far from the savior tropes in “The Help” and “Green Book,” two movies I disliked for just that reason. I knew that I tried to avoid “teaching” Black people a “white” way to do things. And I’ve tried – not always successfully – to help only when asked.

And yet, I recognized some significant issues that I hadn’t previously seen clearly. I fear that there were some occasions in which I was a “voice for the voiceless” without being invited. Even if unintentional, an uninvited voice can be seen as showing a lack of respect for the fact that white people are not going to “save” Black people, something I surely knew. So there were times when I should have just “passed the mic.”

When Eva asked me to write this article, I asked her about being a white spokesperson.  She reassured me that there is still a role for white folks to speak out to help carry the water that, spoken only by Black people, may appear to be self-serving. But there’s a fine line between that and Savior City.

Even after my reflections about my own savior complicity, I continue to learn. I have a Black scholarship student – I’ll call him Joseph – with whom I’ve become very close. He took the bar exam twice, in July 2019 and February 2020, and just missed passing. The state Supreme Court recently lowered the “cut score” to a level that would have twice given him a passing grade, I felt it was unfair to not apply the lower score to the February exam, especially during COVID. I wanted to do something to help, not just for Joseph but for the 371 others in the same boat. But when I asked Joseph’s opinion, here’s what he wrote me:

Honestly, I want to take the bar in October and pass it fair and square. It would mean a lot to me. I don’t want you to feel like I don’t appreciate what you’re doing, but I personally want to take the exam and pass on my own. I know it’s doable and I can do it no matter how hard it is.

I was guilty of being a Savior. I replied that I loved and respected his response. And I learned another lesson.

“Bona Fides” and My Daughter

Perhaps my most embarrassing recent realization is that there have been times in my interaction with Black folks, whether my friends, colleagues, or people at diversity conferences, when I have been guilty of referencing my anti-racist “bona fides.” I’ve been asking myself why I felt it important to let my past history and actions “slip out” when it wasn’t necessary. Was I looking for validation? Like “so you’re one of the good white people”? Instead of just being myself and letting that be enough. Everyone is familiar with the “non-racist” who says “Some of my best friends are black.” My version of this was to allow, in conversation, that I’d been given this or that award or – most tellingly and perhaps most unfortunately – that my daughter is Black.

To be sure, these bona fides cut both ways. Sometimes this information is relevant to whatever I’m speaking about, or when answering questions about myself. But while my daughter is a source of great love and pride, trucking her out as a “bona fide” when it’s not relevant is wrong. Again, there’s that fine line. At its worst, it’s not much better than when I wheeled her in a stroller and (white) people would say to me, “Oh, what a great thing you’ve done” by adopting her, a statement that disgusted me.

My daughter’s emotions since Breonna and George’s deaths have taught me a lot. I’ve probably examined my parenting more closely than anything else. I thought, again, that I was doing such a great job of raising her. Researched extensively the pros and cons of white families adopting Black children. Taught her that she was “African-American” from the time she was too young to appreciate “Black” as it applied to her brown skin. Introduced her to female role models and local Black leaders, even saw Jesse Jackson carry her around in his arms when she was six. Sent her to a diverse school. Discussed repeatedly the racial issues she would face. And most importantly, showed her unconditional love and affection.

But there was more I could have done. Hung out more with Black friends and with Black community organizations. Fostered Maya’s developing her own independent relationships with Black adults. Found Black hairstylists and perhaps a Black pediatrician. Appreciated better her sense of multiraciality. Taught my two white sons, five and ten years older, more about what I was teaching Maya – the big difference about how things are for them and for their sister out in the real world.

Most significantly, despite honest efforts and love, I failed to fully appreciate how isolated Maya could feel – a Black island in a white world. I’ve come to realize that this was more about emotional sustenance than intellectual understanding. Maya and I have long discussed “important” things that I usually brought up – political things like John Lewis’s history or Frederick Douglass’s speech about July 4th; social and artistic things like the messages about race from works like the movie “Blindspotting” or the Pulitzer prize-winning novels of Colson Whitehead. But these are ideas, grounded in an intellectualism that too often comes at the expense of emotion.

Emotional sustenance needs to be more than love, because no matter how much she is loved, our daughter could still feel very much like an outsider in her own family. In 2020, after Breonna and George, what my daughter needed was emotional support and understanding, not intellectualized comments about this or that Times article or Ibram X. Kendi quote. And on this, I dropped the ball, because I didn’t appreciate the depths of the emotional reaction my daughter – along with many others – had to this spring’s events. 

So “just” being an anti-racist is simply not nearly enough. In these many ways, I’ve fallen short. I won’t say “failed” because I am learning something from those shortcomings. An old musician friend used to tell me, “Practice makes better.” So does honest reflection.

Richard Zitrin is a “recovering” trial lawyer, the author of three books on Legal Ethics and Lecturer Emeritus at UC Hastings College of the Law.