By Lara Bazelon, Professor of Law, University of San Francisco School of Law
I am a professor of law at the University of San Francisco School of Law, where I direct the Criminal & Juvenile Justice Clinic and the Racial Justice Clinic. Before that, I was the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent at Loyola Law School, and earlier in my career, I was a trial lawyer in the Office of the Federal Public Defender in Los Angeles.
As I have gone from job to job, there has been one constant: the vast majority of my clients are people of color. And, whether the case involves allegations of misconduct in college that could result in expulsion, or felony charges of gun and drug possession that could result in years in prison, or claims that official misconduct and abysmal trial lawyering resulting in a wrongful conviction and decades of lost freedom, most of my clients are Black men.
I am also a white woman who has had many privileges and advantages in life. That piece of biographical information seems important to convey because while I have spent most of my professional life fighting racial injustice within the criminal justice system, and even though I have dealt with a fair amount of gender bias during my twenty-year legal career, I am white. At the end of the day, my whiteness insulates me from what my clients, students, friends, and colleagues of color have to face every day: a lack of safety, physical and emotional, that comes from knowing that in our society, their lives are less valued—even disposable. Unlike them, I do not have a personal mistrust of institutions borne of the knowledge that the constitutional protections to which we are all entitled—the freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, the right to counsel, the right to a fair and impartial jury, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—may be trampled at any moment with lethal consequences and no accountability.
When I watched Officer Chauvin extinguish George Floyd’s life by pressing his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes as Floyd cried out for his mother and begged for his life, I felt sickened and outraged. This was 2020, after all, and we were witnessing a modern day lynching. And I felt a terrible sense of defeat. After decades of struggle, and signs of real progress, a Black man’s life can still be taken as if it were nothing. Recently, I had taken some comfort, for example, in the nationwide movement to elect progressive prosecutors, including Black men and Black women, to top positions in major cities across the United States. I was hopeful that the changes they set about making—decriminalization of minor offenses, a commitment to freeing the innocent, a rejection of money bail, a bold stance against mass incarceration—were going to be long term and impactful.
Then came the killing of George Floyd. The cold stare of the white officer, his indifference, knowing that he was being filmed, not only to Floyd but to a growing crowd of outraged bystanders—that stony, white, violent silence spoke volumes. I can take your life, and I will. After the disgust and grief and outrage came the soul-deadening realization: George Floyd’s killing was unique only because it was particularly grotesque and because it was filmed, up close and perfectly pixilated, from start to finish.
Perhaps it was because of these differences that Floyd’s murder ignited unprecedented international outrage, driving not solely Black people, not solely Latinx people, not solely queer people into the streets, but white people—middle class white people of relative privilege, who weeks earlier, would have expressed skepticism or even hostility to the #BLM movement. This dramatic shift and a stated, affirmative commitment by these white people to anti-racism, makes this moment feel different—that it could be a tipping point.
Or not. And it is up to all of us to make sure that the months-long protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder are not a blip or a temporary state of discomfort but rather a sharp corner that we as a country have collectively turned. That, for white people, there will be no going back to the well-paved path of willful ignorance.
Turning that corner, for white people, requires a commitment not only to change but to accepting how profoundly uncomfortable that change can be. Because if we do not accept that discomfort, I fear we will abandon that commitment. Change, for white people, means an entire rethinking of power structures; for some, it can feel threatening because it calls for displacement, particularly when it means a ceding or sharing of authority.
Leadership in dismantling the centuries-old systems that have been designed to inflict race-based harm on millions will look different than it has in the past. White people cannot be content to be cheerleaders on the sidelines, passive donors, or temporary allies. Posting #BLM signs in windows, writing checks to progressive causes, marching in the streets—none of that is enough. And certainly, demanding to be at the helm of the struggle is not only presumptuous, but wrong.
So where does that leave people like me? As I think about my students—the majority of whom are women and people of color—as I think about our clients and my friends and colleagues of color, when I think about the work we can and must do together, I think of partnership and allyship and a shared commitment. And I understand that my commitment to this fight is to be just that: a partner and an ally. What that means, I think, is to approach this work from a place of that is equal parts passion and humility, with a resolve to speak less and listen more.