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On Suits and Hoodies

Last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune included a magazine insert titled Chicago’s Best Lawyers.  This is apparently part of a nationwide survey in which lawyers are asked to evaluate their peers.  The insert is a glossy production that essentially advertises Chicago firms.  There are lots of pictures of lawyers, some among those named “best,” others simply representing the partners in the advertised firms.  My guess is that this survey is about as useful as the more well- known US News and World Report survey of top colleges and universities, recently caught up in scandal when a top tier school was exposed for misrepresenting the data it sent in for evaluation.  Still it was a striking visual representation of the legal profession.

Normally I’d quickly toss this in the recycle bin while moving on to more important matters like the Cubs’ ineptitude this April.  But I was caught by the cover photo of the partners of a particular firm – seven white men, seven dark suits.  Hmm.  Not much diversity here.  I looked at the next page.  Same thing.  Intrigued, I began counting faces.  There were 124 lawyers pictured in the magazine.  One lawyer was clearly of Asian descent.  One person was perhaps African American, but so light skinned as to make a clear determination impossible.  All the rest – 122 out of 124 – were white (and 75% were men).

Sometimes pictures do deceive.  I’ve met African American, Asian American, and Hispanic attorneys in Chicago.  They do exist and certainly some of them are among the best!  Perhaps they have their own associations doing their own rankings.  Perhaps the best of them have no time or use for the admittedly self-congratulatory process that goes into these rankings.  The insert sniffed strongly of self-selection and self-promotion.  And yet sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words.  The fact that in this day and age any professional organization or publication would be willing to present itself in this way is, frankly, astonishing.  Didn’t anyone involved in this publication have the sense or the sensitivity to say, “What’s wrong with this picture?”  “Could it really be the case that virtually all of Chicago’s lawyers are white?”  And if it is not the case “do we want to represent ourselves as a profession in this way?”

I’m sure these are fine lawyers and that most, if not all, are good people.  I’m not a fan of the endless lawyer jokes that portray the profession as money grubbing schemers.  I have too many wonderful personal and professional relationships with attorneys who have helped the institutions I’ve served be both faithful and effective.  The point here is not to denigrate the lawyers portrayed in the magazine.  But anti-racism work reminds us about the important distinction between intent and impact. It’s not enough these days to ensure that our intent is good, benevolent, or at the very least benign.  We need to attend to the impact of our actions regardless of our good or evil intent. This is particularly true when it comes to the fraught question of race.  Publications like this, with its no doubt unintended “profiling” do have an impact that we need to be concerned about.

In recent weeks we’ve struggled once again with the issue of racial profiling, prompted by the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  The hoodie became a kind of symbol of the assumptions and caricatures that racism continues to instill in our society.  Chicago’s Best Lawyers is, in its own way, reinforcement for another kind of profiling, equally insidious in 2012.  Namely, that the best and the brightest in one of the most influential professions are uniformly white and overwhelmingly male.  Is this what the publisher intended to communicate?  I doubt it.  Is this what the publisher believes?  I hope not.  But is this what the magazine announced?  Absolutely.  Would anyone reading this magazine last Sunday be encouraged to think that people of color can be and in fact are among the best and the brightest in the legal profession?  Probably not.

Profiling, whether of the hoodie or dark suit and tie variety, shapes communal expectations that are destructive, even when such profiling doesn’t lead to a false arrest or a vigilante killing, creating powerful social and cultural impediments to personal and professional aspirations.  Pictures do become icons that can either imprison us in old and destructive social patterns or liberate us for a healthier and more faithful future.  One special advertising supplement to The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times won’t alter the world for good or for ill, but it is a symptom of a larger problem the past two months have forced us to confront.  Racism, and our inability to acknowledge and respond to it constructively, remains a corrosive force in our society.  Even good people with no ill intent contribute thoughtlessly to its perpetuation.  We can all do better.  And we must.

John H. Thomas

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