A Black Woman Lawyer’s Experience
Part One of a Two-Part Discussion
A call for security—it means vastly different things to different people based on the color of their skin. On behalf of Books That Make You, I sat down with Dr. Raye Mitchell, author, lawyer, executive producer, and podcast host. Dr. Raye shared a short story from her first novel that is currently a work in progress.
Our conversation, far-reaching in scope, turned to the subject of today and America’s reckoning with race and racism in 2020. Dr. Raye shared with me her own “Amy Cooper Story”. These stories, where White Americans call the police on Black Americans who are engaged in routine matters and simply living their lives, are bubbling to the surface. Dr. Raye and I decided to share her similar experience in this two-part discussion.
Q: Race, racism, and unconscious bias are big discussion points these days. You have written that every black person has a story about an “Amy Cooper” encounter of their own (likely more than one such story). Expand on that.
It’s not just the criminal justice system that is failing Black America and Black women in America. The civil justice system is broken as well. The problem is that the deadly consequences of a broken civil justice system are not discussed as much as police brutality and fatal shootings. I should know. I am a Black civil litigator. I have seen and lived horrid stories of racism in the legal profession, but my wellness ticker keeps me smiling and optimistic.
Q: Before we started our interview, you said you had an Amy Cooper story you are ready to share? Tell us your story.
We have longed endured the trauma of everyday discrimination—every black person has a story—an “Amy Cooper” moment if you will. My story is an all too familiar example of how racism can go off the rails through the escalation of simple everyday differences. My “Amy Cooper” was a senior associate at a prominent law firm who yelled the deadly words: “Security. Stop her. Call Security.”
What was my alleged wrongdoing? I refused her commands to “sit” after we completed the mundane task of exchanging the executed settlement documents for a settlement payment. The agreed procedure was simple; it was a simultaneous exchange. From my standpoint, the transaction was complete, but my “Amy Cooper” still wanted to continue to fight. When, I turned to leave with my settlement checks in hand, she became furious over my defiance of her command to “sit.”
Q: Why are you willing to tell your story now? This happened over three years ago, right?
Black writers, indeed, every writer has a duty to tell the untold stories of our lived experiences. I have been writing a book about that experience and others. This year has been troublesome for African Americans. As Black people, we are collectively facing a perfect storm of existential and urgent issues that leave us fighting for the fundamental human right just to breathe and exist. Covid-19 is taking out its vengeance disproportionately on African Americans. The ensuing economic crash has wiped out the Obama era gains and recoveries, leaving behind a trail of insecurity on every front from the risk of hunger, financial ruin, eviction and foreclosure from their homes.
In the wake of the George Floyd murder and others, it is imperative that we all, Black and White, tell our stories. All races, genders, and voices from many countries are embracing the moment to move forward. By telling our stores, we can open ourselves to finding healing and common ground.
Q: How did you feel at that moment when she called for security? Isn’t a call for security a good thing?
No. The call for security should be calming, but for Black people, the call can and does have deadly consequences. In my case, I never expected the call for security in an ordinary litigation transaction. On the outside, I was calm and smiling. On the inside, I was both peaceful and seething at the same time as a civil dispute was suddenly escalated into a threat of my physical harm.
Her actions were insulting, unseemly, and the racial motive was evident to me. It happened in a flash, giving me mere seconds to react. I didn’t know if it was intentional racism or unintentional and so-called “unconscious bias.” I didn’t have time to analyze the situation thoroughly. Somehow, as a Black person, I’m expected to shoulder the burden to decide which is which and react accordingly in seconds.
Q: What decision are you saying to had to make?
I had to decide if today might be the day I, or my brother, die at the hands of overzealous private cops.
In an instant, I had to make a life or death decision over a little spat between two litigation attorneys. If she had concern over the exchange of the documents for the checks, she had a simple remedy—talk to the judge. There was no risk for her or her client, which made her actions that much more horrific.
Instead, she called for armed private security to come to apprehend us. In an instant, I had to make a life or death decision to stay or go. If I stayed, I would be succumbing to racism at its worse—the unjustified attack on my integrity. If I left, I risked injury through an unpredictable encounter with armed authorities. No matter how right I was on the law or the facts, I knew that a Harvard Law School degree would not stop a bullet intended for my brother or me if he rushed to defend me in an assault.
I did know that I resented the fact that her conduct forced me to decide what white attorneys would never have to make at such an exchange.
Q: What did you decide and why?
In the face of this unapologetic assault on my humanity, I elected to keep us alive. I smiled and I sat down.
She seemed anxious to exert the power her real or imagined privilege gave her. However, I knew she had no power if I did not take her bait. I was peaceful in knowing that I would not take the bait of racism or a racist to become her stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman.’
Q: It is one thing to be a black woman in this situation, and another for a black man. In this instance, you were hyper-aware of what might happen to your brother. Expand on that.
It seemed that my Amy Cooper was taken aback because I brought my brother, a Black man to our brief meeting.
He simply wanted to come and support me, to help, as big brothers often do for their little sister. I fight with words, legal doctrine, and a quick strategic analytical argument. He did not fight at all and was an easy target. Black men often seem to be, don’t they?
I sat down to protect my brother. We absorb the burden of racism to protect our mental health, protect our physical well-being, and protect the safety and financial security of our families. And sometimes we sit down to make it better for the next Black person that comes along to be able to stand up.
Unfortunately, however, the legal profession remains one of the most segregated, non-diverse professions we have in this country. Guess what, my Amy Cooper is not that much of an outlier in the legal profession when it came to her litigation tactics.
Q: There is a lot of talk about the need for increased “unconscious bias” training in general, and in the legal profession in particular. Speak to that.
I think that more “unconscious bias” training is welcomed, but it is not going to help the problem unless we change how we do the training programs. What happened in my case was not unconscious bias; it was overt racism. I have litigated high-conflict civil cases for over thirty years. I have seen differences in how White attorneys litigate against Black attorneys.
My aggressor did not see me as a peer. Often the Big Law firms operate with harsher scorched earth tactics to defeat attorneys of color than those imposed on white attorneys. Many are indifferent to the harm they seek to cause on the Black attorney, including the injury to our physical and mental well-being. The system is not supposed to work like this.
Q: You mentioned the mental health aspect of racism in all of this. Explain.
Racism is taught. It a disease that has plagued humanity before this country was this country. Racism is a public health crisis. Racism makes us sick. It has been documented.
Dr. David R. Williams, the Norman Professor of Public Health at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Professor of African and African American Studies and Sociology at Harvard University, is the leading expert on how racism makes us physically, mentally, and emotionally sick.
I also think racism diminishes us all. It makes White people sick in many ways, too.
Tragically, racism is just part of our lives. Black people, White people, everyone can find ways to unite and make it less a part of all our lives. We need to have more conversations and share our lived experiences to help cure the racism disease. Racism can be cured. Sharing our stories is a part of the healing process.
Read Part Two of this interview with Dr. Raye Mitchell.