The Limits of the Law

The Limits of the Law

December 6th, 2010 // 10:05 am @

By Hannibal B. Johnson

The words “law” and “justice,” most often coupled sequentially as “law and justice,” fit together like handmaidens. Historically and strategically, African-Americans have been true believers in the marriage of these concepts. From abolition to civil rights, African-American liberation movements viewed changes in the law as the primary means by which to achieve our ultimate end, “justice.” Over time, we successfully challenged many of the laws that oppressed us. Whether our concerted push toward equality before the law has led to justice is, at best, an open question.

Is our continued faith in law as the chosen vehicle for social change and, ultimately, “justice,” misplaced? Stated differently, does “the law,” even when neutrally applied, lead inexorably to “justice,” or is there more complexity to the equation?

One of our great American heroes and a shining star in the legal pantheon, the late Justice Thurgood Marshall, pondered those questions. On June 29, 1991, on the occasion of his retirement from the United States Supreme Court, Justice Marshall noted:

The legal system can force open doors, and sometimes, even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me.

We can run from each other, but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same.

Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide, tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side.

Justice Marshall, a stalwart soldier in the battle for African-American equality before the law, came to realize that “justice” requires more than the law alone can afford. Justice demands both legislative and spiritual awakening.

In his early career, Thurgood Marshall, a crackerjack lawyer trained at Howard University Law School, led a frontal assault on segregation on behalf of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (“NAACP”). He worked the legal system from within, deftly challenging discriminatory practices on Constitutional and other grounds. In cases like Sipuel v. Board of Regents of University of Oklahoma and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Marshall tore down America’s wall of de jure segregation, brick by brick. Later, as Judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, United States Solicitor General, and United States Supreme Court Justice, Marshall continued to give voice to the voiceless as an unwavering advocate for equality under the law.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., another selfless champion of black liberation, emerged as the young leader of the yearlong, grassroots 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. From that humble platform, Dr. King catapulted onto the national and international stages. His acclaimed appearances, speeches, and writings made him the face of the twentieth century civil rights movement. Dr. King claimed the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

Dr. King galvanized African-Americans and their allies in a different type of challenge to inequality under the law: civil disobedience. He articulated the moral case for change. Many resisted—some violently—but fair-minded Americans responded. Congress passed The Civil Rights Act of 1964, The Voting Rights Act of 1965, and The Fair Housing Act of 1968. By the time an assassin’s bullet felled Dr. King on April 4, 1968, he and the movement he catalyzed had roused a slumbering nation into action. Many of the overt barriers to African-American progress had fallen.

Dr. King captured a profound truth when he noted: “We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools.” He also famously observed: “We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality…. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

Thurgood Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., icons on the civil rights movement, devoted their lives to equality under the law, ostensibly for African-Americans, but in reality for all Americans. These two men recognized that changing the legal system was necessary, but not sufficient, to make America a land of “liberty and justice for all.” Experientially, they learned there are limits to what the law can do. Beyond those outskirts lies, broadly speaking, a spiritual realm.

The notion of interconnectedness evident in the twentieth century words of both Justice Marshall and Dr. King remains an essential truth of the twenty-first century. Then and now, the extent to which justice prevails turns on more than simply “the law.” Justice depends, in no small measure, on “just us,” all of us, and our relationships one with another.

If we are ever to reach the pinnacle, the idealized state in which justice rains down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream, then we have to accept that which is fundamental: our shared humanity. Only through education and exposure, will that notion of shared humanity—the dignity and worth of every individual—be universally embraced.
The laudable changes in our legal landscape for which so many suffered, bled, and died have not led to full and equal “justice” for African-Americans. Not yet. Our charge is to figure out how to move the needle still further.

As African-Americans, we are over-represented in prisons, on welfare, and among the unemployed and uninsured. The educational achievement gap shows no sign of abating. On virtually all socioeconomic indicia of well-being, we lag behind. Where is the justice—fairness, equity, moral rightness—in that?

While we share responsibility for our perilous state, we alone did not cause and cannot rectify this ugly reality. As has been so often noted, the true test of a society is how it treats the least of those in its midst. It is about the interconnectedness and shared fate Justice Marshall and Dr. King preached. If we are to extricate ourselves from this morass, we will do it with the support of forward-thinking people of all persuasions who understand the folly of doing nothing. We will have to do more than make changes to our laws. We will have to change hearts and minds, too.

Genuine leaders recognize the connections and shared fate that unite us all. They build on that commonality of interest in ways that bring us together and embolden us to confront the challenges we face head-on. That sense of collectivism, though, runs counter to the individualistic, ego-driven mindset all too prevalent today. Fame and fortune are powerful lures. Too few opinion-shapers seem able to see beyond their own self-interest long enough to begin building the bridges—the social infrastructure—we so desperately need. They magnify differences and demonize the different instead of reminding us of how we are, essentially, one.

We face varied and complex diversity and inclusion issues. Working through them will require sustained dialogue, personal and institutional commitments, and considerable investments of time and money. Leadership is essential, but we each must do our part. Surely, there is a critical mass of people who understand that diversity is our ace in the hole; who see diversity as an invaluable asset that, like all assets, must be properly managed to realize optimum value.

In the end, it is all too simple: Treat one another with respect, dignity, and fairness. When we do that, we celebrate the richness of our diversity. We acknowledge our shared humanity. We live that national motto we have all come to know: e pluribus unum—out of many, one.

What might you do to better incorporate diversity and inclusion into your own life? How might you help build a more inclusive community where you are? A few simple steps follow:

  • Expand your mind. Learn about your own diversity dimensions (e.g., your racial, ethnic, and cultural heritage) as well as that of others. Expand your horizons by discovering your own history and that of the world around you.
  •  Know yourself. Get in touch with your feelings, preconceptions, and stereotypes. Know your own biases and work to eliminate them.
  • Reach out. Step outside your comfort zone. Reach out to “the other”—someone from a different background.
  • Listen. Pay attention to what others say about their experiences around diversity issues. Incorporate the lessons you learn into your own life
  • Engage. Get involved with clubs and organizations, initiatives, and issues that embrace and foster diversity and inclusion. Be a champion.

We do honor to the memory and legacy of Justice Marshall and Dr. King when we run with the baton they handed off to us. We have to stride beyond mere equality under the law. If we want “justice,” then we must be willing to round the track as long as necessary to make the human connections that will ultimately win the race.

Hannibal B. Johnson, a University of Arkansas alumnus, is a Harvard Law School graduate. An author, attorney, consultant, and college professor, Johnson resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


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