Super thrilled that my latest piece appears on the blog Very Smart Brothas. They are doing a series “America in Black”. My piece explores the stereotypes and misconceptions held by all races of what it means to be a black woman.
“Every black person’s struggle takes a different path but has the same theme. In my legal career, the struggle is respect, being heard, and having the ability to make meaningful change to uplift communities of color. The bias looks the same—while some people of color may be hesitant to embrace you because you’re perceived as “bougie,” certain white folks marvel that you can afford a luxury purse or a high-end foreign car without being tied to illegal activity. I was once at an event when a judge joked to me whether or not my Michael Kors purse was a result of dropping cases as a prosecutor.”
As Mother’s Day approaches, the conversation should not only be about Hallmark cards and what gift to buy the mothers in your life. While it is extremely important to show honor to our mothers daily (not just on Mother’s Day), we as a society should be focused on supporting mothers too. We are in a country with an extremely high rate of mortality for Black mothers — 3 to 4 times that of white mothers. Serena Williams has been public about her near death experience after giving birth; the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, chose to have a doula present when delivering her baby. If high profile Black women are having concerns in the delivery room — let’s think about how much more dire this can be if a mother is giving birth behind bars.
The conversation has been elevated to include mothers who are in custody. Movements like #FreeBlackMamas and The Dignity Act illustrate the problems that face mothers behind bars. The Dignity Act was included as part of federal criminal justice reform bill, which just recently passed. It requires that women are not shackled while they give birth, receive menstrual care items, and searched by same-sex guards when at all possible. Sadly, states have been slower to pass these types of reforms.
A version of the Dignity Act passed in the Florida Legislature this month. However, this bill would not have helped Tammy Jackson — who was left to give birth alone in her jail cell for six hours in Broward County. Despite her repeated pleas to the guards, she was not provided medical attention. This is part of the greater problem where certain mothers are not valued. The fact that someone is incarcerated or in custody does not diminish their humanity. People who are in custody are the responsibility of the Department of Corrections; as such, it is the guard’s responsibility to ensure that those in their care receive the help that they need.
Additionally, medical professionals need to have regular implicit bias training. The assumption that Black women are stronger, therefore perceived to be less in need of medical attention, is a deadly fallacy that costs mothers their lives. This is something that is a relatively easy fix to the high mortality rates.
As for the guards who left Tammy Jackson to give birth alone in her cell without medical attention, it is my hope that her pain becomes a teaching moment in the road to criminal justice reform. No one should be judged by a mistake they may have made. 83% of people who go into custody come out – the trauma that was caused by this experience lasts, leaving repercussions on not only the person who was incarcerated, but begins a ripple effect from the immediate family to society as a whole.
As I do every Mother’s Day, I must wish my own mother a happy Mother’s Day in heaven. As I learn more about the medical traumas that mothers, especially Black mothers face, I marvel at her strength and appreciate her even more.
Every year for Black History Month, I produce a series entitled “Legal Divas of Color”. The aim is to highlight female legal eagles of color, past and present, who blazed the trail for me (as well as many other sisters and brothers to follow).
Did you know that it was an African American female attorney that brought down mobster Lucky Luciano?
I surely did not!
A dear friend of mine Louise brought this to my attention on Facebook. She posted:
Just finished “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster” by Stephen L. Carter. The book is about Eunice Hunton Carter, the author’s grandmother. The granddaughter of slaves, she was a graduate of Smith College, and later became the first black woman to receive a law degree from Fordham University in New York City. In the mid-1930s when special prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey selected twenty lawyers to help him clean up the city’s underworld, she was the only member of his team who was not a white male. And it was her work that brought down Lucky Luciano, the most powerful Mafia boss in history. This is a remarkable story about a truly remarkable woman.
So of course, I had to investigate!
Eunice Hunton Carter was born in 1899 in the city of Atlanta. Her parents, who were social activists, encouraged her to push boundaries. After graduating cum laude from Smith College with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in 1921, she pursed a career as a social worker. Later, Ms. Carter became the first African American woman to graduate from Fordham Law School in 1932.
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia appointed her to “women’s court” to serve as a prosecutor of women perpetrated crimes — at the time, mostly prostitution. This made her the first African American female Assistant District Attorney in Manhattan.
While working in this court, Ms. Carter started to see a pattern — certain prostitutes kept getting arrested all over New York City, and were consistently bonded out by the same bail bondsmen, and represented by the same attorneys. The bondsmen and attorneys were connected to the mobster Charlie “Lucky” Luciano. Lucky Luciano created the infamous “Commission” — which brought all five mob families together to settle disputes and carve up territory. He was ruthless, running rackets and “whacking” or murdering anyone who stood in his way.
Armed with her observations, Ms. Carter spoke to her boss, special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, and they began to build a case. They were able to prove that the prostitutes had to kick back half of their earnings for protection as well as representation. This meant Luciano was benefiting from prostitution. Due to her hard work, they secured a guilty verdict, and Luciano was sentenced to 30-50 years in prison. He served 10 years before being deported to Italy (after cooperating with authorities).
Ms. Carter continued to serve as a prosecutor until 1945, when she entered private practice. She married Lisle Carter, Sr., who is one of the first African American dentists in New York. She also advised the United Nations on women’s issues and was active with the United Council of Negro Women and YMCA until her death in 1970.
Get the book by her grandson Stephen L. Carter here.
Ironically, when I first became a prosecutor, my goal was to do mob and drug trafficking cases. Life took me on a different path, but I’m thrilled to see a sister who blazed the trail and was an unsung heroine in the fight against organized crime. With the knowledge that the mob (in general) did not have a high opinion of African Americans or women, learning about her work made it that much sweeter.
Thank you Eunice Hunton Carter for being a true Legal Diva of Color!
Whelp, another year is in the books. 2018 brought some interesting highlights — many of us were full on #WakandaForever in honor of the movie Black Panther; we dissected Danny Glover’s masterful video for the song This is America; and millions of activists found their voices as a result of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, as well as due to the current presidential administration. We lost Anthony Bourdain and Aretha Franklin. We joyfully welcomed a new Duchess of Sussex in Meghan Markle during a glorious royal wedding.
Every year, I write as a form of therapy to cope with the untimely passing of my mother from cancer. It’s a way to honor her, as well as to take my mind off of the pain. It’s been six years — the grief is better than it was, but I know I will never be the same. Over time, I’ve come to accept this new normal. Not everyone is blessed to have had a great relationship with their mother — so I count myself lucky.
This article came out of the #BlackWomenAtWork Twitter hashtag from last year. Women of color were discussing various microaggressions we face in the workplace, often from folks who seem so “surprised” by our presence, or for defying the stereotypes they have of us. I shared an experience I had, and a conservative commentator decided to weigh in without completely understanding the context (or frankly, even trying to understand). So, a tutorial ensued. The fact that it has been so highly read for two years in a row shows that the issue is one that is not going away any time soon.
In June of this year, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain passed away as a result of suicide. It hit me hard — not only because I was a huge fan of his shows, not because we were in France at the same time — but because many people still struggle to understand mental health. There are so many misconceptions tied to money, material things, and outward appearances — as to who should or can be depressed. Money gives you access to better care, but it does not insulate you from the crippling effects of depression. There is no shame in admitting you need help. There were dark periods in my life where a good therapist helped me get back on track. Getting help is a sign of strength, not weakness. May he rest in peace.
Former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years this past January for molesting the athletes in his care over a span of 30 years. Instead of the focus being on his heinous actions and betrayal of young athletes who were serving our country through sport, the attention shifted to Judge Rosemarie Acquilina for comments she made during sentencing. It was, what has sadly, become a pattern of the “boys need to stick together” mentality, even when one of the boys was dead wrong. In this piece I analyzed her actions and the context. Little did we know that there was more to come in the form of continued #MeToo revelations, and a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing. These occurrences are a constant reminder of the need for diversity at all levels of the criminal justice system, to ensure that everyone gets a voice — regardless of gender, money, power or privilege.
A judge in Miami Dade County, who many of us knew for many years, lost his seat due to his use of racial slurs at work. Many folks who are not of color wonder how to be an ally. I laid out a few — but the key is not to remain silent. Record everything, and don’t let racist instances slide. The lives of many hang in the balance.
There you have it! Were there other pieces that you liked from this year? Anything you’d like to see me write about next year? Sound off in the comments!
Wishing you and yours a happy, safe and prosperous New Year. See you on the flip side!