The Trouble With Being Young, Missing & Black

This story originally appeared in the Miami Times on October 12. Check out my thoughts!

Everyone has heard the tragic story of Gabby Petito. It captivated headlines and news reports for weeks on end, chronicling the search, the desperate pleas from her family and the eventual discovery of her remains. Televisions and every portable device blasted her picture. As one can imagine, this led to an outpouring of tips that led law enforcement to where Gabby was eventually found.

During that same time, two other young people went missing and two other families were searching for their loved ones. Miya Marcano (Florida) and Jelani “JJ” Day (Illinois) were both young people of color. They were both students. They had their futures ahead of them, were bright and loved by their families. Yet their stories did not get the same traction or attention.

Why does this happen? First, it has to do with the respect for Black lives in this country. Unfortunately, biases remain when it comes to law enforcement as well as those who are decision-makers in newsrooms.

When it comes to the media, these cases really underscore the importance of having people of color in positions of power in newsrooms, editorial boards and anywhere news is being made. Many times, a story will hit someone to the core, because they identify with the people involved. Unfortunately, if newsrooms are predominately white, the stories that will resonate would be ones that remind them of their cousin, sister, brother or another loved one – people who will likely look like them. By default, Black stories get left out of the mix. If there are more reporters of color, then stories that resonate with people of color will also rise to the forefront, along with cultural sensitivity in the storytelling.

The other issue is law enforcement. This is not to say that police deliberately look at someone and say “This is a person of color, therefore we are not going to look for them.” However, due to biases based in stereotypes, there can be a belief that the person was a runaway even though they had no prior history of doing so. They could feel that since the missing person was battling addiction, or engaged in sex work or other risky lifestyles, they are not worthy of the same amount of attention and resources as someone who is a soccer mom. And that issue of not relating in the same way to a missing person of a different race, while not necessarily intentional, comes into play as an unconscious bias. This is why diversity in law enforcement is incredibly important as well.

For instance, it has come to light that in the initial stages of Miya Marcano being reported as missing, a responding deputy laughed and stated “this is not a high-priority case.” His statement shows not only a lack of sensitivity, but reveals the deeper issues that delayed Miya being found sooner. In the case of Jelani Day, the FBI only recently got involved after a month of him being missing. The family is upset that this is being approached as a suicide rather than as potential foul play. While more has yet to be revealed around his cause of death, his family is adamant that Jelani was in good spirits and showed no signs of distress.

Lastly, there is the issue of shifting blame to the victim. While there is an outpouring of sensitivity around Gabby staying in an abusive relationship, and people trying to figure out when the signs were missed or if earlier intervention could have saved her life, reporting around Miya has much to do with her rejecting the advances of a local man. The local man, who did maintenance for her apartment building, committed suicide and remains a person of interest in her death.

The fact that the focus is on her saying “no” rather than him stalking her, refusing to respect her wishes, breaking into her home and eventually (allegedly) killing her, is problematic. Shifting the focus away from his actions is giving a potential killer a pass, and also furthering the narrative that women do not get the right to say no. Their bodies, who they engage with, and how and when, is not within their control. This is not the lesson we want our young people to learn. We must also teach our kids that no means no. If someone tells you no, accept it for what it is and move on. Don’t be afraid to say no to anyone. No should never cost you your life.

Moving forward, it is incredibly important for all of us to support diverse news sources, as well as support organizations like NABJ & NAHJ to ensure that writers of color can thrive, and rise to the ranks in order to be in decision making positions. We need to follow, support and share the stories that are written by diverse authors, again, so that with the increase in their readership, their ability to be heard in rooms where decisions are made also increase.

Diversity in law enforcement continues to be a major issue that touches so many aspects of criminal justice. We need to continue that fight and support those who are looking to change the profession by eliminating bias.

Lastly, we must empower our young people to say no, accept no, and protect each other as much as possible.

Does The Florida Supreme Court Hate Diversity?

Last month, without any prompting from a pending case or matter, the Florida Supreme Court sua sponte ruled that the Florida Bar can no longer issue continuing legal education credits to any entity that requires diversity in selecting speakers.

At a time when our country is at a crossroads on racial issues—enduring the long painful trial of Derek Chauvin for the brutal murder of George Floyd, a summer of unrest due to his and the deaths of Breonna Taylor as well as Ahmaud Arbery, a huge rise in AAPI hate attacks, anti-Semitic attacks increasing by 40% in our state, and Charlottesville not far in our rearview mirror —it is incredibly irresponsible and concerning to take this approach.

If a CLE addressed Asian hate, and the sponsoring entity required at least one Asian speaker, the session would not see credit. Is the Florida Supreme Court saying that only white men can opine on anti-Asian hate? Or racism? Further marginalizing voices who can share lived experiences that can educate others makes our profession weaker. It goes back to days gone by when only white voices mattered or were heard in any discussion.

It’s 2021. Gone were the days that you do not find diverse attorneys—women, various races and ethnicities, LGBT+—locked out of various areas of practice. Seeing experts that are different than you broadens your horizons, and helps attack implicit bias. The Supreme Court, ironically, highlighted the importance of diversity and eradicating implicit bias—yet attacked the very means to be able to accomplish diversity by using a misguided application of the Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 438 U.S. 265, 307 (1978). Their basis—that requiring diverse speakers equates to an unconstitutional quota—blatantly ignores the fact that while people may have good intentions, guidelines are needed to ensure diversity. By saying “at least one speaker should be a member of a group based upon race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and multiculturalism” does not act to the detriment of any other group.

Sadly, several of the Supreme Court justices were appointed by this governor, who has made it clear he is hostile to communities of color. From his comments disrespecting the jury’s verdict in the Chauvin case, to signing an unnecessary and regressive anti-protest bill that attacks free speech, to stripping access to the ballot box, and unevenly distributing the vaccine to the point that 100% of wealthy white people are vaccinated in this state as opposed to only 31% of Black residents, his intentions have been clear as day. Lastly, he recently signed a bill demanding all university professors to fill out regular surveys to determine their political beliefs, and empowers students to secretly record their professors for daring to opine differently than the conservative status quo.

The judiciary is supposed to be independent, not following lock step with the governor’s war against social media and any opinion that is not conservative. The goal of having a diverse panel is to ensure diversity of ideas—conservative, progressive and independent. It is to raise awareness around a particular topic, which makes us better lawyers and people.

This ruling will have wide consequences. Several organizations are discussing no longer hosting events in Florida, which will cause attorneys to have to travel longer and further to get quality content while depriving our economy. Locally, as bar associations grapple with engaging and retaining members, if they are barred from presenting quality programs with diverse speakers, it will only further harm their finances and relevance.

Requiring diversity is the furthest thing from discrimination. This is still in the comment period—if you believe that having a variety of speakers uplifts our profession, please contact the Supreme Court and tell them to rescind this misguided rule. If it does stay intact, I hope that organizations will continue to practice bringing diverse speakers. It is unfortunate that those with oaths and responsibilities continue to make Florida the laughingstock of the country. Those of us who truly care about diversity—with more than words, but with actual deeds—will continue to push forward.

This piece originally ran in the Daily Business Review. You may see the order from the Florida Supreme Court here.

Dear White Women: Black Women Are Taking Our Moment

Vice President Elect Kamala Harris and her niece.

It took T minus one day. 

I was scrolling through the myriads of Facebook groups when I saw a post of Vice President elect Kamala Harris speaking to her little grand niece, telling her she can be President. The person who posted it, who was a Black woman, stated “all little Black girls now know anything is possible”. In the comments a white woman said “it should be ALL girls”. 

And here we are again in the debate of “all” vs. Black. 

The comment ignored the reality that representation matters. While women have come far in this country, white women have done better. Racism prevented Black women from getting the same head start. White women received the right to vote before Black women – with some white suffragettes fighting to prevent our forefathers from voting before them. There have been four white women on the Supreme Court; there has yet to be a Black woman. White women are paid more at work and are less likely to die in childbirth. There are nine white female governors in this country; we have yet to have a Black female governor. The closest in recent history, Stacy Abrams was robbed of her win via voter suppression in GA. Despite this painful loss, she still tirelessly organized voters to lead Georgia to resoundingly swing for Biden/Harris.  Meanwhile, 55% of white women still voted for the person who would like nothing more than to make this country a version of the Handmaid’s Tale. 

It’s a different feeling when you have been left (or pushed) out of the conversation for centuries, and you finally see yourself in a position of power. The same way white women celebrated when Hillary Clinton became the Dem pres nominee is the same way Black women are feeling today with seeing a Black Woman as VP. 

Think of it this way. A television station in Ireland ended its broadcast by talking about how Joe Biden is a proud Irish American, with his reading of a poem by Seamus Heaney. He is only the second person of Irish descent to be in the White House (the first being John F. Kennedy). I fully expect celebrations and pride by our Irish friends on both sides of the Atlantic – and rightfully so. I would never state to an Irish person who expressed pride over this accomplishment “this is for ALL of us, not just you”. While true, it’s insulting. I’m pretty sure the Facebook poster and others who feel like she does didn’t post similar comments on an Irish person’s page. There is nothing wrong with celebrating accomplishments of people who you identify with through culture, ethnicity, gender alma mater or otherwise – as long as you are not treating other people badly. 

The “all” narrative has been a battle as we discuss criminal justice reform and Black Lives Matter. To put it simply – it’s like showing up to a breast cancer fundraiser and saying “but all cancers matter”. Yes they do – but the discussion right now is about breast cancer. So have a seat. 

This is part of that casual racism that ignores history. Comments like these are a daily reminder of how much work there is to do in this country. Racism exists in both parties, and addressing it is way overdue. 

All is great when all people are actually included intentionally as well as consistently. 

Until that happens, Black women are taking our moment.

See it on the 94 Percent here.

Legacy of Chadwick Boseman & Black Panther: Why Representation Matters

This week, actor Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer at the young age of 43.

Chadwick Boseman. Photo credit: Dan Hallman/Invision/Associated Press

Hearing of his death hurt me deeply. As an avid fan of the Marvel Studios movie franchise, seeing Black Panther for the first time was life changing on many levels as an African American woman. Watching people who looked like me prospering, creating, leading and saving the day on the big screen made my heart burst with pride – because so often Hollywood does not portray us in that manner. We are often relegated to the role of the gangster, the maid, the best friend or a lead character with messy tendencies. In real life we accomplish much of what is portrayed in Black Panther (i.e, girls of color in STEM) – but it is viewed as an outlier not the norm. While undoubtedly the narrative is slowly changing, Chadwick’s portrayal of King T’Challa/Black Panther singlehandedly destroyed stereotypes by the time the opening credits were completed.

Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. Photo credit: Marvel Studios

In these times, we needed his portrayal more than ever. For two hours and fifteen minutes, I, along with so many others, were transported to a place of equality and justice – a Black utopia – albeit fictional. The Dora Milaje were strong African female warriors who reminded me of the fierce women of color in the real world who command respect while holding the world together behind the scenes. Chadwick’s smooth, effortless cool on screen was only exceeded by the good works he did in real life – as well as his superb portrayals of icons Jackie Robinson, Thurgood Marshall and James Brown.

My father taught me basic African history – great empires such Timbuktu which gave us math; how there was trading and commerce – all the good things before the continent was divided, ravaged and pillaged by slavery and colonialism. Real African history began far before slavery, yet that is where US history classes begin.

As an adult you often get too caught up in day to day life to do the research needed to know our history. Between police shootings, fighting to prove Black lives matter and to make sure the system is actually equal, you get sidetracked away from history.

But Black Panther changed everything. Black folks were like “wait, does this place exist?”

And so the hunt began. Think pieces abounded as to where a modern day Wakanda could be. Some say Kenya, others say Ethiopia. Ghana didn’t miss a beat and in honor of the 400 anniversary of slaves landing in the US, Ghana did the “year of return” to encourage African Americans to reconnect with their roots. Our collective intellectual curiosity was peaked by Chadwick’s and his co-stars’ stellar performances.

Black Panther also took on a different meaning when I went to Johannesburg, South Africa for the first time to lecture at a conference. The contrast really hit home – everyone has a tribe or a people they can point to as their own, complete with language, clothing and customs. I and the other African Americans who were present felt so lost when it came to “where are you from?” Oh, born in NY, family from the Caribbean. It pales to the generations of tribal love and closeness they enjoy. Out of that experience, they gave us African names. Mine was Boitumelo (aka Tumi) of the Tswana people, native to Botswana and South Africa. It means “joy”. As a gift, they presented me with a beautiful handmade dress that I wore when I launched my political campaign this past January as well as on election night, as a reminder that whatever happens – my ancestors are supporting me and are proud. The locals in South Africa referred to the ancestors regularly as a sign of respect as well as to remember their history – much like in the movie.

From Johannesburg with love

My experience was enriched by having seen Black Panther – too often Africa is portrayed as a place of endless war and famine. Black Panther expanded our minds and countered that negative narrative. The concept of hiding greatness in plain sight so that it would not be destroyed resonated with me and so many others.

Losing Chadwick was part of the loss of a fantasy. But it is one that can be made into reality in so many ways. In the end of Black Panther, Chadwick’s character was able to address racism and poverty on a global scale by revealing the power of Wakanda.

The reality is, we are all powerful, and can stand up to address these same issues via the ballot box, building economic power in our communities and rejecting the narratives placed upon us. As King T’Chaka said when he saw King T’Challa and he knelt before him on the ancestral plane “Stand. You are a king”

Chadwick Boseman left an amazing legacy. While it really hurts, to quote the movie “in our culture, death is not the end”. While we mourn him, it is not the end for him or us. We must push forward to honor what was begun by our ancestors – who Chadwick joins on the ancestral plane.

Rest in Power, Sleep in Peace King T’Challa. Wakanda Forever 🙅🏾‍♀️

Top 5 Stories of 2018 on RLD!

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.

In my life, 2018 was a year of growth.  I became President of the Gwen S. Cherry Black Women Lawyers Association, found my stride as Deputy Director of the ACLU of Florida,  and was recognized by the American Bar Association for having one of the best Legal twitter accounts and for being one of the eight most inspiring members for 2018.

I didn’t get to write as much as I wanted to — but you, my RLD Family, hung in there with me! For this, I thank you.

Here are the top 5 pieces that you loved:

5. Missing the Little Things on Mother’s Day

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.

4. “You’re So Articulate” Is Not a Compliment to a Woman of Color

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.

3. The Flawed Concept of “But You Have Nothing To Be Depressed About!”

anthony bourdain
Anthony Bourdain shooting ‘Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown’ on location in Salvador, Brazil on January 9, 2014.

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.

2. Toxic Tribalism: Why Diverse Judges Are Needed More Than Ever

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.

And the #1 story of 2018 is…

  1. Betrayed By The Bench?

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!

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