By KARMA ALLEN, ABC News
(WASHINGTON) — This report is part of “Turning Point,” a groundbreaking month-long series by ABC News examining the racial reckoning sweeping the United States and exploring whether it can lead to lasting reconciliation.
It took 233 years, but for the first time in its history, the New Jersey Supreme Court has a Black female justice.
Fabiana Pierre-Louis’s recent confirmation to the state’s highest court comes at a critical point in time as new leaders across the country work to combat centuries of systemic racism and structural inequality.
As the daughter of Haitian immigrants, Pierre-Louis said she grew up with a unique perspective on the world. She learned to speak Creole before she learned English and grew up in Irvington, one of the state’s poorest cities. It’s a perspective, she said, that will inform the way she approaches cases.
“Having a perspective and understanding of what it is like to live in Irvington, or other places … informs how you experience many things in life,” she said in a speech after her confirmation last month.
“[As] I stand here today, I know I have lived and continue to live the American Dream that my parents came here in search of,” she added.
Pierre-Louis is among a number of recent “firsts” — Black people who have ascended to positions traditionally unfilled by members of underrepresented groups — as more institutions ramp up diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. The moves come amid pressure from ongoing protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, an encounter that sparked a broad reexamination of how people of color are treated.
There are other recent Black firsts. Steven Reed became the first Black mayor of Montgomery, Alabama, late last year. London Breed is now the first Black female mayor of San Francisco. There’s also Daniel Cameron — who took office this year as Kentucky’s first Black attorney general – and Juliana Stratton, who last year became the first Black woman to serve as lieutenant governor of Illinois.
While there is no hard data broadly tracking diversity and inclusion efforts, several experts told ABC News that they had observed a noticeable recent uptick in efforts aimed at cultivating and promoting more Black leaders.
America has made some progress in eliminating some forms of systemic racism — which is rooted in years of institutional and legalized racial discrimination. But civil rights advocates say the consequences of slavery and nearly 100 years of Jim Crow laws, which promoted segregation, “separate but equal” in schools, and prohibited Black people from voting and owning land — are still felt today.
Faith Morris, who oversees partnerships and external affairs for the National Civil Rights Museum, said she has also noticed an increased interest in diversity and inclusion in light of the ongoing protest movement.
“Leaders are finally trying to understand what the heck is happening with regards to race in this country and they want to make some systemic moves to change it,” she said. “Systemic racism has been pretty prevalent for a while and it shows its ugly head in many ways, but now we’ve got systemic protests to combat it and they are really battling it out right now.”
Yet there are those who say diversifying and even protesting aren’t enough, and that protesters and activists need to continue the pressure and hold “firsts” accountable once they’ve achieved their moment in history, to ensure the progress of more Black and marginalized people.
First action, then accountability
Lionel Kimble is the vice president for programs at the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, a non-profit founded by historian Carter G. Woodson, frequently referred to as the “Father of Black History.” He said he’s noticed a major shift when it comes to companies diversifying leadership and acknowledging past acts of racism and discrimination. While he said there has been “slight progress” over the past few years, efforts have ramped since protesters took to the streets earlier this year to speak out against anti-Black racism and police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s death, he said.
In addition to Floyd, the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and others helped galvanize a movement that swept across the U.S. urging police reforms, a reexamination of the justice system and a wholesale rethinking of the place of Black and other marginalized people in American society.
“When you think about the history of African Americans in this country, a lot of things that we’ve achieved have been gradual and incremental. But we have always taken advantage of changing political climates to demand change,” Kimble, who is also a professor at Chicago State University, told ABC News. “I think the important thing now is to hold both corporate America and these politicians accountable to the changes they’re committing to now. But we must continue to be active and build on these incremental changes.”
Angela Garretson, a Union County, New Jersey, freeholder, said Pierre-Louis’ nomination comes as New Jersey works to acknowledge and rectify past acts of racism — which includes the very title of “freeholder.”
“Freeholder” is a term unique to the state of New Jersey and has been criticized as an outdated and racist term for “lawmaker.” It originally referred to free white men who were free to own land and vote.
“Every single African American or Black freeholder I spoke to was not in support of the term. We understood the history, we understood what it meant, and we understood that we were also evolving as newer members of a level of government that had not had as much diversity before us,” Garretson said.
The state approved the change last month, becoming the last state to abolish the outdated term. It will now refer to its county lawmakers as “commissioners” effective January 2021.
Garretson was a big part of the push to get rid of the term, which Gov. Phil Murphy referred to as “a title that is an outgrowth of a time when people of color and women were excluded from public office.”
She pointed to that successful fight coupled with the news of Pierre-Louis’ historic confirmation as proof of what happen when protesters, local officials and the government work together.
And, it points to the change that Black “firsts” and “onlys” or “few ofs” can affect when they achieve positions of power that can help uplift other Black people.
‘Don’t settle for the crumbs’
Kimble said the most obvious signs of progress are evident when you look at the number of “firsts” that have recently emerged in the government at the local and congressional levels.
As a labor historian, Kimble said many of his lectures focus on grassroots organizing and its historic influence on Chicago’s Black political scene.
Historically, activists have taken a “two-pronged attack” approach when it comes to protesting for equal rights, he said. The first part involves “holding people’s feet to the fire” as leaders act on the community’s demands through relentless protests. The second part, Kimble said, is holding leaders accountable to the promises they’ve made.
He said the sudden influx of Black firsts in various levels of government in major cities is encouraging, but he urged protesters to “keep fighting hard.”
“When we settle for just having ‘a first’ and not a second, third and fourth, then that’s when we lose the fight,” he said. “Don’t just settle for the lip service without action. Continue to hold their feet to the fire.”
“Don’t settle for the crumbs and don’t let them forget the promises they made to us. Our leaders need to know that we’re watching and that we’re going to remain vigilant,” he added.
Still, “the share of nonwhites in the United States is nearly double that of the country’s legislative body (39% vs. 22%),” Pew Research reported.
Congress also continues to be a white-dominated workplace from the top to the bottom with people of color representing just 11% of top staff members in senators’ Washington offices, according to a recent study by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.
The center said this is extremely problematic because top aides are the ones who draft legislation, coordinate public communications and vet nominees for executive branch posts and lifetime judgeships.
Learn from past movements
Black Americans and allies across the globe have joined together this year in the fight against systemic racism and police brutality and were aided, in larger quantities than the past, by white allies, who helped push the Black Lives Matter movement into overdrive.
In addition to helping to push forward more Black firsts, the current generation of protesters have made it cool to be intellectually aware, or “woke” about, systemic racism and how it affects their daily lives, advocates said.
“The current movement has helped young people realize the importance of holding leaders to their promises on diversity and inclusion,” Garretson said. “This movement has forced everyday people to realize the importance of government and people are making their voices heard. That’s what feels different this time.”
Garretson, who is one of just a handful of Black woman freeholders in New Jersey, said the “trendiness” is helpful, but she urged everyday people to be realistic about their protest commitments and to promote change in whatever small way possible.
She said the easiest and simplest form of protest is voting faithfully across all branches of government and getting involved with so-called affinity groups to support minority groups and their interests.
But it all hinges on promoting diverse groups of leaders and making sure they open the door for the next generations, Garretson said.
“In the past, the silent majority has been able to change the outcome of pivotal elections. And now, with the ongoing social and political situation, our silent majority is once again being awakened, and they’re becoming more aware and informed about the very issues that have suppressed Black people for way too long,” she said.
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