I am a law professor who specializes in clinical legal education. My students, under my supervision, are authorized to represent clients, all of whom are indigent, all of whom have criminal records, and the vast majority of whom have been stigmatized throughout their lives. As numerous commentators, pundits and scholars have explained over the past week or so, there are many lessons to be learned from Shirley Sherrod’s ousting from the U.S Department of Agriculture; although, as expected, there is significant disagreement on what these lessons should be.
Ms. Sherrod’s ousting conveys powerful lessons for the legal profession. These lessons should resonate particularly for lawyers who work on behalf of indigent clients, whether the clients are applying for public benefits, fighting an eviction proceeding, accused of a crime or facing a deportation proceeding. The voices of these clients are often muted by systems that are conditioned to cycle them through expeditiously rather than learning who they are, and whose stories are heard only in fragments, if at all. Rather, these individuals often have to react to narratives that have been thrust upon them; narratives that are often incomplete, and therefore inaccurate or worse. Also, these narratives are both narrow and broad. They are narrow because they reduce the client’s situation, and sometimes their lives, to snippets or sound bites. They are broad because these snippets are often constructed within a context that has nothing or little to do with these individuals.
While not completely analogous, there are striking similarities between the ways in which Ms. Sherrod and my clients have been treated. The narrative that was thrust upon Ms. Sherrod–her racial animus towards whites caused her to slight a white farmer who sought assistance–was forced upon her by Andrew Breitbart. As a result, Mr. Breitbart constructed and controlled the story, which powerful decision makers–the Administration, the NAACP and much of the media, among others–reacted to. These decision makers fell right into the trap. As in many situations in which decision makers or other actors feel the need to make a point publicly, they rushed to judgment reflexively and unreflectively. Although Ms. Sherrod wanted to tell her story, initially she was not allowed to do so. She was muted and, as a result, voiceless. Even worse, she was forced to resign, which implied guilt even though, as it turned out, she was guilty of nothing. Fortunately for Ms. Sherrod, she was soon able to tell her story, one that she had conveyed beautifully in the speech she gave to the NAACP. She had strong advocates, such as Donna Brazile, who helped her access the television networks that soon aired her narrative, and various members of the civil rights community, who vouched for Ms. Sherrod’s integrity and lifelong commitment to helping farmers throughout the U.S. In the end, the truth unfolded and those who rushed to judgment expressed genuine remorse.
The lessons that I hope to convey to my students, many of whom are working in communities that are completely unfamiliar to them and with individuals whose overall life and daily experiences are vastly different than theirs, are manifold. First, they have to gather the complete story–they have to find the facts–before they decide how to react to the narrative that has been constructed. Second, they have to understand the broader context within which these narratives were created. The context is often steeped in history, the communities in which the clients reside, and the machinations of the various systems that are often involved in the clients’ lives. Third, they can never judge their clients. As Ms. Sherrod’s episode teaches, other actors and institutions impose their judgments. The lawyer has to advocate for and support the client. Fourth, the lawyer must counter the narrative that has been imposed upon the client. Last, lawyers must work for broader change. It is simply not enough that Ms. Sherrod was able to tell her story, that various decision makers apologized, and that she was offered a new position with the Department of Agriculture. These actions do not contemplate the broader reforms that are necessary to ensure that the distortions, lies and mistakes that she has been forced to endure do not repeat themselves.