This has been a very difficult piece to write. For the past several weeks, we have seen front and center systemic racism and its ill effects. We have witnessed one death after another replayed over the news: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, to name just a few. This has disturbed me and affected me profoundly because I am a Black man in the United States.
My thoughts are on the Black children of our nation as they are inundated with images of Black people dying. Their televisions, phones and computer screens confirm the reality of societal racism that threatens their very lives. I recently heard a story of a young Black boy who was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up. His reply was, “If I live. …” And though it pains me to repeat his words, he spoke of a reality that is all too common. Years ago, another grade-school boy dreamed of being a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. His name — George Floyd.
The agony on the faces of Black fathers and mothers has constantly weighed on me and deepens my sadness. I am concerned that we have made so little progress. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked in a book written in 1967, “Where Do We Go From Here?” That question has lingered on my mind, more so in the past few weeks. How do we get children of color to see a future where they are in it; not just alive, but able to pursue their dreams?
As the Presiding Judge of the Seattle Municipal Court (SMC), I recognize that our court, like so many across this country, has significant work to do to tackle the racial injustices within and perpetrated by our criminal justice system. SMC judges are committed to making sure justice reigns in our courthouse. We will be making a sincere effort to hold ourselves accountable for the work we do. We believe there is a path forward to transform ourselves and build a legal system that equitably protects the rights of Black communities and all communities. This work begins with listening to those who have been harmed and including them in our change process. Justice will exist when all people who enter our courtrooms are treated with dignity and feel they were heard.
I am fortunate to work alongside a diverse group of judges — women and men whose identities find roots in our Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Jewish and LGBTQ communities. And, perhaps because of this diversity, I see hope reflected in the faces of people who come into our courtrooms, especially when they see people of color both on the bench and within other positions in the court. SMC is committed to doing much more than just reflect diversity on the bench.
More than one year ago, SMC contracted with the Vera Institute of Justice, a national leader in criminal-justice reform, to review our probation services to see how we can improve and reduce race and social justice inequities. The resulting report provides a list of recommendations, and SMC judges have fully embraced these and already begun to make changes. For crimes involving community safety (e.g. driving under the influence, assault, domestic violence), we refer individuals to our probation services as an alternative to serving jail time and to facilitate access to services including substance abuse, domestic violence or mental-health treatment.
I have also appointed a work group of judges, court leaders and staff to develop recommendations for how we can eliminate racial and gender disparity in all areas of our court. This work will result in specific actions that we will share publicly.
This is still a difficult time for me, but I will get better. I will feel better when Black kids can say and know with certainty that they have a positive future in this country. I will feel better when Black parents do not have to give “the talk” to their children — a talk Black parents have with their sons about how to behave if they are stopped by police. The real proof of change will come when Black kids can grow up without being traumatized for being Black in America and can just be kids, full of hopes, dreams and potential. It will also be healing when all in our community and country can have shared experiences of personal fulfillment.
I am encouraged to see that more and more people are paying attention. It is good to see that people care. But for there to be true change, for Black lives to really matter, white people need to listen to Black people as we reveal the experiences we face each and every day trying to stay alive as a person of color.