Law in Contemporary Society
-- JenniferGreen - 09 Mar 2010

One of the most offensive slurs a Black person can call another Black person is an “Uncle Tom”. Taken from the leading character in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, Uncle Tom – through his subservience to his slave masters and other white authority figures in his life – represents acquiescence to the peculiar institution of slavery. The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, so any modern-day analogies are merely metaphorical. Yet, especially in the context of this course, the inquiry is a worthwhile one: are there 21st century “peculiar institutions” that threaten to enslave us, as law students, and evoke our inner Uncle Tom?

I believe this inquiry transcends race, ethnicity and cultural background; however, it would be disingenuous of me to suggest that it doesn’t apply with special force to those from historically disadvantaged racial and ethnic groups. In my experience and the experience of colleagues, family members and friends, minorities carry two, sometimes competing, burdens. As my parents used to say to me as a child, “When you leave this house, you are a reflection of this family.” This proposition is not surprising; we are undoubtedly a reflection of our parents, especially while we still reside under their roof. As an African-American, this notion extends beyond the confines of the family structure – not only do you feel pressure that you are a representative of your family, but you are also a reflection of your race. Perhaps this phenomenon, pervasive in the Black community, is internally imposed and not at all a reflection of societal expectations. Still, it is consistently reflected in topics of discussion that intersect all areas of life – the arts and politics, to name a few.

For example, the Washington Post ran a story yesterday on what the fall of two of Harlem’s favorite sons – Rangel and Patterson – means for not only the Black Harlem political machine, but also Blacks in general. One commentator interviewed for the article said, “I think it's been catastrophic for the black community in America and particularly in Harlem”. And we need only look to yesterday’s Academy Awards, where Mo’Nique was awarded an Oscar for her role in Precious, and the ensuing conversation about what it means that Black women have consistently been recognized by the Academy for being mammies, whores, and welfare dependents, to understand that the phenomenon extends across all social milieus.

With this backdrop in mind, the young ambitious Black law student, aspiring towards upward mobility not only for her family but also for her “community” (a euphemism for race), tries to make sense of the messages streaming in from all directions. In one of our discussions earlier in the semester, I very much appreciated Eben’s implied recognition of these competing interests when I made a comment alluding to them. He essentially cautioned against pursuing “success”, be it financial or otherwise, to the detriment of your “community”. Still, trying to distill what it means to attempt to reconcile the interests and put the advice into practice leaves one with various shades of gray. I have ultimately decided that I will be guided by these various interests, including my own self-interest, to varying degrees during different points in my life, based on ever-evolving and changing circumstances. One of my favorite songs is Drake’s, “Successful”, with the lyrics “I just wanna be…successful.” Let’s face it, we all do. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. For me, if there is a peculiar institution that I can ultimately become a slave to, it is the idea of success itself. While one should never pursue failure, or function below their potential, I think a healthy approach is to define your own definition of success that you are personally satisfied with and, more broadly, constantly self-evaluate what you are willing to sacrifice to achieve its traditional indicators. To the extent that we can never please everyone 100%, it can be argued that we will always be selling out. The important thing, though, is not to sell out yourself.

Jennifer, I appreciate you bringing up this topic as it is one that means a lot to me. I come from a different background, and don't have the same perspective, but have thought about some of the same issues. In particular, I remember a specific discussion I had in the middle of August, right before moving into my law school apartment. A few of my (Latino) friends took me out for drinks as a "farewell" (since I was leaving Queens and moving to Manhattan) and at the end of the night, one of my best friends pulled me aside and told me not to forget where I came from.

This may seem like cliche advice, but it really hit home for me. As a Cuban-American, I am torn between wanting to be successful for myself on behalf of my community, but at the same time not forgetting "where I came from". I want to demonstrate to my younger cousins that they can be "successful" and live comfortable lives where they don't need to worry about where the next meal is coming from, but at the same time don't want to take actions that will hurt them. The housing fiasco disproportionately affected South Florida, with its large Cuban-American community, so talking about the role lawyers played in creating it was eye-opening and a bit depressing for me. I don't want to be one of those lawyers. At the same time, I want to provide the stability for my family that so many Cuban Americans unfortunately never have.

One of the things that this class has really forced me to think about more than ever before is a way that I can balance my two goals - success (prestige and material wealth) and giving back to my community. I am still struggling with finding a way to do this. I still have a long ways to go. But realizing that "selling out" can have a tangible bad impact on my community, as well as on Americans that aren't in the top 10% in general, has been an important step.

-- DavidGoldin



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r4 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:26:24 - IanSullivan
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