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UH Law Center seminar on race emphasizes implicit bias training, pipeline programs and dialogue

June 24, 2020 - Three University of Houston Law Center alumni discussed racism in society at large, how it can be addressed in the legal profession, their own personal experiences and a number of similar wide-ranging topics during a recent town hall, "Racism and What To Do About it."

The panel, held via Zoom last Thursday, was sponsored by the Law Center’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee, which is co-chaired by Professor Meredith Duncan, the George Butler Research Professor of Law and Assistant Dean of Diversity, Inclusion and Metropolitan Programs and Clinical Professor Geoffrey Hoffman, director of the Immigration Clinic.

It was in commemoration of Juneteenth, when Union general Gordon Granger read federal orders in Galveston on June 19, 1865 that all previously enslaved people in Texas were free, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Seminar Screenshot

Dean Leonard M. Baynes served as moderator.

"We've been rocked by the death of Houston native George Floyd, while he was in police custody in Minneapolis," Baynes said in his welcoming remarks. "We have also seen the deaths of Breonna Taylor in Louisville and Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, among other events.

"Even with all of the University of Houston Law Center's achievements in diversity, we recognize that there is so much more we can do."

The featured speakers were:

  • Kirk Dobbins ’93, Vice President and Regional Counsel of Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Ore.
  • Tiana Sanford ‘08, Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney
  • Richard Craig Smith LL.M. ‘00 a partner at Quinn Emanuel in Washington, D.C.

Among the first questions posed to the panelists was how they have overcome obstacles throughout their personal and professional lives.

Dobbins referenced the term “code-switching,” which helps you communicate effectively as an Africa- American in your neighborhood versus the work world, and how he was taught from an early age that he would have to meet a higher level of expectations than non-minority classmates or colleagues.

“It’s definitely been a journey,” he said. “The exterior may show that we’ve got it made and we haven’t had obstacles, but we all know it took a lot of work. I knew innately I had to do incredibly well and I had to fit in. Fitting in sometimes was awkward, but I made sure I didn’t settle.

“Fit in as much as you can, but as Black people we’re straddling the line of two worlds. We have the way we live and talk at home, but when we’re in school and work we have to be a somewhat different person.”

Sanford added to Dobbins’ point that many of these experiences are universal throughout the Black community. She emphasized the need for having a strong support system to help navigate 

“There is absolutely no way that I would be sitting where I am today if it were not for an incredible village and community,” she said. “They had to be intentional and put in work because they understood the world was not built for me.

“The most difficult part personally and professionally is what is commonly referred to as microaggressions – they happen everywhere. They are the things that happen to us in our spaces that are not explicitly meant to be hurtful or harmful but reflect what the messenger thinks about you simply because of your race.”

Smith said that in order to confront racism in the legal community and beyond, organizations should be encouraged to institute implicit bias training for all employees.

"In addition to talking about it, it needs to be understood that law firms in particular are in the business of making money,” Smith said. “We spend a lot of our time focused on the next deadline, case or challenge. Sometimes we forget to think about bigger societal issues. But the issue of racism needs to be eradicated at its core.

"We all have to understand we have implicit biases, and the problem is not dealing with that bias and it impacts someone's decision-making process."

Dobbins said that in his role at Kaiser Permanente he supports activity to reach out to minority students who might have an interest in pursuing a legal education.

"We are also reaching out to local high schools to identify young men and women who may have an interest in going to law school and bringing them in through internships and externships. We recognize that pipeline programs are critically important not only through financial support, but with time and volunteering with them."

Sanford said that when discussing issues such as police brutality, it is important to use a historical view and apply it to the country’s current state.

"We have to educate ourselves with history and people's voices,” Sanford said. “No matter what you think about where policing is now, it's important to know the history of policing because it puts you in a different perspective to see the world as it is happening now.

“We are not admitting defeat or saying that everybody is a bad person by acknowledging the influence that racism can have. We collectively have to be prepared to be inconvenienced and talk about something uncomfortable. Not everybody is running the same pace."

Click here to watch the complete Juneteenth Virtual Town Hall: "Racism and What To Do About It."

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