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The Race Card

The Race Card - Trolls - Seattle Criminal Lawyer Blog

Since I am relatively new to this whole blogging thing I am still learning. I have a lot to learn.

For example, until recently I thought trolls were only something you found in scary fairy tales. But I am getting lots of random nasty comments from sad people with nothing to do all day other than spew venom online. I don’t have time for that type of thing.

I am way too busy working my tail off trying to help people solve their legal problems, being a good father and husband, shopping for groceries and cooking and cleaning and everything else it takes to lead a productive successful life. And, occasionally, having a little fun doing this stuff.

But spew at people I don’t know? Why on earth would I ever want to do that? I have a life. So, I don’t.

That said… heh heh… although they are called trolls I think they should be called Neanderthals. Cave men. That’s because they must be living in caves to think some of the things they think. And to have time to do what they do.

I mean, I have a view to keep me occupied.

In particular these cave dwellers like to say things like: “Way to play the Race Card!” Hmm. I always have to scratch my head when I hear people talk about the “Race Card”. I am not sure what they mean.

Do they mean that I notice people are different races? Notice that sometimes people of one race don’t like people of another race? Notice that sometimes that causes problems for our society? Or is it just that I refuse to pretend that race is not an issue in modern America?

Because, believe you me, racism is alive and well in America today. And if you don’t see that you must be living in a cave.

You may well ask what does this have to do with criminal law? And, if you are a cave dweller that might be understandable. You probably don’t get out much. But if you did, or if you had a TV or internet access, you would see gazillions of examples of it every day. You could even read my blogs where I have talked about it in specific cases, like Baltimore or Richard Sherman.

Why are things this way? I don’t know. As usual. I see the way things are, but I don’t automatically know why things are the way they are.

But it bothers me.

A good friend of mine, Jeff Robinson, whom I have mentioned before, is an expert on this issue. That’s because he is black. And, like Obama, he is a Harvard Lawyer. Jeff can’t help the fact that he didn’t go to Stanford Law, so I will let that go. Still, he is a fantastic lawyer and keen observer of the world around him.

He likes to say that he has no idea what white people talk about when they get together because he has never been and never will be in a room full of white people. After all, if he is in the room, there’s a black guy there. So not a room full of white people. Simplistic maybe, but it makes his point.

He also talks about times, which I have also mentioned before, when he was at Harvard and driving through areas of Boston late at night with some classmates when the white driver was pulled over for something. Since it is Harvard he was often the only black guy in the car.

More than once the cops pulled Jeff out of the car to frisk him and shake him down a bit, wondering what a black guy like him was doing with respectable people like these. And trust me, Jeff is one of the classiest most intelligent and eminently respectable people I know.

I respect the heck out of him. And so does the ACLU, which just appointed him to head up their Center for Justice, headquartered back in New York. I am so happy for that, but a bit sad that I won’t be seeing him around to get some needed insight on the occasional case we may have shared (like a major international smuggling conspiracy we once worked on). He’s a gem.

I know I may be rambling so let me try to explain this in a way that you can understand, especially if you are busy getting ready to sketch some pretty line drawings of antelope on your cave walls.

I was picking a jury once in Island County. My client was Mexican. I had NO intention of making a big deal about that. However, our defense was mistaken identity. They had the wrong Mexican in other words.

In most cases, during jury selection, I try to find out how inherently biased prospective jurors might be against any criminal defendant by asking this question:  “When you first walked in here and heard what the charges were and looked over at me and my client, what did you think?”

I ask that no matter what my client looks like. It is not about that. It is an attempt to get them to answer honestly and say what they were really thinking. Which is generally, “I thought he was guilty.” Or “I was wondering how a nice guy like you could represent a scumbag like that.”

Or even one time, when I had an especially presentable client, “I thought you were the client and your client was your lawyer.” Ouch, that stung. But I was able to use that one to help dig into the need to presume people innocent and not make snap judgments since they can be wrong. Very wrong.

In this case I had a Mexican accused of, among about a million other things, what most people would call Armed Robbery (actually Robbery First Degree with Firearm Enhancement).

One man put his hand up and said, “I was thinking that he looked exactly like a thug who robbed me at knifepoint when I was walking through Mexico City one night.” OOPS.  Now I’ve got a problem, I thought.

Although I had been determined not to play the “race card”, whatever that is, now I had no choice. So we began talking about it. About how they might feel if they were sitting in a courtroom in Mexico City, falsely accused of a crime they did not commit, facing a jury composed entirely of Mexicans, and one of the jurors said that they looked just like some Gringo that had robbed them when they were visiting their cousin in Chicago last year.

Would they be at all concerned about getting a fair trial? (You might ask yourself the same question.)

Just then a woman in the back row put up her hand. “Excuse me,” she said. I hate losing control of the room like that, but hey, I couldn’t exactly ignore her.

“Yes?” I inquired.

“Well, I just want to say that I resent what you are doing up there.”

“Uh… excuse me? Do you mean asking these questions or…?”

She cut me off: “PLAYING THE RACE CARD!” A bunch of the other jurors nodded their heads in agreement and murmured approval at this wise observation. It must have been get out of your cave free day.

I’ll admit it. I pride myself on never letting this happen, but for a moment I was flummoxed. I mean, did she not see what the guy had just said about being robbed by someone who looked just like my client, who was accused of Robbery for crying out loud, and not see how that might be cause for concern? So I asked her that. But try as I might I could not get her, nor most of the rest of them for that matter, to stop repeating that stupid phrase, apparently incapable of seeing what was happening there right in front of their eyes.

So, that experience may have colored (pun intended) my view somewhat. Because whenever I hear someone utter the phrase “Race Card” I remember that woman. Unable to process the obvious problem happening right there in that courtroom, the way my client’s right to a fair trial was being denied by the negative perception of his race, actually being a potential juror responsible for deciding the poor guy’s fate, yet unable to do anything more than repeat a cute phrase that was completely irrelevant to what was actually going on.

And that is what I think of the Race Card. It is a meaningless phrase uttered by people who refuse to see what is happening right in front of them, preferring to regurgitate clichés rather than do the hard work involved in making our society fair and accessible to all.

Oh, and trolls, before you all go nuts, I know it was more the Cro Magnon than Neanderthals who lived in caves. I just like the sound of it better.

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