Faculty from Elon Law and Duke Law joined with the CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro to share with students how structural barriers hinder opportunities for many people in marginalized communities.
Three experts in the fields of poverty, criminal justice, and housing explained how governments and private industry can perpetuate economic inequality when they delivered online presentations for an Elon Law program commemorating the life of an American civil rights icon.
“MLK Teach-In: The Criminalization of Poverty” on January 22, 2021, celebrated the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with Zoom remarks by Michelle Gethers-Clark, president and CEO of the United Way of Greater Greensboro; Professor and Senior Scholar Steve Friedland of Elon Law; and Jesse Hamilton McCoy II, the senior lecturing fellow and supervising attorney of the Civil Justice Clinic at Duke Law.
The interactive discussions on Zoom allowed all three speakers to query guests on questions related to their areas of expertise such as: which comes first, having no money or being hungry? Is it worse to have a conviction for marijuana possession, unpaid traffic tickets, or failure to appear in court? What is your definition of “home”?
In speaking about the United Way of Greater Greensboro, Gethers-Clark described the holistic approach undertaken by local Family Success Centers to bring together a collection of resources under one roof to assist clients like one man who had been using a blue Rubbermaid cooler as a refrigerator for his young child’s formula.
It was either pay rent, or pay the power bill. And it wasn’t that the man didn’t want to work, Gethers-Clark said. He was simply being denied full-time employment where benefits would be made available. Employers had no problem with his performance in part-time positions.
Disparities in education, income, wealth, health, and housing fall along racial lines, she added. As King argued, addressing economic well being requires addressing roots of systemic racism. But it can be done if people realize that poverty isn’t about a lack of work ethic.
“Join me in changing the narrative,” Gethers-Clark said. “Please, as you get your law degrees, as you figure out what you want to do, think about the idea that generational poverty is real around the world, and what is it that we can do to change that.”
Friedland spoke of various ways in which the criminal justice system can make it impossible to escape generational poverty. Those who are poor are most at risk, he said. Unpaid traffic tickets can lead to the suspension of a driver’s license, which can make it impossible to get to work or even land someone in jail if stopped by police.
If poor, that person may not have even known his or her license had been suspended, Friedland said. After all, people experiencing poverty may need to change addresses frequently, leading to court notices that are never delivered.
Combined with probation and parole systems that can be stacked against the poor, and interactions with law enforcement trained to handle violence but not mental health or psychological trauma, the courtroom can be a place that contributes to inescapable poverty.
“We need to teach police and prosecutors to have empathy,” Friedland said. “Good lawyers know where everyone else is coming from. That’s being empathetic. … How can we make community safety more effective so that we don’t create these cycles of poverty?”
And while housing is one of the most traditional ways of building wealth, McCoy said that for the Black community, for many years denied access to properties in white neighborhoods or even the benefit of bank mortgages, the legacy of racism lingers. Evictions disproportionately harm people of color.
“I challenge each and every one of you to go into an eviction court in your county, in your state, and just take a look at who the people are who are being evicted. I can almost assure you that the people being evicted look just like me,” McCoy said. “This is a system, and the system is working in the way that it was designed to operate.
“What’s important is that the law itself is also a system. You are uniquely positioned. If you know how to engineer a system’s specifications, then you also know how to revamp and repair a system where it is needed. That’s where you come in.”
A law license is essentially a driver’s license to power, he said. Once a lawyer, students will be less than six degrees of separation from those who make decisions. Be thoughtful with how you use your education.
“At the end of the day, what you choose to do with your law license is going to be up to you,” McCoy said. “One thing I never want any law student to believe is there aren’t significant societal issues going on right outside the campus that need to be addressed.”