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Commentary: Teachable moments happen too often

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 10 2009 - As an educator of law students, I am always looking for creative ways to teach important legal and philosophical principles. It is essential to ponder how the law developed and how historical values and doctrines evolved. Discussions of race and poverty are constant themes in our clinic where we focus on representing the poor with various legal challenges.

Using news events to further our discussions is an extremely useful tool to encourage dialog that challenges our upbringing, our core values and our perspectives. So, when a prominent African-American Harvard professor is arrested in his own home and a prominent white board member of the ACLU uses the “N” word for the third time and is asked to resign, I am so disappointed school is not in session. But teachable moments don’t have to occur in the classroom.

Whenever I am asked to speak about why I became a lawyer or why I choose to defend those accused of crimes, I always tell two stories.

When my brother was in college, he worked for the Foot Locker at the Galleria. At the time, the standard uniform was a referee shirt and black pants. One evening, when his shift ended, he went to our dad’s car in the parking garage to leave. While searching for his keys in his pocket, he thought maybe he left them in the car. He looked in the window, not there. As he tried to wrack his memory for where he left those keys, two police cars pulled up with sirens blaring and cornered him.

Two officers got out, guns drawn, screaming for him to get down on the ground. They cursed at him to not move and cuffed him with his hands behind his back. Terrified, he prayed he would live through this moment and feared his boss would witness his humiliation. After running his name and realizing no warrants were outstanding, they then verified that he worked at the mall and called my father to see if his car had been stolen.

He explained, “My son was the last person to have it.”

The officer then said, “Well, a black man has it now.”

My father responded, “My son is black.”

A few years before this incident, my brother and I went shopping at a local department store for clothing. As we entered the store and browsed the various racks of jeans and shirts, a middle-age saleswoman approached us and asked if we needed any help.

We replied, “Just looking.” This woman followed us around the store keeping a safe distance yet clearly watching our every move. I became enraged and wanted to confront her, but my brother calmly said, “Please, let’s just go.”

I insisted that we purchase several outfits to prove we could afford these items and were worthy customers. Our mom had given us her credit card, as she had done so many times in the past. After signing for the card and bagging up our clothes, we joked about how that lady must have been flabbergasted we could afford to buy all the items and pondered whether she was ashamed for her mistrusting ways.

As we approached the porch to our childhood home, my mom met us at the door, furious. She had just received a call from Dillard’s security advising that her credit card had been stolen and was being used by two suspicious young people. Of course she knew we had her card and advised that she gave the card to her children. Security assured her these two could not have been her children.

We all just looked at each other. Then my brother went up to his room and shut the door. Growing up in a multiracial family shaped my perspective. Although I, a white woman, had done teenage things that warranted police involvement, I was never arrested, pulled over or harassed. And yet, my black brother who grew up in the same family, regularly experienced bigotry and racial profiling.

This is why I became a lawyer and now teach those who want to become lawyers. These experiences ignited in me a desire for justice, for fairness and for equal rights under the law. These experiences drove me to defend the accused, the harassed and those terrorized by racial profiling. And though I have been an attorney for 15 years, every day these incidents continue to occur. Everyday.

And my brother’s anger, distrust and fear, haunt him, every day. So while Americans talk about the Harvard professor being arrested in his home, I want them to talk about the young black man we all watch on the side of the road having his car searched in a traffic stop, hands cuffed behind his back on the side of the road for us all to gawk at. Is it possible he is a victim of racial profiling too?

Or the security guard closely following young black teens shopping at the mall to see if they will shoplift the expensive clothes they are trying on and couldn’t possibly afford. We then wonder why teens feel beaten down, angry and unjustly accused.

Teachable moments don’t have to happen just in the classroom. They happen everyday in our neighborhoods, in our schools and in our families. It is time to talk about them all, not just the ones that seem more outrageous than others.

Patricia Harrison is an assistant clinical professor and attorney at Saint Louis University Law School.