Lindsey Draper recalls that when he was a student at Marquette Law School, he would sometimes pause to look at photos of previous graduating classes. He would have a hard time spotting anyone who was African American like him.
As Draper (L ’75) looked out at about 50 people, many of them African Americans who are current law students, in Eisenberg Hall Wednesday evening, he agreed that the situation, not only in the Law School but across the American scene, has improved for black people in recent decades.
But Draper, who went on to be an assistant district attorney and a court commissioner in Milwaukee County, and three other community leaders emphasized how far things still have to go before it can be rightly said that America has become a “post-racial” society. The four took part in a panel discussion on the state of black America sponsored by the Black Law Students Association.
There are still gaps, huge and small, between the opportunities and circumstances of white and black people in the United States, the panelists agreed. The election of Barack Obama as president is a milestone, and he and his wife, Michelle, provide powerful role models for black youth, the panelists agreed. But, as much as a black president was unimaginable a few years ago, his election was only one step toward change.
To Margaret Henningsen, co-founder and vice president of Legacy Bank, the continuing problem shows up in what she perceives as more attention her bank gets from federal regulators (“13 white guys in suits,” as she described the auditors who come in frequently) than a white-owned bank would get. To Draper, the problem can be seen in a white person he works with in his current position as a consultant to the state Office of Justice Assistance. The colleague can’t bring himself to refer to Obama as president, but has lots of other pejorative labels for the Commander-in-Chief. To Ald. Willie Hines, president of the Milwaukee Common Council, it can be seen in the large number of foreclosed homes in his central city district. To Judge Charles N. Clevert Jr., chief judge for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, it can be seen in reports on nationwide statistics on racial gaps in economic opportunity and anecdotes from friends who say they are still not given work as readily as comparably qualified white people.
“People expect more from us,” Henningsen said. Hines responded that it isn’t fair, but, if necessary, black people need to work “as hard as it takes” to succeed in careers. “If it’s twice as hard (as white people), so be it,” he said.
Clevert said anyone who is new or different in a workplace or other situation is going to stand out and get more scrutiny. He urged African Americans seeking jobs to do as much networking as possible, and to handle all the details carefully when they are given opportunities.
Henningsen said that black youth need more role models. She urged each person in the audience to seek out 10 students they can encourage and help.
Clevert said that by 2050, America is projected to be a nation where white people will be in the minority, so it is in the nation’s interest to pursue paths that improve the picture of opportunity. “We have to become less racist, and I think we are on the way to a more tolerant society,” he said.