The year 2016 was an interesting one. On the positive side, as a city, we witnessed the Cubs win the World Series, bringing an end to a 108-year wait. Five million people from all different backgrounds lined the streets and celebrated without incident in Grant Park, marking one of the largest gatherings in human history.
On the negative side, as a country, we experienced something far less joyful. We witnessed a wave of unapologetic rhetoric of prejudice against women, blacks, Hispanics, Muslims and other minority groups.
The rhetoric itself, unfortunately, was nothing new. Indeed, our country has a long and complicated history with prejudice against minority groups. But many of us believed that our country had been advancing toward a more inclusive and representative society with the prejudicial rhetoric resigned to the fringes.
Perhaps that was our collective naïveté.
For what led many to believe the country was moving forward also served as a call to action for others threatened by this very progress. As a result, the damaging rhetoric experienced a resurgence of sorts, becoming more acceptable and normal, even mainstream in areas of the country.
Unfortunately, we are beginning to see some of the results of this rhetoric — an increase in hate crimes and hate speech and the disenfranchisement and palpable fearfulness of people (adults and children) from minority groups.
What we have learned from the rhetoric of the last year is that, as a country, we still have significant work to do toward bettering our society for all people. Uncovering the depth of the discrimination is critical because we cannot work on a problem unless we recognize its existence.
I say these things not as a grand political statement that is meant to shame anyone about the candidate they voted for or their party affiliation. Frankly, that is irrelevant. At the core of discrimination is not politics or political systems but the human heart.
Part of the cause of discrimination, in whatever form, is viewing groups that are different from us as “others.” This “otherness” allows us to separate ourselves from our humanity.
The issue of sexism is not a female issue. The issue of racism is not a black or Hispanic issue. The issue of Islamophobia is not a Muslim issue. These issues are all human issues that should concern us regardless of our gender, the color of our skin or our religion.
As a legal community, we should all be intimately concerned about the rhetoric of the last year. Why? Because we are the upholders of justice and the guardians of the legal system. Let us not forget that we belong to a noble profession. Each of us, in our own way, contributes to the administration of justice.
It does not matter whether you are a plaintiff’s attorney or defense attorney, a judge or an educator or whether your clients are individuals or corporations. What matters is that we all have a responsibility to work together toward a just society where people are not treated differently because of their gender, race, religion or other factor.
A society where we do not have to be a member of the target group to advocate for equality. A society where a man defends a woman, a white person defends a black person and a Christian defends a Muslim.
This advocacy for justice starts in our homes, our communities and our country and ultimately extends to the rest of the world. Let us reflect on the lessons we learned last year, recognize that there is still a lot of work to do and be at the forefront of putting an end to divisive discriminatory rhetoric and behavior.
As Martin Luther King Jr. stated: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”