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‘No One Can Combat Racism Alone’

February 08, 2021

When Morgan Lewis formed its Mobilizing for Equality Task Force, it was a natural way for associate James Nortey to bring his community activism to the firm. As a leader of the Community Engagement & Volunteerism working group on the task force, James shares the knowledge he’s gained over the last decade, detailing ways to be an ally in the fight for racial justice. He serves on the board for the Texas Civil Rights Project, was a 2020 Pathfinder for the Leadership Council on Legal Diversity, and volunteered with the Citizens Police Academy in Austin, Texas to foster a dialogue on systemic racism. Here, James shares how the events of the last year have intensified his work for equity.

2020 saw a lot of people rise to the call to act for racial justice. How did you answer the call?

Whether in person or through virtual platforms, I believe that conversations that raise awareness, build alliances, lead to action, and develop accountability measures are ways we can make a difference. I chose to answer the call by serving on the board of directors for the Texas Civil Rights Project, promoting restorative justice practices in schools (in lieu of overly punitive disciplinary measures), and participating in socially distant vehicle protests outside a detention center in South Texas.

That wasn’t your first foray into community activism. What are some other ways you’ve volunteered or gotten involved?

Ever since the murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012, I’ve been heavily engaged in this effort. I’ve found personal success by combining direct action via protests with intentional conversations about racial inclusion. After a few racially charged incidents that occurred in my neighborhood (including one where the police were called because a Senegalese neighbor appeared “suspicious” for no reason), I helped organize neighborhood meetings to discuss race relations in the community.

What have those opportunities taught you as a person?

Upon reflection of a fleeting microaggression or a flagrant act of racial violence, there is almost always a collective sense of shock, outrage, and sadness. It is important to sit with those emotions. But, there are also opportunities for a collective sense of ownership. People of good faith can be resolved that despite differences in experiences and identities, we can decide what we will and will not tolerate. We have the power to decide if we are going to take action to correct racial injustice and make this right.

What advice do you have for others looking to get involved, but don’t know where to start?

Undoing racial injustice can seem like scaling a daunting mountain. I recommend approaching this topic like a ladder with small, but deliberate, steps. First, raise awareness by educating yourself first and then others. One way to do this is to start by reading articles or books and listening to podcasts to understand the history of racism in our communities, how it manifests in lawful and seemingly innocuous ways, and how each of us may unknowingly be further cementing racial injustice with our actions (or inaction). But don’t stop there.

The next step is to build alliances. No one person can combat racism alone. Consider joining a group such as one run by your company or an external community organization committed to advancing racial justice. The wider the diversity of people discussing and challenging racism, the more it helps to deconstruct the notion that racism is a problem for people of color only. But again, don’t stop there.

Take action. Show up to conversations and meetings about racial justice. Give your time, talent, or treasure to organizations that are demonstrably tackling racial injustice.

How has Morgan Lewis supported your efforts in this area?

I am incredibly grateful that the firm launched the Mobilizing for Equality Task Force with its 14 individual working groups focused on a variety of key priorities, including education and opportunity, voting rights, antiracism, and law enforcement policy. I serve on the task force as one of the co-leads for the Community Engagement & Volunteerism working group, where we foster and track opportunities for volunteerism for racial justice across the firm. Additionally, as one of the Associate Representatives for the ML Black Lawyer Network, we have endeavored to create safe support structures to promote the well-being and professional development of Black lawyers.

James Nortey