No time for black lawyer complacency

Rosemary Emodi says the work of the Society of Black Lawyers, fighting racism and providing positive role models, is as crucial now as it was 25 years ago. Rosemary Emodi is vice chairwoman of the SBL.

The Society of Black Lawyers (SBL) has reached a point in its development where it must take stock of itself.

Established in 1973, its aims and objectives were to enhance the career opportunities of black and Asian people within the legal profession and to provide greater access to those in the process of embarking on a legal career.

In supporting these aims, there was a clear recognition that black and Asian communities would be better served by a progressive legal service, more attuned to their particular needs and designed to protect their civil rights and liberties.

The SBL was founded, in large measure, as a remedy to racism. Recent events have shown us that the reasons for its creation are as compelling today as they were 25 years ago.

For over two decades, the SBL leadership has created, implemented and sustained community service projects, justice programs and campaigns.

The society was instrumental in securing the adoption of equal opportunity policy statements by both the Law Society and the General Counsel of the Bar.

These accomplishments, however, have not come easily. They have come in the face of hostility and opposition from the Establishment.

But in spite of this, the SBL – fiercely independent, ever aggressive and totally confident of its mission – has been a bridge over troubled waters for members and black and Asian communities for many years.

Should the society be proud? Of course. But what about tomorrow? Our pride must not lead to complacency. Do we care about the future of law? Can our communities have peace without justice? Does the system of legal education and training have a special obligation to foster change?

Are black and Asian lawyers and law students paranoid in raising these issues? Or is it more like William Burroughs' observation that "paranoia is being in possession of all of the facts".

When the SBL began, there was a fear in the minds of the Establishment. What does the SBL need now? It needs permanent space. It needs more full-time staff.

It needs the support of its members to instill its proven values more broadly and more deeply. It needs to strategically place black and Asian lawyers and law students in their communities.

The SBL needs to be better able to offer black and Asian children a reasonable role model, to compete with drug dealers who are now winning the war for the affection and attention of our children.

It also needs help to eradicate "the hidden obstacles to black success". Intellectual development, enhanced performance and competitive drive are the results of a positive expectancy, which the SBL is uniquely situated to provide.

Jeff Howard and Ray Hammond, writing in the New Republic, put it this way: "When economic necessity and the demands of social justice compel us towards social change, those who have the most to gain from change – or the most to lose from its absence – should be responsible for pointing the way."

This will be the future of the SBL. Never giving up its advocacy, never abandoning its radical approach, never failing to confront orthodoxy, but doing all it can to make intellectual achievement as credible an expectancy for its members as economic or political attainment.

The SBL must make black and Asian lawyers and law students sensitive to who they are and their responsibility to their communities. We cannot avoid or escape it.

Indeed, our very future and lifeblood depends on it.

We must make the decision to help each other, and push to the very edge, those decision-makers in legal institutions to be sensitive and responsive to the needs of black and Asian people in Britain.