Through courtroom litigation, she continued, lawyers can establish narratives that, if endorsed by judge or jury, become legitimated. Ifill noted that this is a particularly significant power right now, in what she described as the “post-truth” era, in which the political divisions in the US include differences not only in ideology, but also in which sets of facts are accepted as truths or dismissed as “fake news.”
In a conversation with Kenji Yoshino, Chief Justice Earl Warren Professor of Constitutional Law and the center’s director, Ifill addressed how the law can be used to shape and preserve civil rights narratives, even the midst of what she called today’s “narrative crisis.”
“There are a set of powerful narratives that have come to define this country in important ways,” Ifill said, referring to the racial justice narratives that emerged from the civil rights movement, such as the stories of the Freedom Rides, the Montgomery bus boycott, and the march across Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. These stories “were created by the real-life engagement of black people who said, ‘We’re not going to accept this anymore,’” Ifill said, explaining that the narrative built by these stories became the dominant understanding of the civil rights movement.
That narrative was so powerful, she continued, that it has been hard for civil rights lawyers to imagine that there might come a time when these civil rights stories would not prevail in the public consciousness. “But other people were creating other narratives,” Ifill said. “And now we’ve reached a culminating phase where there are just false narratives… and this is where law becomes most important.”
Ifill emphasized that it is extremely important for all lawyers—whether they are trial attorneys or sitting judges—to have the ability to probe and review the narrative assumptions that they make, even about their own lives.
She pointed to those who believe that their families achieved economic success solely through hard work, who might not realize that that the US government enabled their parents’ economic stability through the GI Bill, 1944 legislation that helped veterans attend college and purchase homes. Because most black Americans were excluded from the housing provisions of that bill, it contributed to the wealth disparity between white and black populations in the post-war era.
“We need to recognize the ways in which we are none of us here by our own personal merit, but by the work of people who came before,” Ifill said.
In recognizing the work of past civil rights advocates, Ifill contended that it is also imperative for lawyers today to recognize that the narrative of civil rights is not one in a “sepia-toned” past.
“There is an existing apparatus designed to oppress, just as that apparatus was designed to oppress 60 years ago,” she said. Particularly at this moment in American politics, she added, “There is a political structure that is quite interested in reinforcing that apparatus—and so it’s a very dangerous moment indeed.”
Watch the full video of the event (1 hour, 7 min):
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