Through our partnerships, individual legal representation, impact litigation, and policy advocacy, we work to break down the barriers that prevent members of our communities from accessing basic necessities of life—healthcare, housing, food, employment—in order to increase their opportunities to lead safe and stable lives. Looming large over our work is the knowledge that many of those barriers to safety and stability are not random, arbitrary forces: they originate in, and are driven by, structural racism.
We know that our work is inextricably linked to the larger social, historical, and cultural forces that impact our clients. Those forces are, in turn, linked to America’s history of racial inequality and systemic oppression. The struggle for equal justice demands that we continually renew and deepen the hard work within ourselves and our institutions to ensure that we are doing our part to create a society that is more just and free.
It is no coincidence that, in 2018, 76% of the people BayLegal served were Black, Latinx, and other people of color. This reflects the racial and socio-economic inequities of our nation, and of the region we serve. In the Bay Area, it has been shown that U.S.-born Black residents are three times more likely to live in poverty than White residents, and that Latinx immigrants comprise the largest working-poor population (Whites, meanwhile, are the least likely racial group to comprise the working poor).
Because our work engages with systems of maldistribution—from healthcare to housing to income support—we must examine how we are engaging with those systems, and how we can address the root causes of maldistribution. In 2019 we enlisted the expertise of a diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy, The Mosaic Collaborative, to help us engage in deeper self-inspection and analysis of how we can better embody our commitment to addressing the intrinsic link between racism, social inequality, oppression, and the intergenerational perpetuation of poverty and injustice. A brief, uncomprehensive look at our practice areas underscores why this is important, and why we cannot do this alone.
BayLegal works to address the community impact of mass incarceration—a system with roots in slavery which inordinately impacts Black, Latinx, and other people of color. People seeking to overcome a criminal conviction or arrest history face multiple civil barriers, including in housing, employment, licensing, access to public benefits, and consumer debt. Through direct representation, and by participating in impact litigation and advocating for improvements to public policy, our Reentry Project works to break down the multiplicity of reentry barriers with a holistic approach.
Staff Attorney Andrea Crider described the importance of this approach for the people we represent: “The statistics are clear: people of color are overly represented in the criminal justice system. For the exact same crimes, Black Americans are more likely than Whites to be arrested, charged, wrongfully convicted, and given harsher sentences…. As the majority of these individuals get released back into their communities, now stamped with the stigma of a criminal conviction, they must overcome numerous barriers to their reentry. These collateral consequences are inflicted through laws and by social practices. For example, having a criminal conviction can make it more difficult to find a job, access housing, and achieve economic success. An insidious form of punishment exists when you return home to your community. While you are no longer locked up, you are locked out; you are barred from opportunities that allow you to move on with your life.”
She described the work of the Reentry Unit as tackling “intersections of overlapping systems of discrimination,” which result in stacked legal barriers. As a case in point, she recalled her work with one client, who was “struggling to get back their driver’s license because they did not show up for a traffic ticket hearing during a period of time they were incarcerated,” and who also needed help with an employment denial due to their criminal record.
As with so many of our practice areas, this work has often required an interdisciplinary approach. For instance, we have worked across practice areas to tackle unfair municipal fines and fees, which have an inordinate impact on Black communities and other people of color in both the civil and criminal arenas. In 2019, the Reentry Unit collaborated with our Consumer Protection Unit and San Francisco’s Financial Justice Project to reform the City of San Francisco’s fines and fees system. As a result, the San Francisco Traffic Court agreed not to collect $92 million in debts owed to the court. The Court also agreed to work with the DMV to lift holds on driver’s licenses of 88,000 defendants who failed to appear in court, and to implement an online ability-to-pay process to reduce traffic fines for low-income defendants.
Through impact litigation, our staff has worked to break down the barrier of criminal conviction history for people seeking employment—a barrier that is exacerbated by racial discrimination. In late 2016, the West Contra Costa School district denied our client, Walter Killian, employment as a custodian because of a 20-year-old conviction that he thought had been removed from his record. BayLegal represented Mr. Killian and the Safe Return Project, and in collaboration with the Impact Fund reached a landmark settlement. The settlement resulted in important changes to the School District’s hiring practices to ensure that job applicants with prior convictions have a fair chance to obtain employment.
Our litigation has also worked to address the inordinate impact of municipal towing practices on our Bay Area communities—practices that disproportionately impact Black and Latinx communities in the Bay Area. These “poverty tows,” and the attendant ticket and tow fees, leave many vehicle owners unable to retrieve their cars, and result in the loss of a valuable asset (often their most valuable possession), a link to jobs, and for some unhoused people, a primary residence. BayLegal has filed two lawsuits challenging this practice (Smith v. Reiskin; and Coalition on Homelessness v. City of SF). Those suits, led by BayLegal’s litigation team, and co-counsel from the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights, and Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP, seek to stop San Francisco from towing cars solely to collect unpaid parking tickets. In 2018, the court issued a preliminary injunction and cast significant doubt on the constitutionality of such tows.
At the levels of individual advocacy and impact litigation, our firm has worked to address the housing affordability and scarcity crisis that continues to consume our state, and which has contributed to gentrification, housing displacement and racial segregation across the Bay Area. This crisis has historical precedent in racist federal government policies that spurred housing discrimination and segregation in the Bay Area and across the U.S. Over the last ten years, we have seen the rate of housing displacement escalate throughout our communities, and especially in the City of Richmond. A recent study by the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, for instance, published alarming data showing that the Black population in Richmond decreased by 35% between the years 2000 and 2013. When a landlord association filed suit in 2017 to prevent a recently adopted Rent Control and Just Cause for Evictions Ordinance in Richmond, BayLegal successfully intervened to defend it and stem the tide of displacement, protecting the rights of as many as 90,000 Richmond families.
BayLegal’s Domestic Violence Prevention Unit works to empower survivors with the resources they need to build safe and stable lives free of abuse. Those cases engage with the inequitable conditions within both familial and societal bonds that keep people trapped in cycles of violence and trauma. Indeed, the inequities of intimate partner violence cannot be viewed outside of the context of racial injustice. Studies continue to show elevated patterns of sexual and intimate partner violence against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Patterns of violence are perpetuated by the fact that our society’s responses to intimate partner violence rely on punishment, police, and incarceration to address them, which cause additional cycles of harm and trauma.
BayLegal Attorney Kemi Mustapha explained some recent ways in which the Family Law Unit has called out these dynamics within the civil legal system. In March 2018, BayLegal submitted an amicus brief in support of a client of the Family Violence Appellate Project—a domestic violence survivor, who had a mutual restraining order issued against her by a trial court. Kemi, along with BayLegal attorney Fawn Jade Korr, filed an amicus arguing that, as part of its legal analysis under the applicable statute, the court must consider how race and immigration status affect how an individual responds to domestic violence. They also argued that the procedural requirements under the statute must be strictly followed because they act as safeguards to help mitigate implicit bias by judges, who are often unaware of the extent to which implicit bias can influence their perceptions of behavior in domestic violence cases. In September 2018, the appellate court issued its decision reversing the trial court’s issuance of the restraining order against the domestic violence survivor.
This summary presents only a snapshot of the insidious force of racial injustice on the lives of our clients, and the ways in which our work has intersected with it. Without the voices and perspectives of our clients, it fails to capture their resilience in the face of this adversity—a resilience that we see day in and day out throughout the course of our work. And, crucially, it shows that we must collectively “discern the complexities that racism brings to antipoverty practice.”
In the end, we know that representing clients of color does not fundamentally equate to performing racial justice work. Thus, the link between civil justice and racial justice must be tightened. Through our work with the Mosaic Collaborative, we will collectively ask ourselves, How can we be better partners to our clients in this struggle? Because it is imperative to our work that we examine and address the fundamental reasons why the law is not an objective tool applied equitably to all people.