I was born with a good brain and good health. I had opportunities that allowed me to get a good education. I’m just lucky. I didn’t do anything special to win society’s lottery. How could I justify my random good fortune when I knew others didn’t have it? I had to use those gifts to help others. I became a lawyer for poor people.
I grew up in the Sixties and believed that equality was achievable in America. The racism expressed by my parents made no sense. Didn’t they see that every human being was the same inside? It seemed so obvious to me, but they were hopelessly mired in fear and ignorance. Surely this would change once my peers inherited the earth.
Now that we have, nothing has changed. It’s simply a variation on a theme. People hate the poor, as if they actually chose to be poor. There is contempt for those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, as if that is a life anyone would wish to live. The mentally healthy turn away to avoid the mentally ill and the mentally slow, instead of giving them every chance to make the most of what they have.
I don’t understand why people act this way. Lately I think it’s because financial success somehow has become equated with morality. The subtle message is that anyone who hasn’t amassed wealth must be evil and therefore deserves to be punished with bad housing, inadequate nutrition, lack of medical care and substandard schools. It seems as though equality has become too expensive. Do people really believe that giving to others means they will have less for themselves? Are there finite amounts of kindness and justice in the universe? Do we really need to ration them?
I don’t think so. I still believe there can be equal justice for everyone. It seems so obvious, just as the notion of racial equality did when I was growing up.
In my work, I’ve been forced to face that finding justice is often dependent on one’s rung on the social and economic ladder. Those who are poor, disadvantaged, minority, non-U.S. citizens, mentally ill or merely children usually do not receive the same treatment that more socially successful and financially powerful individuals receive, either in the courtroom or in life.
So I have a toolkit I use to try to give my clients a fair chance. It includes the U.S. Constitution and laws that were passed when people who were born lucky wanted to help people who were not.
I know the system will never work the way I think it should. But every once in a while, there comes that shimmering moment of unexpected justice. It tells me I have to keep sharpening those tools and finding new ways to use the gifts I was given. I need to do this.
I continue to be lucky, for every day, I get to participate in the pursuit of justice for us all.
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