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Harford County 'lawyering while black' incident is far too typical of how African American professionals are treated

Attorney Rashad James was detained and questioned in a Harford County courthouse when a sheriff's deputy refused to believe he was a lawyer.
Attorney Rashad James was detained and questioned in a Harford County courthouse when a sheriff's deputy refused to believe he was a lawyer. (Handout)

An attorney gets mistaken for the client he is in court to represent and winds up being interrogated and criminalized by a Harford County sheriff’s deputy.

No surprise from me that happened.

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African Americans working professional jobs spend their entire careers proving their credentials to unbelieving white people. We go to college, work our way up the ladder, pay our dues and some people are still surprised we got a seat at the table.

In the case of Rashad James, the attorney with Maryland Legal Aid said a sheriff’s deputy at the Harford County district courthouse suspected he was impersonating an attorney and not an actual one. By his account he was detained, questioned and not immediately believed even after he showed the deputy his driver’s license.

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Maryland Legal Aid attorney Rashad James claims an officer in the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was racially motivated when he mistook the lawyer for a suspect, detained him in the courthouse and questioned him. Harford Sheriff Jeffrey R. Gahler has said his office is investigating.

Mr. James told The Sun this was the first time something like that happened to him and that the incident was surreal.

He is lucky if that is actually the case; for many African Americans, it is a regular occurrence.

The slap doesn’t necessarily rise to the level of an interrogation. Often it is a more subtle microaggression, a term used to describe doubts and insults people throw at marginalized groups without overtly saying what they really mean. But we do indeed get what they mean.

I am often asked after showing up to interview a source for a story where I went to school, what other newspapers I have worked for and how much experience I have. Some will say this is just normal conversation and getting to know someone. I say that when I am simply trying to do my job, I don’t want to be expected to run down my resume as if I am the one being interviewed. It happens way too often for me to believe it is just casual conversation.

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After a recent editorial board meeting, a man we had just interviewed inquired about what my job was at the newspaper. This after I had just spent an hour with him and the rest of the board asking questions.

“I am on the editorial board,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, looking utterly confused. “So you don’t do anything else for the paper.”

I wish I could say I volleyed back a witty response, but at the time I was so utterly annoyed, I walked away before I said something that blew the situation even more out of control. What exactly did he think I was doing in that room, and why did he not ask my white colleagues what their roles were at the newspaper?

Sometimes it is a necessity to hold our tongues. In town for speaking engagement, Brian Stevenson, a longtime social justice attorney and the brains behind The National Memorial for Peace and Justice lynching memorial in Alabama, recalled once walking into a courtroom where he was chastised by the judge who said only attorneys were allowed at the moment. Mr. Stevenson told the judge he was the attorney only to be met with an eruption of laughter. Fuming inside, Mr. Stevenson was forced to keep his composure so as not to antagonize the judge and hurt his client’s case.

Sadly, the narrow view of African Americans’ place in American in society has existed for years.

Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong wrote in their book "The Brethren” that Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was mistaken for an elevator operator by tourists when getting on his private elevator.

"Finding a lone black man standing there, they said, 'First floor, please,’” the authors wrote.

"Yowsa, yowsa," Justice Marshall responded as he pretended to operate the automated elevator.

Mr. James also took the high-and-quiet road and cooperated with the Harford County sheriff’s deputy before being released after about 10 minutes. That was probably the right move, given the stories of encounters between innocent black men and law enforcement escalating to violent levels.

But I’m glad he is now speaking up and has filed a complaint with the sheriff’s office. Maybe an attorney wasn’t the right person to mess with? The sheriff’s deputy may try to argue that race had nothing to do with his detainment. But Mr. James has said he was the only black attorney around.

Of course the investigation still has to play out, but right now it sure sounds like a case of “lawyering while black” and that his experience was indicative of the way African Americans, particularly black men, are looked at with suspicion. Not to mention how ingrained the image of a black man as a criminal has become.

African Americans from other professions are victims of the same disease. “Doctoring while black,” “heading a company while black,” “accounting while black.” We could start a whole series.

The only way this racial profiling (because that is what it is) will end is if we hold more people accountable and just let black people live their lives.

--Andrea K. McDaniels

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