In 2013, we saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the decision to acquit George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Since that moment, Gen Z has come of age where we participated in marches across the nation and used our voices to support efforts for policing and criminal justice reform. So many of us felt empowered and that we could change the world quickly.
With all the protests and social justice actions, we are still not close to the real reforms of our police departments and criminal justice system that we all want. Earlier this year, the United States Senate failed to reach an agreement that would allow the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to pass and become law. The authors of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, Senator Cory Booker (NJ) and Congresswoman Karen Bass (CA), had tried for months to negotiate an agreement with Republican Senator Tim Scott (SC) but made no real progress. As NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. President and Director Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill said in her statement from September 22, “The decision by negotiators like Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) that addressing the issue of qualified immunity – a key demand of those seeking to ensure a chance to obtain accountability for unconstitutional policing – was a “red line” he would not cross, doomed the effort to craft a bill that would be responsive to the demand and meet the moment.”
The failure to successfully move this important legislation sends a clear sign that there is still significant work to do in our political system to get enough elected officials into office that will support justice in reforming our police departments. At the same time, the recent incident with Judge Odinet should make Generation Z step back and discuss what a real win in police and criminal justice reform looks like. Will we truly achieve justice by passing important legislation like the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act if we have individuals serving as judges across our nation like Judge Odient? Can we trust judges, district attorneys, and others to fairly enforce any law if they have racism built into their characters and viewpoints?
We all know what the answer is.
So the question is how do we get to a real solution? What you are likely to hear is that we need to vote in every election. We must remember that electing our local district attorney is just as important as electing the President of the United States. So yes, those who are saying register to vote and vote in every election are correct. But Generation Z, and those that come after us, also have another responsibility that will be crucial to any effort to effectively have police and criminal justice reform.
To have individuals who will qualify to serve as a judge or run for district attorney, we will need a wave of Generation Z members who attend law school and become lawyers in our communities. This may sound easy but the reality is that we have a lot of work to do in this area.
In a 2019 study led by the Reflective Democracy Campaign, their researchers found that “95% of prosecutors were white, and 79% were white men. Perhaps most alarming, most prosecutors ran for office unopposed, leading to an entrenched status quo which is highly resistant to bipartisan calls for criminal justice reform.” In response the NAACP Legal Defense Fund issues a call to action to have “District Attorneys to prioritize the recruitment, hiring, training, promotion, empowerment, and retention of Black people and other people of color, women, and people of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity to help bring a diverse range of perspectives and lived experiences to their offices.”
But what if there are no Black or Brown lawyers to fill the need? Enjurs looked at data from 2018 and 2019 and reported that Black students represented the largest decrease in students admitted to law school. In 2018, Black students made up 7.9% of incoming law students. In 2019, they dropped to 7.5% of incoming law students. A study of the LSAT found that in the 2016-17 law school admission cycle “nearly half of black law school applicants (49 percent) were not admitted to a single law school”. In fact the report found "it took about 1,960 black applicants to yield 1,000 offers of admission, compared to only 1,204 among white applicants.”
These numbers are startling and in the same report on the LSATs marginalization of aspiring Black lawyers shows it leads to “Black applicants who are admitted to law schools enroll at law schools with less desirable outcomes (in job placements and other outcome measures) than other law schools.” Add in other issues that many students face like the cost of applying to law school and LSAT preparation services and we see how deep the barriers are to reaching the goals of diversifying our judges and district attorneys.
So how do we change this and become the solution to the problem we are trying to solve? How do we take this to Black Lives Matter 2.0?
Some younger Millennials and Generation Z members are already out in the world taking on the issue. In 2020 Talia Scott was going through the process of applying to law school. She was frustrated with the costs of everything and started the Legally BLK Fund to help Black women pay for the costs of applying to law school. Then there is current SMU Dedman School of Law student Melanie Griffin who in 2020 also created a similar scholarship to help underrepresented minorities pay for the LSAT.
While costs and a discriminatory admissions process powered by the LSAT are significant barriers, we also have one barrier that we have helped create ourselves. Many Gen Z members believe that if you work as a district attorney or serve as a judge that you are part of the problem. These views are rooted in the realities of watching our criminal justice system fail again and again in high profile cases such as the Treyvonne Martin murder or a prosecutor failing to do their job as with the initial lack of charges with the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Yes Gen Z, we rightfully distrust the police and our criminal justice system, but that shouldn’t lead us to ignoring the crucial need for us to attend law school and become the solution to this problem. The reality is if we do not become lawyers we will never be in position to change the very system that we believe needs the most dramatic changes in our society.
One of the biggest problems that Gen Z has faced throughout our education journey is the reality that our diversity has led many of us to experience a system that only saw us as problems instead of future problem solvers. In this case, we can be the future problem solvers we are meant to be only if we overcome our negative views of judges and district attorneys and become the lawyers we will need in the future to hold these positions. We must not ignore the importance of our own actions in ensuring that we do not pass down this system problem to the generations that will follow us. We must embrace the challenge and become Black Lives Matter 2.0
Haley Taylor Schlitz is 19 years old and in her third year at SMU Dedman School of Law. In May of 2019, she became Texas Woman's University's youngest graduate in history when she graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Science degree from Texas Woman's University College of Professional Education. She is also the host of the online show Zooming In w/Gen Z. Follow all her endeavors on Instagram and Twitter.