UHLC’s Baynes: Law ‘bends toward justice’ as society changes on race issues

UH Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes and national broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien answer questions at a press conference before their appearance in the “Black in America 2015 Tour.” Audience members fill UH’s Cullen Auditorium for broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien’s “Black in America 2015 Tour.” UH Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes responds to a question from national broadcast journalist Soledad O’Brien as economist and former Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux looks on during O’Brien’s “Black in America 2015 Tour” stop at Cullen Auditorium.


Feb. 26, 2015 -- In a period of increased scrutiny and criticism leveled at police departments and the U.S. judicial system over perceptions of bias and brutality, it’s important to remember that the law is continually evolving, University of Houston Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes said during a discussion of race relations Tuesday evening.

“The beauty of the law is that it adapts, evolves and changes to  societal trends. As Dr. King had said, the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Baynes told a packed house at UH’s Cullen Auditorium, the second-to-last stop in the 2015 “Black in America Tour” organized and hosted by nationally known broadcaster Soledad O’Brien.

Baynes was one of several panelists to join O’Brien in a wide-ranging discussion of issues raised in the wake of several police-involved deaths in Ferguson, Mo., New York City, and other locales across the country in the past year.

The month-long, multi-city tour is based on a series of “Black in America” documentaries O’Brien has produced since 2008 for CNN, first as a reporter-anchor for that network and now as an independent producer. The latest installment, “Black and Blue,” focuses on the often-contentious relationship between police and minorities.

The other panelists included Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an economist and former president of North Carolina’s Bennett College; Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman who gained national notoriety documenting on social media last year’s protests in the suburb of Ferguson stemming from the shooting death of an unarmed black man by a police officer; and (via Skype) Chuck D, one of the founders of the pioneering hip-hop group Public Enemy.

O’Brien, whose white, Irish-Australian father and Afro-Cuban mother were not allowed to be legally married in her birth state of Maryland (so they married in Washington, D.C.), kicked off the presentation with a talk about the economic and judicial disparities associated with race in America that featured statistical information interspersed with liberal excerpts from several of the “Black in America” programs.

“Are we tired of the race conversation?” O’Brien asked the audience rhetorically before answering. “It’s a messy but necessary conversation that we have to have if we are to move forward.”

Along with information about the economic gaps between blacks and other minorities and whites, O’Brien presented a profile of a young black man who had been “stopped and frisked” by police in his New York City neighborhood more than 100 times, including outside the college he attended, and the psychological toll that took on him and his mother.

But she also showed scenes of white and black descendants of the same family who met for the first time and warmly embraced each other, both physically and emotionally.

In the panel discussion that followed O’Brien’s talk, Malveaux, the economist, and French, the alderman, argued that the deaths of Eric Garner in New York City, teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, and Michael Brown in Ferguson showed systemic indifference, if not hostility, by police and prosecutors toward blacks.

In the most recent example, French pointed to the fact that the federal Department of Justice declined to open a second investigation of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who was acquitted in Martin’s death.

“If the federal government and the state government both deem that George Zimmerman did not break the law in killing Trayvon Martin, then that tells me that we need to change the law,” French said.

“That might be a very different question, whether the law should be changed or not,” Baynes countered. He pointed out that the law as currently instituted is designed to allow police officers entrusted with enforcing the law to make split-second decisions in dangerous circumstances while minimizing the opportunity for them to be second-guessed.

“When race gets interwoven into that, it becomes much more complex,” he said.

French said, “The common theme in all of these cases is that it seems like young African-Americans don’t have the same protections as others. And I think that is a real crisis that we’re facing. When a large group of citizens feel they don’t have equal protection, it leads to things like we saw in Ferguson.”

Chuck D, whose appearance was initially and somewhat humorously marred by audio issues, countered Baynes by saying, “I don’t think the law changes easily. If you don’t have a community that surely realizes it’s in charge of its education, its economics, its enforcement, and its environment, then you’ve got a plantation state.

“Protecting property owners and property is the first agenda in the United States of America. When is that going to change to protection of people over property?” he asked.

Malveaux, the economist, picked up on Chuck D’s remarks, saying that the frustration often felt by minorities over issues involving the police can have other root causes.

“The economic piece is the piece that has to be part of the conversation. The amount of wealth the African-American community lost in the Great Recession I think in part fuels some of the anger that you see on the streets,” she said, noting that blacks lost much more of their relative wealth in the downturn than whites or even other minority groups.

Baynes applauded O’Brien for hosting the “thoughtful conversation” and bringing it to UH, and said it and other academic institutions also have a responsibility to hold such discussions.

As an example, he cited the Law Center’s recent Continuing Legal Education symposium on the grand jury system, policing and civil rights. He also discussed the school’s Juvenile & Capital Advocacy Project, which pairs law students and other adults with eighth-grade students at a charter school in Houston’s Third Ward, and a newly created “Pre-Law Pipeline Program” to encourage first-generation college students from  underrepresented backgrounds to pursue a legal education.

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