Dean Pratt Comments About Recent Events

Photograph: Carla Pratt.

Dear Washburn Law Community:

I write this message with a very heavy heart. It has taken me this long to write this because I have been numb and speechless over the events that are unfolding in our country. It has also taken me this long to write because I know that as dean, I am expected to maintain neutrality in the face of political controversy. But as a lawyer, I know that I have a special responsibility for justice that commands that I not remain silent in the face of injustice. Today is my son's 22nd birthday. But I don't feel much like celebrating because I know that he could be the next curious black male jogger who stops to inspect a new home that is being built while envisioning himself building his own new home one day. I think of how many times I technically trespassed onto the property of another to inspect a new home that was under construction while my husband and I were making plans to build our own custom home. I think of how privileged I am as a half-white woman to have survived those trespasses. Then I think of Ahmaud Arbery, and I remind my black son that he does not enjoy the same privileges that I do, and that he should not walk onto the property of another without being invited even if his intentions are completely innocent.

Witnessing the murder of George Floyd on the video that has been playing on television and social media makes me feel physically ill. I cannot imagine the callous disregard for black life that one must have to spend 8 minutes and 46 seconds squeezing the life out of a black man while he pleads "I can't breathe." When I see that video, I see my precious son's face and my heart breaks. When I think of the countless other black men who have been murdered under the guise of policing with no vindication because there was no video to refute the officer's account, I feel angry and powerless.

As a bi-racial woman with a white mother and a black father, I have been experiencing what W.E.B. DuBois described as "double consciousness" – a type of internal conflict. The conflict arises when the nation that I love and the people that I love fall short of the ideals that we hold. When the white side of my family expresses outrage to me over the looting and the damage to property that has occurred in the wake of Mr. Floyd's murder, I agree with them that violence and destruction of property is wrong. In doing so, I marvel at the wisdom of Dr. King who knew that non-violent protest would position blacks on the moral high ground when demanding equal rights, and that the violent actions of a few would taint the entire justice-seeking movement. I am left wondering why my white family members failed to express that same outrage over the murder of black people through the exercise of police power. It makes me wonder: do my own white family members value property more than black life? When I ask my white family members if they can name one black person whose life has been ended wrongfully by police violence and they cannot name a single person or a few of them only remember Trayvon Martin, it makes me wonder: do all the wrongfully taken black lives not matter to them? Did the life of little 12- year-old Tamir Rice who was gunned down by police for playing with his toy gun not matter?

As I struggle with this uncomfortable reality in my own family, I have gained comfort from the response of many police departments across the country who have stood in solidarity with protesters and publicly condemned the wrongful use of police power. Police officers who kneel in prayer or join chants demanding justice remind me that most officers are good and committed to protecting and serving all Americans. They also remind us that protesters are protesting police brutality – something that police officers of integrity also abhor. To my mind, this is what true leadership looks like. I have also gained comfort and strength from white colleagues, friends, alumni, and sisters and brothers in Christ who messaged me privately to say: "how you holding up?" "you're in my prayers" or to share their own heartache and frustration with the ongoing police violence that disproportionately falls on the black, the brown, and the poor. I want to thank everyone who sent me one of those messages. You have given me the strength and the courage to write this message.

The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct remind us that as lawyers, we have a "special responsibility for the quality of justice." At every step in America's march toward racial justice, lawyers have been at the forefront. At Washburn University School of Law, Charles Scott, John Scott, and Charles Bledsoe (PDF) led the march toward racial justice in education when they filed the complaint representing 13 black Topeka families challenging racial segregation in Brown v. Board of Education. Today there are many lawyers working every day to ensure that the civil rights guaranteed by our constitution are secured for all Americans, and I am proud of them and thankful for each one of them. I am especially proud of the Washburn Lawyers doing this work. Pedro Irigonegaray, J. Steven Pigg, Mike Kuckelman, Mark Dupree, Natalie Camacho Mendoza, and James Thompson are just a few Washburn lawyers who come to mind for their work upholding the civil rights of fellow Americans. I no longer practice law, but along with other law faculty members, I help prepare the next generation of lawyers to fully dismantle apartheid in policing, and my heart is full of hope as I speak to young people who are embarking upon the journey to become a lawyer. America is at a crossroads, and as lawyers we are uniquely positioned to lead the way to equality and justice for all.


Carla D. Pratt
Dean and Professor of Law