I have a tremendous amount of respect for the sharp young minds of The National Black Law Students Association (NBLSA). I was the keynote speaker for the organization just over a year ago, along with my good friend Charles Ogletree at Harvard University. I was impressed with the brilliant legal eagles in the room, and all the potential they possessed. I was also honored to have the opportunity to speak with them and add a little bit of knowledge to their inspirational talent base.
I was most impressed with Melinda Hightower, a student at The University of Virginia. Starting from humble beginnings in Detroit, Melinda has gone on to earn an MBA from The University of Chicago, an undergraduate degree from Cornell and was rated as one of the top debaters in the world. In high school, she picked up nearly a million dollars in scholarship money, which impressed the heck out of me. Even though she is still in law school, Melinda now works with the National Football League on their collective bargaining agreement, helped to design the NBLSA website, and manages many of the activities of the national organization.
As I listened to Ms. Hightower’s impressive credentials, all I could see was “potential, potential, potential.” But then I wondered what Melinda and her peers planned to do with all that potential. I began to wonder what this admirable and empowered organization would do with their ability to change the world. While Ms. Hightower seemed to share a personal desire to make the world a better place, I am sad to say that most of her peers didn’t share the same sentiment. Instead, the conversations seemed to drone around who would make the most money at the biggest law firm that has them doing the most meaningless work. There were parties being planned and conferences being prepared, but almost no conversation about how the NBLSA would put itself on the forefront of important social, racial and legal issues of the day. I was a wee bit disappointed.
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When I wrote a recent article about the Innocence Project, an initiative that has been setting prison inmates (mostly black men) free with DNA evidence for several years, I didn’t hear a peep out of the National Black Law Students Association. When I do my research on the issues that relate to the mass incarceration of African American males, I rarely hear a word from the group. When I see key civil rights issues on the table that impact the black community, the National Black Law Students Association is almost never involved in the conversation. Even when there was a recent finding about black students being hit with serious reductions in law school admission, the NBLSA was nowhere to be found . In spite of the massive historical power of the African American attorney, someone has convinced this powerful group, among others, that their job is to network with each other and prepare themselves to become well-trained tools of corporate America.
All that power, all that potential, all that capability and the students have been convinced to voluntarily commit themselves to social and intellectual castration. I encourage the group to reconsider its position. The NBLSA doesn’t have to be weak, safe and ineffective, and I argue that when it comes to the NAACP, National Black MBA Association and other collective gatherings of African American professionals, their value should be measured by their meaningful impact on the African American community at large. Having the “blingingnest” conference, or getting the most money from corporate sponsors (who usually wish to buy your loyalty and tame you) should no longer be the benchmarks. The Civil Rights Movement did not occur just so we could find a way to fit into a world of lackluster social impotence.
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I am not here to bash the NBLSA or any other black student organization. I am here to encourage a new paradigm of thought for the 21st century. I am not here to tell any student or any group that they shouldn’t get out into the world and make money – that’s usually a strong motivator for students who come from poverty. I’m a finance professor, so I of all people understand the value of making a dollar. What I am here to say is that the National Black Law Students Association and other groups like it have been taught to ignore their collective capability and community responsibility in exchange for personal financial prosperity. They should understand that intelligence without the presence of courage means that you are in danger of spending your life as a high paid slave. Leaving potential untapped effectively means that you’ll work like a dog, live your life and die without anyone ever knowing that you were here.
For the NBLSA or any similar group, students must be retaught the value of remaining connected to the important issues which affect their communities. I encourage the leadership to reassess their value to the world, and get cracking on issues that actually matter. Black people are dying for every day they spend not doing what they are equipped to do, and this should be unacceptable to all of us.