How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time

Breaking It All Down

August 10, 2022 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 1 Episode 8
How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
Breaking It All Down
Show Notes Transcript

In this special episode of How Is That Legal, Kee invites her friend and CLS colleague Tracie Johnson to reflect on lessons learned this season and what else needs to be explored next season. Kee and Tracie both share shocking stories that made them ask, “How in the world is that legal?” and talk about the importance of centering people who are impacted by inequity when creating solutions. See you next season!


Tracie Johnson is the lead staff attorney for the Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services. She now works to create career pathways for women and girls of color who face barriers to employment and higher education because of their juvenile and adult criminal records.

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected.

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Molly Pollak. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

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Kee Tobar (00:05):

Hello everyone, and welcome to How is That Legal?, the podcast where we break down examples of systemic racial inequity in the law and policy, and talk to experts whose stories of injustice will make you ask, "How in the world is that legal?" I'm your host Kee Tobar. I'm a legal aid attorney, history enthusiast, and Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. So today is our last episode of season one, and we're doing things a little differently. I'm passing the mic to my colleague and friend, Tracie Johnson. Tracie is a staff attorney and an access expert in the Youth Justice Project at Community Legal Services, where she connects young people, ages 16 to 24, to free legal help with criminal records, public benefits, housing and debt. So let's dig in.

Kee Tobar (00:52):

I'm so happy to have my friend and colleague Tracie Johnson, attorney at Community Legal Services, with us today. I've known you for a while now, maybe seven years now, can you tell listeners a little bit about your background and about your work?

Tracie Johnson (01:17):

Sure. So first, thank you for having me. I'm really excited to be here with you today. I think that this podcast is so important. And so yeah, just a little bit about myself. My name is Tracie Johnson. I'm the lead attorney on the Youth Justice Project here at Community Legal Services. And I do a lot of work in our employment unit here. And I came here as a two-year Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig. And I was working on a fellowship project that looked at the way women and girls came into contact with the criminal justice system, and stepping in to provide important record clearing support. So help them with expungements, with dealing, with pardons, doing a lot of important advocacy to employers, to help them understand what considerations they can make regarding a person's criminal record, and helping them understand the local state and federal law around that. And helping people get reinstated and back into their jobs, and really build up their ability to advocate for themselves, if that level of discrimination was to continue in their lives.

Tracie Johnson (02:25):

And I also worked on a project that was co-led by directly impacted women who had returned home, that was funded by both Community Legal Services and the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania. So I was a part of the subcommittee that examined access to diversion for women, and came up with a set of recommendations and suggestions that were all built out by directly impacted women themselves about what changes needs to happen so that more women can have access to diversion over incarceration, given what we know about women being the primary caregivers of their families, about the unique ways in which women have contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. And so that was we published a report about that and got a chance to really share that report with a lot of important legal stakeholders in the city, probation, the defenders, the DA. It was really great work that we did there. And now I'm happy to be fully on the Youth Justice Project, really taking a closer look at youth issues in particular. And I'm happy to talk more about that as the interview continues.

Kee Tobar (03:45):

So today we're doing something a bit different. We're going to turn over the questioning to you, but before I turn to show over to you, we always ask our guests to describe one moment they had, a moment of like, "How is that legal?" Can you tell us about an experience in your professional or personal life that really made you ask, "How is that legal?"

Tracie Johnson (04:07):

What drew me to wanting to work on my fellowship project in the first place was attending a lot of legal clinics and hearing from a lot of different young women about instances where they were victims of domestic violence, and in defense of themselves, they injured the person who was inflicting harm upon them. And then they were the ones who would walk away with a charge for simple assault, aggravated assault, recklessly endangering another person. And I always questioned how those charges could come about and whether anyone was listening to the underlining story of why women felt that they had to pick up something to get this much larger person off of them. Why wasn't anyone figuring out why these actions were taken instead of only looking at and punishing the actions themselves?

Tracie Johnson (05:14):

And I always question, "How is this happening? How is this possible? Is anyone listening to these women? Is anyone trying to get to the root of the situation here to provide healing, to provide support, to help actually adjust trauma? Is anyone asking the right questions in order to come up with the right solutions?" Because what's happening right now, funneling women through a criminal justice system that's going to further cause them trauma, it's not working, it's not the answer.

Kee Tobar (05:46):

Thank you for that.

Tracie Johnson (05:48):

So I have the same question for you, Kee. What's something that recently stopped you in your tracks and made you ask, "How is that legal?"

Kee Tobar (05:57):

When I was in high school, my brother, I have a brother who's three years older than me, well, think I was in middle school coming to high school, and he was two years ahead of me. Anyhow, he had a disability and I'm pretty sure my mother had informed everyone that he did have a disability and that he did have a 504 plan, and a plan in place with the school, but what would happen is that my brother was what people considered a clown. He would come to school, make everybody laugh, but he was also hyperactive, and he had ADHD, and it was hard for him to concentrate. But the thing that made me ask, "How is this legal?" is, my brother had known disability and known diagnoses, and yet and still he would constantly get suspended for things that arose out of his disability. And I wasn't a disability attorney at that time.

Kee Tobar (07:14):

Clearly, I'm just his little sister, but I knew enough, or I thought I knew enough to know that, "Hey, wasn't there supposed to be some type of remedial plan to help him? I don't think he's supposed to be getting suspended or punished for things that are arising out of his disability." But to see that he was constantly punished for things that arose out of his disability, which eventually led into the great factor in him leaving school and dropping out of school, that was one of the first things where I was like, "How is this legal? How do you continue to punish a person when you know that the behavior is arising from a disability?" And so as I became a disability attorney, I realized that it was not legal. But when you have a parent who is focused on survival and doesn't have the space or access or opportunity to properly advocate, and to know what's going on in the school, these are the things that are happening.

Kee Tobar (08:17):

And so that happened to my brother, but I knew, and I know now, as someone who's worked in this space, that this is happening to so many children, especially Black children and especially Black male children.

Tracie Johnson (08:28):

Thank you for sharing that. And it brings to mind my question about, I mean, I'm sure you're aware that there's a lot of legal eagle podcasts out there, [inaudible 00:08:41] legal topic brings on experts to talk about these really complex legal issues. But I want to talk about what may set your podcast apart. One, given who you are as a host and your proximity and life experience and expertise to the issues that you're talking about. Because even right now, you interviewed three different legal experts, but were able to pull away personal experience to give context to these issues. And it's not like you're only inviting on legal experts who have built up scholarship in these issues, but people who bring about experience, and their own expertise, and closeness, and passion around the work, as well as this lens of not only looking at the legal issues, but the intersectionality within these issues. And those are just some of the things that I have picked up on in just watching and listening to, not watching, but listening to the first episode.

Tracie Johnson (09:48):

And so I just want to hear from you about how important was all of those things when you were coming up with this podcast idea.

Kee Tobar (10:02):

Thank you for that question, that's actually a deep question. I'll first say, I think that there's a space for legal eagle podcasts. There is a space and the more that we can share the particular technical legal analysis with people, or be in conversation with people, that's great too. But when I was thinking about the goal of this podcast, the purpose of the podcast, the purpose of the podcast was to continue the conversation of racial inequity and racial harm and racial oppression, in this country, but do so in a way that was accessible to people. And so for me, it was really important that this podcast would be accessible to my mom, accessible to people that I knew in my neighborhood because part of the issue that I wanted this podcast to deal with is the fact that there seems to be certain instances where we are intentionally speaking in legalese, because we are not choosing to empower people. We actually feel that we have the expertise, and that the conversation is best left in this particular space.

Kee Tobar (11:24):

I look at myself as a legal aid attorney and a person with DEI practitioner experience. But I look at those things as a tool, I don't look at those things as a way to necessarily enrich or build myself up, or to disparage anyone else's understanding or expertise. I look at it as something that I have to offer to community. An understanding, a perspective, a skill set that I have to offer to community. And so in coming at it from that perspective, it only makes sense that this podcast is accessible because it's about the conversation. And the conversation is not just talking to yourself or talking in silos to other attorneys. It's talking to attorneys, it's talking to policymakers, it's talking to those with lived experience of these systems. It's talking to each and every community member.

Tracie Johnson (12:27):

How do you see this podcast and the conversations that you're having and the questions that you're having, and the enlightenment that it can bring? How do you see this podcast as a tool to be used for change?

Kee Tobar (12:42):

I'm hoping that this podcast just is embedded into the conversation that's here, really. I really just wanted this podcast to start a conversation because it's not necessarily just about Philadelphia because the issues, the macro systemic issues that create the disparity in Philadelphia are the same ones that create the disparity in Turrell and Blytheville, Arkansas, are the same ones that create the disparity in DC, and in LA, and outside of the US, and so on and so forth. And so, for me, that's why I wanted to talk about specifically these laws and policies, but also attached them to the greater macro issues. And I also wanted to more explicitly say that, especially being an attorney, and being an attorney and legal aid, and also being a DEI professional and practitioner, you hear a lot about disparities, you hear a lot about disproportionality, but you don't hear as much about what causes disparities, what is causing the disproportionality, there's this unspoken idea that there are these unknown factors that are causing the disparity and disproportionality in various systems.

Kee Tobar (14:07):

And so it was really important for me that we just don't end on acknowledging disparities and acknowledging disproportionality, but that we are interrogating the possibilities of the factors that undergird the disparities and the disproportionality. And so yeah, that was my reasoning for wanting to have this podcast.

Tracie Johnson (14:35):

I love that. And one of the things I liked is that as you brought guests on to have these conversations, there was also this actionable piece to it where people could share possible solutions to the problems that we see. And I wonder, was there anything particularly that moved or inspired you in your conversations, as people were thinking through what could be some resolutions to some of the things that we scratch our heads about, wondering how it's legal that these things could be happening?

Kee Tobar (15:15):

What inspired me and has had a lasting impact is actually the variety in solutions. We won't get there solely with the attorneys. Again, I think we were having a conversation once before, earlier before, and I said that all of the harms that take place in this society are not recognizable legal harms. And so there is a limit to what harms the law can remedy. And so it's really important that we just think outside of what we have, the establishment I'll say, to think through what are the other avenues to get us to the place that we want. Even doing this podcast, this is not a normal way that a person would go about doing DEI, or a normal way that a person would even explain the law or think about the law. I don't think there are many people who would think about using the historical narrative. I can tell because we looked when we were researching as to whether we wanted to do.

Kee Tobar (16:29):

And so it's going to take out-of-the box creative thinking, and then it's going to take us understanding that we're all a member of the team, but we don't need to be the leaders of the team. We need to play our position and our roles. And so that was the thing that stood out to me. It was about the people in the community who were taking power into their own hands, and creating their own power. And it was about the people in the systems who were recognizing their role and using their tools to empower folks, and just the different people from the different positionings trying to work towards the same goal.

Tracie Johnson (17:09):

What I love in your conversations is getting to the narrative building behind a lot of the policies, a lot of the systems and a lot of the laws, because you really can't understand how something works until you understand why it was created, why it was designed. And I think that's why, as you spoke about wanting to have everything rooted in the historical analysis of something, and we know that there's a lot of different movements going on right now, exploring this idea of care, not control. And I like to ask you, as you continue to have these conversations, why is that aspect so important? Because it's one thing to be able to explain this complex legal issue or the way this systems works, but it's the why. Why is that why so important to you?

Kee Tobar (18:18):

Because the why is going to get us to liberation. The why is the thing that's going to get us to assessing the system. We can get caught in assessing the issue without ever assessing the system, or interrogating the system. The why was always important to me because nothing is new under the sun. And we've known now that there has been a playbook that has been continuously used in policy. The tropes are the tropes for a reason. There has been an understanding, a logic, in the policy space or in the grassroot space. You constantly hear this things of carceral logic and things of that nature. It's the logic behind of a variety of laws that produces the outcome, the unintended or intended goal. And so really actually, if we're only addressing the one law, when we change that law, or when we reform that law, if we don't reform the logic behind that law, that will simply just be a new law that has the same consequences.

Kee Tobar (19:49):

So we can tinker with the child welfare system, we can reform it, but in doing so, we are still saying that the system is necessary. And so if we're continuing to reform, reform, without questioning whether the system is necessary, what's the logic behind this system, then we're going to continue to unintentionally, for some, reproduce harm.

Tracie Johnson (20:18):

Right. There's so much that I took away from that just now, so much. I mean, one, I really love what you're talking about, and unless you understand the intended vision, the intended purpose, you can't even have that conversation about reimagining.

Kee Tobar (20:39):


Tracie Johnson (20:41):

You can't even have that. And then also, I love this idea of that when we talk about these legal cases and these analysis, we're always talking about the intention, we're always talking about what was intended. And we thrust it up to these select few interpreters and we give so much credence to their interpretations. And I love what you're talking about. Maybe we need to bear a little more witness to who these interpreters are and what their interpretations are. Because it all has a rhyme, a reason, a logic to it. And it's a place that we all have a place in. And yeah, that really did stick with me and what you said just now,

Kee Tobar (21:33):

But I also think connected to that is that we've had discrimination based on race has been outlawed in this country some 50 plus years. And yet we still have racism and discrimination in this country. And so I say that at this moment also to say this is another reason as to why we need other people outside of us in the legal space. We can highlight what is overtly racist, we can highlight what is overtly illegal. But it is necessary to have those folks who are outside of the system continue to push, because we currently have race neutral racist policies that we have limitations in challenging. Because there's different levels of scrutiny, and we can go into the technical analysis of this. And so that's why it's really important to have those other people pushing from outside of this space, and being involved in this conversation, and being involved in this process, because again, racism has been outlaw in this country, formally, for a while, and yet we still see that racism system is still embedded in these systems.

Kee Tobar (23:02):

And so I just wanted to say that, again, to emphasize the necessity of all of our roles in participating in moving anti-racism, anti-oppression work forward.

Tracie Johnson (23:16):

Well, I definitely am excited to hear to just continue listening to episodes from this season. I know you've looked at family, police and housing, climate justice. What are some topics you'd like to cover next season? I'd love to hear both about topics you want to share with your listeners and things you would like to learn more about.

Kee Tobar (23:40):

So there's a few. I was so excited to have these conversations so far, but there's a few other conversations that I'm looking forward to having in the next season, including the technological divide. We've learned anything during this time is that there's been extreme technological advances, or everything has kind of went online, especially during this pandemic, this ongoing pandemic time, but thinking through what are the policies that we put in place. Have we put policies in place that are actually going to continue to create widespread disparity for people of color in this country, as it relates to employment access, as it relates to housing access, when you have applications that are solely going online, and just so on and so forth. And so I was thinking through, as a former SSI attorney, when applications went online, but folks don't have access to the internet. I can't wait to discuss that more.

Kee Tobar (24:53):

And I know that the last thing that I'll talk about, and it kind of kind of connects to the conversation of the home ownership, when we were talking about Medicaid estate recovery, I can't wait to actually have the conversation about nursing home care and the disparities. We did a report at Community Legal Services last year about the disparities in nursing home care, and how during COVID the disparities and death rates for Black and other POC people as it relates to white counterparts and nursing home care was horrific. And so I really look forward to us talking about nursing home care because when we're talking, I know that's something that's a very niche conversation, but when we're talking about disparities in nursing home, what we're talking about generally is the quality of Black life, of Black people who may be poor and made need Medicaid to pay their nursing home care bill. We're talking about whether they deserve to live in dignity.

Kee Tobar (26:07):

And so I can't wait to have those conversations, talking about things as basic and as simple as the ability to end your life, or live your life in dignity. And so that's what I'm excited about.

Tracie Johnson (26:23):

Well, I'm excited to hear it. So much of this is important to think about, our most vulnerable communities deserving to thrive and not just survive and talking about the ways in which advocates at CLS, and the other people that you have been interviewing, the role that they play in dismantling the systemic injustice that they see in the work that they do. And yeah, I'm just really looking forward to next season, really thankful to you for carving out of the time to put this together, because what folks don't know is that outside of this, you're working really hard to do a lot of ground-breaking work at CLS. And I know it's taxing, but I just appreciate you for really prioritizing the people. I know it's a lot but you're prioritizing the communities and the people and the staff and everyone who really needs this. And so I just wanted to take the time to just thank you for that, to thank you for your dedication, for your commitment, and for your authenticity in this space.

Kee Tobar (27:42):

Thank you again, Tracie. A pleasure having you on the show.

Kee Tobar (27:45):

Well, there you have it. It's a wrap on season one of How is That Legal? Thank you so much for joining us every week to break down systems of injustice. We know you've heard a lot. Some you may have known some, you may not have known, analysis you may or may not agree with, but we hope that this show was, and is a starting place for you to begin to truly interrogate our systems, and decide for yourself what to abolish or reform, and what work is to be done. I can't wait to share season two with you, but until then, you can stay connected by following Community Legal Services on Twitter @clsphila. How is That Legal? is produced by Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our producer and editor, executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers, music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall and Molly Pollak. I'm your host Kee Tobar, and we out.