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

The Past is Prologue

February 08, 2023 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 2 Episode 2
The Past is Prologue
How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
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How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
The Past is Prologue
Feb 08, 2023 Season 2 Episode 2
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Sofia Ali-Khan breaks down the forced migration of Black and Brown people in every corner of this country. Her new book, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America, recounts government efforts to preserve a white center in each of the places she’s lived, worked, and worshiped. Sofia also discusses her time as a legal aid attorney at Community Legal Services and why she believes that learning our true history is the very first step in achieving the change we seek. 


Sofia Ali-Khan (Sofia_alikhan) is a social justice lawyer turned writer. She has worked for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Prairie State Legal Services in Illinois, and the American Bar Association. Sofia's writing at the intersection of politics, race, history, and Muslim America has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Time, the Chicago Tribune, Tricycle Magazine, and on several other platforms.

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 Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Sofia Ali-Khan breaks down the forced migration of Black and Brown people in every corner of this country. Her new book, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America, recounts government efforts to preserve a white center in each of the places she’s lived, worked, and worshiped. Sofia also discusses her time as a legal aid attorney at Community Legal Services and why she believes that learning our true history is the very first step in achieving the change we seek. 


Sofia Ali-Khan (Sofia_alikhan) is a social justice lawyer turned writer. She has worked for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Prairie State Legal Services in Illinois, and the American Bar Association. Sofia's writing at the intersection of politics, race, history, and Muslim America has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Time, the Chicago Tribune, Tricycle Magazine, and on several other platforms.

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 Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Kee Tobar (00:04):

Hello everyone and welcome to season two of 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 for Philadelphia. Today I'll be talking with Sofia Ali-Khan about her new book, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America.


Sofia Ali-Khan is a social justice lawyer turned writer. She has worked for Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which we talk about in today's episode, Prairie State Legal Services in Illinois, and the American Bar Association. Sofia's writing at the intersection of politics, race, history, and Muslim America has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Tricycle Magazine, and on several other platforms.


Sofia pointedly describes how policies, many with overtly stated racist intentions, are ever present in our environment, further exemplifying the truism that the past is prologue. We discuss her own lived experience with discrimination and how the forced migration of Black and brown people shapes every corner of this country, from the creation of segregation backed housing developments in Pennsylvania to public space and infrastructure decisions in my home state of Arkansas.


So let's get into the show. I'm really excited to welcome Sofia Ali Kahn to the show. Welcome to the show.

Sofia Ali-Khan (01:47):

Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.

Kee Tobar (01:50):

Can you tell us about a time in your personal or professional life where you experienced something that shocked you and made you ask, how is that legal?

Sofia Ali-Khan (01:59):

Well, okay, so to answer that question, I'm going to read one of the epigraphs from the book that I found so shocking that even though it didn't fit into the theme of my epigraphs, I had to include it. And it's from a Supreme Court case from 1823, and it says, "Discovery gives the exclusive right to extinguish the Indian title of occupancy, either by purchase or by conquest. If this principle has been asserted in the first instance and afterwards sustained, if a country has been acquired and held under it, if the property of the great mass of the community originates in it, it becomes law of the land and cannot be questioned."


In other words, here's my spin. If we've always taken native land, whether we did that by acting like we were buying it or outright stealing it, and that's the way we made America to begin with, then that has to be the law and it shouldn't ever be questioned. And so for me to understand that the premise of our law and our land was, if we stole it to begin with, that's got to be legal. I mean, it was just a devastating read for me, that case law.

Kee Tobar (03:24):

What did that bring up for you?

Sofia Ali-Khan (03:27):

Well, it put into context a lot of what I found as I researched the rest of the book, and it really drove the conclusion, which I didn't write until I wrote the rest of the book. I really didn't have an idea where I would land after all of the research that I did into the history of America's color lines. But this case law put that into so much context, that if we don't question that original premise, if we don't hold it up against evolving human rights, ideas of human rights, evolving standards of morality, then how do we reconcile the wrongs of our legacy? How do we start to really look at what the foundations of all of the modern contemporary problems we face are, is?


So a more modern example when you ask how is that legal is under the Trump administration when child separation at the border was the policy. I think that was a moment when... A very personal moment, because my family are immigrants, when I looked at parents with their children coming to the border claiming asylum and then having their children taken away. There were about 5,500 family separated at the border and a little over 1,200 of those families are still separated. And one of the other things I... And so DHS did that by criminalizing asylum seekers, which again is this example of not allowing for the evolution of our ideas of morality and human rights.

Kee Tobar (05:17):

So I'm excited to have you on, one, as a fellow CLS-er. It's always great to talk to CLS alums, but I'm extremely excited to talk to you about your excellent book, by the way, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America. First off, congratulations for putting out that book.

Sofia Ali-Khan (05:40):

Thank you so much. If I had known it would take five years when I started, I don't know if I'd have a book today, but I really appreciate the kind words. It was a labor of love.

Kee Tobar (05:51):

Well, I'm excited that you didn't know because I think that this is a really, really extremely important book. So in the book, you revisit the color lines and each of the places you lived, worked, and worshiped, and you weave America's history of forced migration within your own history. First off, I wanted to ask, what do you mean by forced migration?

Sofia Ali-Khan (06:13):

Well, throughout the book, I sort of arrived at forced migration, the phrase, "Forced migration," by researching the color lines in the 12 American towns that I've called home, as you noted. And so the story of those color lines always, without exception, involved a moment of violence, a moment of violent expulsion or removal of brown or Black people from the space. Sometimes it involved a removal from a specific home. Sometimes it was across town or from a neighborhood. Sometimes it was out of town, sometimes it was across the country, sometimes it was into some form of internment, but sometimes it was out of the country entirely.


But however you slice it, there was always a forced removal. And so that was the common thread that appeared as I did the research and it was such an obvious common thread that it felt like it had to do with a strategy to preserve a white center or white identity, whether that center was economic or geographic or social.

Kee Tobar (07:27):

Thank you for that definition. With regard to the book, what's your background and how did it lead you to this work?

Sofia Ali-Khan (07:36):

My parents immigrated from Pakistan in the 1960s. They immigrated to Canada and then on, after my father finished his studies, to the US. And after a couple of moves within the US, we landed in Bucks County in the Delaware Valley, so just outside of Philadelphia, about 35, 40 minutes depending on traffic, in a town called Fallsington. My family in Pakistan weren't particularly wealthy. They weren't part of the international elite. They mostly ate, so they weren't considered poor, and some branches even owned properties. So some branches were more stable than others, but they were in a very precarious sort of foot into middle class kind of place that sometimes there's space for in Pakistani society and sometimes there's not. That class sort of broadens or narrows depending on the economic and political moment. So they've seen hardship and in spite of having seen that hardship when they arrived here, they sponsored family.


They always shared resources with family and with people who had greater need, even when their own resources were very limited. So I grew up just watching all of that. We were kind of tokens. My parents moved into Fallsington just a handful of years after the FHA, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, was passed. And so we were in a sea of Irish and Italian faces, and then there was one Black family next to us, a Jewish family on the other side, and right behind us a half Vietnamese family. We were that little island of token families in our development. So I guess I just took all of that in and it all came to the surface when I went back to take a closer look.

Kee Tobar (09:44):

In the book, you write, "Color lines, as well as the force migrations through which they have been drawn, are the defining feature of America's topography." What are color lines, first? And secondly, why are they powerful in the United States and in your life specifically?

Sofia Ali-Khan (10:02):

So color lines show up in a lot of different ways. They show up, in particular in America, they show up in workplaces in between school districts. That's a really big one, particularly in Pennsylvania, within or between neighborhoods. Sometimes, like in Little Rock, they're a highway, a physical geographic barrier within a town. Sometimes they're in the water. Pools are a really common American site of segregation, same as beaches. So leisure spaces are often segregated. Sometimes they look like islands within nations, like Native American reservations or North Philadelphia. They're racially identified, but also they tend to be really radically impoverished in terms of resources, economies, land values. So the line is a color line, but it's also defined by wealth and class as well.

Kee Tobar (10:57):

So the second part of that question is, why are they powerful in the United States and in your life specifically?

Sofia Ali-Khan (11:09):

I'll take the second question first. So much of why they were significant to me is because I'm racially ambiguous. In some parts of our country and some parts of my own neighborhood growing up, I passed, and in other places I really didn't. And so I've always found myself tripping over color lines wherever I am. Sometimes I hear things I'm not supposed to. Sometimes I'm relocated because someone makes a different assessment of me. But I really notice people noticing me and trying to racially classify me. I've been asked, when I was petitioning for a campaign finance reform bill in Little Rock, Arkansas, I've been asked, "What are you? Where are you from? What's your last name? You're not from around here, are you?" And so there's always been a sort of challenge to me, mostly by white adults, but also by white children and other people of color that says, "How do I locate you in this landscape that's so racially delineated?"


And so I tripped over those color lines in every town I've lived in. So it was very easy for me to go back and say, "Oh, that line that I tripped over, where did that come from? What was that about? Where was the moment in history when it became not okay for someone like me to be in that place?"


Why are they powerful in the United States? I think they're powerful in the United States because every one of us is assessed racially in the United States, no matter where we are in the US. We're a society that is at the same time, de facto multicultural, but really obsessed with figuring out where people belong, which category of race they fall into, or ethnicity or religion even.

Kee Tobar (13:03):

And I loved hearing a thing that you said, that I think the more I read and study about the creation of race in this country, about how it actually is transient. It's a transient idea and where you belong on the spectrum of race for these configurations of identity that we've created changes, given where... Spatially or given whatever region or environment you're in. So I really appreciate that. And so you grew up in Fallsington, PA, which is right next to the famed white only development of Levittown. Tell us about your childhood there, and why do you say that the segregationist attitudes on which Levittown was built historically are still alive and well today?

Sofia Ali-Khan (13:54):

So yeah, Levittown is a really interesting place. I grew up in Fallsington, but I went to school every day in Levittown. And the two are similar in that they're overwhelmingly white, but Levittown was built before the Fair Housing Act was passed. So it's built as a racially restricted suburb. It was whites only, it was 17,000 units, so it was the largest Philadelphia area, suburban housing development of its time. It was an enormous increase in available housing in the region. And this was a time where there was tremendous housing demand among Americans of every color. But because it was whites only, this meant that even though Philadelphia was at that time about 20% Black, moving out of the cramped, segregated housing of the city was not an option. There were no suburban houses, new suburban housing. There was no, rather, new suburban housing available to Black Philadelphia residents. And within Philadelphia, less than 1% of the new housing being built at that time was available to Black home buyers.


But Levittown itself was built earlier than Fallsington. Fallsington was then built several years after the Fair Housing Act was passed. And so when my parents moved in 1975, 1976, there was this cluster of sort of token families of color that were sold houses in the neighborhood. And in retrospect, I always kind of wondered why there was no one like us in the neighborhood and why there was one Black family and one Jewish family and one Chinese family and one Vietnamese family, one Spanish family, even.


There was such a stark tokenization that in retrospect, it was almost laughable. Although at the time I didn't really know enough, I didn't have enough context really to understand what was going on. But we were there because of the Fair Housing Act, so it's really powerful to go back and figure out what the legal and social parameters were that constructed my childhood in that way. So Levittown today is still 88% white and less than 4% Black, even though neighboring or nearby Philly is 41% Black and something like 39% white. So you still see this really stark racialization of this iconic American suburb. And so you see that segregation. You also see the wealth disparity between the school districts, for example, in Philadelphia versus Pennsbury school district, which is the school district fed into by Levittown and is fairly well resourced. And so that urban suburban color line is still very stark.

Kee Tobar (17:09):

It was also interesting to see you juxtapose Levittown with Concord Park, which was one of the first intentionally racially integrated suburbs of the United States in the late '50s. Ultimately, Concord Park was almost a hundred percent Black by the time the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. What laws and policies do you believe sealed its fate toward segregation?

Sofia Ali-Khan (17:35):

Right up until the Fair Housing Act, and even for some time afterwards, there were a concerted set of policies and practices that really held the color lines in place with regard to housing. Developers, for example, could not get... Generally the way suburban development works and even urban development works is that a developer goes to a bank, gets a massive loan to build housing, and then they start to pay that loan back as they sell the houses upon completion. And so banks wouldn't give those massive loans to developers who did not commit that their housing would be whites only, and then they also wouldn't provide mortgages to non-white, Black and brown home buyers. So that alone was a massive barrier to the construction and the purchase of homes by, for Black and brown home buyers. And then you had the Federal Housing Authority that wouldn't ensure mortgages for brown and Black buyers.


And then you had a National Realtors Association that was training realtors in practices of steering to keep white buyers in particular neighborhoods and brown and Black buyers in other neighborhoods. And so all of these things operated together to create really durable and pervasive separations between white communities and brown and Black communities. Concord Park was really unique in that it was the first intentionally racially integrated suburb. As you mentioned, Morris Milgrim worked in concert with some active activists, civil rights invested Quakers in the region to put together the funding for this new, much smaller, so several hundred homes instead of 17,000 homes. Much smaller community in present day, Bensalem, I believe it was Bensalem even then, but it was a narrow piece of Bensalem that was bordered by a couple of highways. And he was operating in an environment where he had to navigate the fact that there weren't a lot of options for potential Black home buyers.


So there's this incredible pressure. There was a population explosion. Folks were coming back from the second World War. They were trying to set up families, set up households, have families, and there were plenty of new options like Levittown for white home buyers. And there were not parallel options for Black home buyers. So ridiculously in that environment, Morris Milgrim with the intention of creating an integrated neighborhood and hopefully proving that his intention was to prove that there was a better way to live, that integration was better morally, socially better than segregation. But in order to do that, he had to turn away Black home buyers because there was a much bigger demand among Black home buyers who didn't have any housing options. So he was in this crazy position of having good intentions but turning away home buyers who were Black because he wanted an equal number of brown and Black home buyers on one hand and white home buyers on the other.


And so he was in this crazy situation. And then what happened was that after that initial project of Concord Park where they did actually for a time achieve a balance between Black home buyers and white... White homeowners and Black homeowners. What happened was that as that first generation of home buyers started to sell, that overwhelming demand from Black home buyers who couldn't find other options meant that ultimately the neighborhood became a hundred percent Black. And so it wasn't... It provided this really essential resource for Black home buyers, but it didn't end up living out the integrationist dreams of Morris Milgram because there was so much external pressure on that dream by institutions that just had not changed enough to allow for it.

Kee Tobar (22:00):

I don't know if you can hear the twang in my voice, but I am an Arkansan.

Sofia Ali-Khan (22:07):

Are you?

Kee Tobar (22:08):

I'm very much from Blytheville, Arkansas. I want to give a shout out to my hometown. So I loved reading a portion about your experience as someone who was not from Arkansas with Arkansas. So after graduating college, you found yourself in Arkansas, in Little Rock, where you physically and socially lived on a color line. You mentioned earlier about the bridge that separates, that provides itself as the color line. What was it like to be neither Black nor white in Arkansas?

Sofia Ali-Khan (22:44):

It was weird. It was super weird. So much so that there was only one other neither Black nor white person that I knew when I was in Little Rock, and her name was Judy Matsuoka. And part of that chapter on Little Rock in the book is me going back to figure out what on earth Judy Matsuoka was doing there. And that opens the story that I tell in the book about the Japanese internment camps, Jerome and Rohwer, which are in southeastern Arkansas, in the Delta region, which are the easternmost Japanese internment camps... Or were, rather. But in terms of the color line that I sat on in Little Rock while I was there, I tell a couple of stories that I can give you the thumbnail of here. I lived in an apartment that was just tucked under Highway 630, and when I moved there, I didn't know anything about Little Rock, Arkansas. The only thing I knew was an Eyes on the Prize series story that I had watched-

Kee Tobar (23:50):


Sofia Ali-Khan (23:51):

... On my college campus, about... I was working in the media center for my student job on campus. And so I watched the entire Eyes on the Prize series. And so I knew about the desegregation of Central High. Remarkably, that had never come up in any of my classes, although I was looking for civil rights history, I couldn't really find it in a curriculum. It was a tiny liberal arts college, but that history was remarkably absent. So by the time I got to Little Rock, Arkansas, all I knew was this iconic moment of desegregation, but I didn't... I had never been taught the aftermath of it. And so I didn't understand when I came and we entrusted our realtor with finding us a place, and we found this apartment on highway... Right tucked under Highway 630.


And it turns out that that highway is the line of demarcation between white Little Rock and Black Little Rock. That was the highway that was built in the decades that followed the desegregation of Central High with... I don't think it's controversial to say, with the intention of the town fathers and the state leaders that the highway would resegregate the entire town so that the desegregation of schools would no longer really be an issue because it would be logistically too hard to bus kids across the highway.


So just the thumbnail of that story is that 1954 Brown versus Board of Education is decided, saying that separate is not equal. And then Brown Two was decided saying, "Okay, we got to get rid of segregation, but you can go slow." And then in 1957, under that gradual integration plan, Central High was supposed to be desegregated the very next year, and there were nine students, the Little Rock nine, who did spend one full year, one full academic year at Central High, and they were tormented. There's an incredible book by their mentor, Ms. Daisy Bates, about what they suffered during that year and who the players were. But after that year, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas shut down all the public schools in town, and then supported the building of a white suburban enclave to the west of what was then Little Rock.


And now that suburban enclave is 40% of Little Rock, and it is still almost all white. And then he supported the building of a public school there, staffed by all white teachers, and then supported the building of a public school on the eastern end of town, not too far from where I lived, staffed by all Black teachers. And so north of the highway there were the main economic engines of the town, hospitals, businesses, the public library, the university, all of that. And then south of the highway, into the east was a concentrated set of some Black... Or some predominantly Black institutions. But they also built public housing projects there and used urban redevelopment money to destroy Black middle class housing, specifically the Dunbar neighborhood, which was a major Black middle class neighborhood north of that highway in Little Rock. And I can see you sort of close your eyes, and I feel the same way. I'm researching this, I'm reading this, and I think, it was so concerted, it was so intentional that it's a hard history to digest.


So they spent a couple of decades and millions of dollars building this highway, Highway 630, that still runs across Little Rock, and it's a six to eight lane wall in the city. So when you take a look at the history, it turns out that Little Rock as a hole is substantially more segregated than it was in the 1950s, which is heartbreaking. And so it's not surprising that when you look at Little Rock newspapers today, public school segregation is still in the news, because they undid a great deal of the victory of the desegregation of that moment, of the desegregation of Central High.

Kee Tobar (28:25):

In the book, you also explore how Asian Americans played a critical role in the courts developing ideas about race. You discuss a 1923 case called United States versus Bhagat Singh Thind. Am I saying that correctly? I want to make sure I say that properly.

Sofia Ali-Khan (28:43):

I think it's probably Bhagat Singh Thind. But that's okay.

Kee Tobar (28:47):

Want to make sure I have it right.

Sofia Ali-Khan (28:49):

No, that's great.

Kee Tobar (28:50):

Tell us about that case and how do we still use the average white person's standards to adjudicate every American's race and status?

Sofia Ali-Khan (29:01):

So this gives me an opportunity to say that one of the things I love about the law, about case law is that there's always a story hidden in the case law. And so the story behind the Bhagat Singh Thind case, the Supreme Court case from 1923 that you mentioned is that Mr. Thind was a Sikh man from India, and he was attempting to naturalize. He actually has a pretty remarkable biography. He was a community leader. He went on to serve in the military. But in 1923, American immigration law only allowed white people to naturalize. So Mr. Thind made a claim to being white in court. And the court, the Supreme Court in this case, went through a whole bunch of arguments about language families, like Indo-European languages and various theories about what it meant to be Caucasian and what the definition of Caucasian was.


But in the end, the court sweeps all of that aside and says... It creates an average white person standard by saying, "No sort of reasonable white person would be able to accept some of these folks that are in these broad categories. And so we can't accept these categories, right?" Because some of the writers of the time included Malays, for example, in the category of Caucasian, and that wasn't going to work for the Supreme Court. And so the court finds that essentially the average white person would see these folks as other, and so we need a different way of identifying who is white. And so actually the court holds that the proper test for racial classification is, what would the average white person in America be willing to accept as white? Who would they be willing to accept as white? And so this incredibly subjective, very overtly subjective standard, becomes our national legal standard for adjudicating race.


And it's kind of crazy because we live in a world where race and racism are real things, but only because they've been used by people in power to dispossess other people. So weirdly, we're stuck in this situation where to talk about race, even when we're talking about reparative action, we have to... We're stuck oftentimes using the definitions that were built in a racialized environment, that were built in a racist environment. And that's pretty specious. That's a real problem.


And so one of the interesting things, identity politics get a bad rap, and I think for good reason, but one of the things about identity politics that's really incredibly powerful is that they allow us the assertion that we should be able to self-identify, that it's not the person with the most historic authority and power in the room who should be able to identify us. We should be able to identify ourselves. And that we're starting to see, I think, a social acceptance of that idea that I think threatens a lot of people, but I think it's really powerful.

Kee Tobar (32:12):

So we're going to talk about your time at Community Legal Services, but I wanted to make sure that I do another kind of plug of your book, A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America. Because one of the things, the hopes for this podcast is to really uncover the historical foundations of a lot of the things that we kind of at this time, accept as innate in the law and also in the frameworks. As you're talking about the frameworks that we're still using to battle against inequity today. How even the frameworks and the playing field that we're on is embedded in inequitable racialization by people who were impacted by racist ideology, and a lot of -ists. Sexist, a lot of discriminatory ideology. And so I really appreciate that about your book, and I wanted to explicitly say that.


Now we get to talk about your time as a CLS. Yeah. So you said that working at CLS, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, was your dream job. What did you find compelling about your work?

Sofia Ali-Khan (33:37):

I love CLS. I should just start there. I love CLS. There's so much infrastructure that we've talked about that keeps America divided along class and race lines especially, and CLS and agencies like it are organized in a way and for us to be able to cross those and be invested in each other's wellbeing across those lines. I crossed color lines every day as a CLS lawyer. I worked with undocumented immigrants that often go to work in the dark and come home in the dark. And I worked with African-American women who were starting their own childcare businesses in their neighborhoods to defeat the horror of welfare to work laws and build capital in their own neighborhoods. I talked to clients through interpreters all the time. These were not people who I would necessarily have been able to serve and to meet and to know in America. America doesn't encourage those interactions.


So I got to feel like I helped some of the most vulnerable people in our country assert their dignity and their humanity in a society that continues to deny it. And so I felt really honored to be able to do that work. I think in an ideal world, we wouldn't have legal aid, and I always felt like I was working, I had to be committed to working to make myself obsolete. I don't think any of us wants legal aid to be necessary to provide the basic necessities for... I mean, I think we all believe that the state should be providing basic necessities to everyone. And so legal aid shouldn't have to exist at that level. But given the context, I was just really grateful to be working towards a little bit more justice every day.

Kee Tobar (35:40):

That's awesome. With it being your dream job, why did you decide to leave CLS?

Sofia Ali-Khan (35:48):

So I was 33 years old and I knew that I wanted to have children, and I wasn't sure how or when that was going to happen, but I knew that... 9-11 had happened eight years before and I had become, I had helped start CAIR Philadelphia, the Council on American Islamic Relations, the chapter in Pennsylvania. At that time, it was municipal, it was in Philadelphia. And in that role, I was talking to people throughout the Delaware Valley, all over Philadelphia about Islam and Muslims. And I knew the kind of anger and hatred that were out there really well, really intimately. Because I'd go into what were supposed to be sleepy adult ed classes, and I would get dressed down for things that I had nothing to do with. On the regular. That was my side job, although I didn't get paid sadly. And I thought about having children in that context, and I realized that I didn't feel... There was no infrastructure for childcare that I felt comfortable with.


I didn't feel like I could raise racial and religious minorities without being with them. I didn't feel like there was a childcare context that I knew of that would be safe for them, and I just wasn't prepared to contend with that. Now, CLS is a fantastic employer with a great union, God bless them, but we live in a nation that doesn't have adequate maternity leave. So there wasn't really provision unless I made some more money. I also was in the position that so many people are in where if you practice public interest law, you carry a massive student debt.


And so when you're between that rock and that hard place, which are really not, again, about CLS, but really about our lack of a safety net and a federal framework for getting folks educated, you have to make some tough decisions. So I had to make a decision to earn more so that I could raise my children through their early childhood. And that's why I left. That's why I left CLS.


But I have to say, I went, within a year and a half, I was back in legal aid because I couldn't bear not being in legal aid. I went and I did some work for the American Bar Association to protect legal aid funding for a year and a half, and then I couldn't do it anymore. I had to see clients. I had to do legal aid work again.

Kee Tobar (38:21):

That's awesome. Even though-

Sofia Ali-Khan (38:22):

It was short-lived.

Kee Tobar (38:23):

... It's sad that you left CLS, I think it's great that you still landed at another legal aid and continuing to do the work and to be in the fight. And I think what you bring up about the lack of a sustainable parental leave that forces people to make really difficult decisions, I think is a relevant and valuable statement. But let's talk about your time a bit more when you were at CLS, and maybe also just your work, also at other legal aids.


You represented clients whose food stamps, welfare and Medicaid were unlawfully terminated and you won many of those cases, those appeals. But you write that, "These systems are so deeply dysfunctional and set up to deny access, but they cannot bear the weight of any reasonable challenge." Can you explain or expand on this thought and maybe provide an example of a time that happened?

Sofia Ali-Khan (39:27):

I think so. So I tell this story in the book of starting out as a public benefits lawyer. And what I noticed was that overwhelmingly myself and my colleagues won appeals, won our appeals of terminations, and that's because the bureaucracies are set up to routinely terminate our clients. We're set up to routinely terminate our clients. And I can't imagine they still aren't. So a client gets cut off not because they're suddenly making a ton of money and should be cut off, but because they didn't turn in a form or they didn't show up at an appointment or because they didn't make a phone call. And in my day, it was because they couldn't meet these crazy bureaucratic welfare to work requirements.


So it's, just like we don't allow yet brown and Black people to racially identify themselves, self verify their racial identification, we don't allow poor people to self verify their income. And so there's this constant chasing down this paper and that paper to make sure that we prove someone is just poor enough to be able to access basic services, basic resources. And it's not cheap to do that. We pour tremendous resources into doing that. And for some reason, that is the choice that we have made as a society, that it's our priority to spend money chasing folks down rather than giving them that money that they need so desperately.


And so if you're middle class, you don't have to show proof of income to shop at a discount store or buy a cheaper house in a better school district. But if you're poor, you find yourself having to verify exactly how much money you have time and time again. And so what we found by and large was that the role of an attorney in public benefits is really to provide the resources that poverty doesn't allow so many folks. So access to the internet, access to a telephone literacy, the ability to go into an office and talk to someone if that's what needs to happen. So because we could provide that bridge, 99 times out of a hundred, the entire conflict was resolved and the person was able to maintain their benefits. And when we talk about these benefits, we're talking about life sustaining benefits, we're talking about basic food needs, basic rent, if that. I mean, these are not levels that even pay the rent.


We're talking about utilities. We're talking about really, really, really basic things that frankly every American should be able to count on. And like I said, this is why I think most legal services lawyers would love to be made obsolete because they should just be things that every American can count on. So one story that I recount in the book is very early on when I first came to CLS I represented this beautiful, she must have been 90 years old, lady who lived not far from our office at all. She walked in when she had eaten every last scrap of food in her house. She had nothing. Her house was one of those row homes where everything to either side of it had fallen down long time ago. And if you stepped into her home, it was a modest row home, but inside it was a perfectly immaculate 1950s, as if you were walking into a movie set.


It was like you could tell that her wedding China was there. And she had these things that she had preserved so carefully. She had grown children who had moved away, but she had not a scrap of food in the house. And she was really frail. This was not a woman who could get on a bus and go across town to a food pantry. And it was right before Thanksgiving, my first... I had just started at CLS in September, and I remember driving her to a food pantry to get food and then driving her home. And that's when I saw her home and just being blown away at her grace and how she was being treated, and just really feeling the injustice of that moment and feeling like the indignity that we make folks suffer who have worked their whole lives.


And another example, I... On the tip of a fantastic paralegal named Rafi Rom, I founded an offsite clinic for emergency Medicaid for undocumented workers. And there was a free medical clinic that was set up in a church basement for these folks and I did the legal work to get them insurance. I, with a team of some interns and some other folks, interpreters, and I had a client there who had a prostate issue that really probably was cancer, and he needed to have proper treatment. He needed someone to diagnose and treat the problem. Instead, what happened was he kept going to the emergency room and getting catheterized, which is a really, really invasive procedure, very painful and also likely to cause infection if repeated. But because they wouldn't assist him in filling out the paperwork for emergency Medicaid for which he was absolutely qualified. He ended up being just sort of circulated through the ER, re-catheterized, re-catheterized instead of being admitted and being treated properly.


And so being able to just fill out some paperwork. And in that case, this is a really interesting example of how CLS really bridges direct representation with policy advocacy. In that case, I was seeing so many similar cases that we were able to advocate with the Department of Public Welfare to remedy the fact that they had never created a bureaucratic pathway for people to apply for emergency Medicaid. So people like him who had to do things, in spite of their lack of immigration status, had to put together sort of a package that would make them qualify anyway. They didn't really understand how to do that. There was no specific form. So even though the agency had a federal obligation to provide those people medical insurance, there was a less than zero chance that anybody would actually find their way to that resource. And so again, these are resources that we put unnecessary hurdles in front of so that lawyers become necessary.

Kee Tobar (46:33):

So what are some of the ways you imagine moving forward with this knowledge though? It's one thing to know it. What ways do you imagine moving forward?

Sofia Ali-Khan (46:42):

There are these iconic moments where American liberties seems to radically expand. The desegregation of Central High and the Standing Rock protests and the Black Lives Matter protests, where there's more attention on police brutality. I think we do have the civil rights battles, of course. I think we have these moments, but I think unless we start teaching what led up to them, what's coming after them, until we have that whole story being taught in every public school, I really don't think our odds are terribly good at having the critical mass that it will take to change, to change our attitudes and institutions in the foundational way that we need to. So one really practical example... I mean, that sounds like pie in the sky, but here's a practical example from Canada. In Canadian schools, in public elementary schools all over the country, they do land acknowledgements.


Now, a lot of activists, and I see where they're coming from, complain that the land acknowledgements are not enough. So a land acknowledgement is, "I'm speaking to you from the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation. It's treaty territory, three and three quarters." So I'm giving information about who had this land and didn't cede it, and who have treaty rights to this land that I'm on. Seems like such a minor thing. I haven't given anything back. There have been no reparations. But what I've done is I've voiced a reality about whose land this is, about the theft that happened.


And they do that in their public schools, in the morning at school events. They do it in political, federal events, provincial events. They do it at sporting events sometimes. So it's come into the culture. There's a consciousness of what the colonial... That this is a continuing colonial project, and that Native people are still here and need to be acknowledged. And it needs to be acknowledged that this is their rightful homeland.


So we see an incredibly vitriolic battle over rights and reparations, but there's a way to get from point A to point B where people have enough of that backstory to say, "Okay, that's a legitimate conversation. We need to have that conversation." So I see it happening in these small ways here. Again, it seems performative, but what is that doing? It's raising a certain level of awareness so that that conversation that follows about reparations can happen, can happen with informed and empathetic people at the table. I mean, I think that's where I see the hope.

Kee Tobar (49:30):

Thank you for your book, and thank you for this very thoughtful conversation. I've really enjoyed it.

Sofia Ali-Khan (49:36):

I so appreciate you Kee, and it's just such an honor to talk with you and to meet you. I miss CLS terribly, so it's a little bit like coming home.

Kee Tobar (49:55):

Well, that was my interview with Sofia Ali-Khan. I always enjoy connecting with fellow legal aid attorneys, so I'm really grateful to Sofia for joining us on the show. You can stay connected to Sofia by following her on Twitter as Sofia underscore Ali-Khan. That's S-O-F-I-A, underscore, A-L-I K-H-A-N. And definitely check out her new book, A Good Country, My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for White America.


If you want to ask questions about the show or let us know what you think, please email us at Also, while Community Legal services of Philadelphia offers free legal assistance on a range of civil legal issues, we are not a criminal defense firm. So if you live in Philadelphia and are looking for a noncriminal legal help, please visit us at C-L-S-P-H-I-L-A dot O-R-G. We cannot respond to questions about legal issues via email.


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 Farwa Zaidi. I'm your host, Kee Tobar.