The New Jersey State Bar Association’s Diversity Summit attracted more than 130 legal professionals to examine the imprint of blatant bias on the nation 50 years ago and the institutionalized variety that persists today.

“When you’re a member of the dominant group, you have the luxury of being oblivious,” the white anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise told the diverse audience yesterday during the keynote address. “Inequity is not a glitch, it’s a feature built into the system. The fact that it isn’t illegal doesn’t mean it’s not unethical.”

The NJSBA summit, “Looking Back to Move Forward,” celebrated diversity and inclusion, and promoted cultural competency while providing a forum for frank discussion about bias based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. It is a part of the association’s larger efforts to promote diversity and inclusion in the profession, and the day included a meeting between the NJSBA’s leadership and the leaders of affinity bars around the state to discuss issues of mutual concern.

“Today we are focused on the various lenses through which we see what we do as professionals,” NJSBA President Robert B. Hille said. “We also focus on how our individual differences and backgrounds enrich our collective efforts.” Hille noted the NJSBA’s leadership has greatly diversified in recent years through a concerted effort; today, half the 50 trustees are women and people of diverse backgrounds.

Keeping Barriers Down

“More work needs to be done to make sure the barriers are down and that they stay down,” Hille said. “We will continue to examine and address implicit bias and discrimination issues through programming; advocate the need to ensure that judges reflect the rich tapestry of the people they serve; and that our Leadership Academy makes it a priority to provide all with access to leadership opportunities.”

The daylong summit at the New Jersey Law Center in New Brunswick featured three panels. The first delved into the ramifications of Loving v. Virginia, the landmark civil rights case that ended in 1967 with a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling declaring unconstitutional state laws prohibiting interracial marriage. The second session examined the value and importance of cultural competency for meaningful diversity and inclusion in the legal profession, while the third analyzed a proposed change to New Jersey Ethics Rule 8.4(g) regarding discrimination by attorneys in the workplace.

The Loving Story

Before the Loving panel took the stage, attendees watched portions of The Loving Story, an HBO documentary about Mildred and Richard Loving, a black woman and white man who married in 1958 despite Virginia’s law against interracial marriage. They were banned from Virginia for nine years until the Supreme Court overturned their convictions, ruling that state laws against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the 14th Amendment.

Years later, the ruling became a cornerstone of the national crusade for marriage equality, achieved in 2015 through another U.S Supreme Court ruling, Obergefell v. Hodges. That ruling, in turn, has fueled advancements in rights for the transgender community, the experts said.

“Diversity is about the human spirit, so today, we want to get real,” said panel moderator John Fitzgerald Gates, associate dean and engineering chief diversity officer at the University of Virginia.

Panelist Evan Wolfson, an attorney who is widely considered the architect behind national marriage equality efforts, told the audience he had once spoken to Mildred Loving. Wolfson had called hoping to persuade Loving to back marriage equality. While she was reluctant to get involved at that time, in 2007 — the 40th anniversary of Loving v. Virginia — she agreed to sign a statement drafted by Wolfson endorsing marriage equality.

Beyond Marriage

Kimberly Mutcherson, vice dean and professor of law at Rutgers Law School-Camden, said the Loving ruling was “incredibly important on a personal level and incredibly important on a societal level.” Mutcherson, however, noted marriage in the U.S. is on the decline, and citizens who choose to form families outside that institution don’t receive the benefits bestowed on those who do.

“How do we make the law fit for people?” Mutcherson asked. Society needs to figure out how laws can address evolving realities of what constitutes family, she said.

Wolfson said the ruling on marriage equality has had far-reaching benefits in other areas. He

pointed to a JAMA Pediatrics study published in February that found a significant drop in teenage suicide attempts, especially among LGBTQ adolescents, in states that legalized marriage equality since 1999.

Thomas Prol, NJSBA immediate past president and the organization’s first openly gay leader,

talked about the power of storytelling, and recalled the bravery of LGBTQ residents who shared their personal experiences at public forums and helped win public support for marriage equality in New Jersey. He urged NJSBA members to be activists for social justice, suggesting, for example, that they craft amicus briefs in important cases to give the courts a different perspective.

“I want you to understand the power your voice has,” Prol said.

Challenging Old Boys’ Networks

The audience appeared riveted by Wise, the keynote speaker, who urged them to challenge institutional practices that favor whites, males, and the affluent, such as standardized testing for entry to higher education, and use of old boys’ networks for workplace hiring and promotions.

“Unless we’re trying to change that, we’re part of the problem,” Wise said. The notion of rugged individualism, that those who work hard succeed, “is the secular gospel of the United States” and a false narrative that ignores the nation’s history of institutional bias, Wise said.

He ended on an optimistic note, saying “the collective will of the people” has defeated “bigger monsters” than anything the country now finds itself facing.