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Legal aid should lead in the pursuit of racial justice

By Beverly Allen, ISBA Standing Committee on Delivery of Legal Services

Legal aid programs have been at the forefront of the war on poverty and the fight for equal access to justice for all since its inception.  Historically, legal aid played a crucial role in ensuring equal protections under the law involving social security, housing, health care, education, employment, and anti-discrimination issues for those who could not afford legal representation. In 1965, the federal legal aid programs focused efforts on what was coined, “The War on Poverty.”[1]   In 1975, the Legal Services Corporation Act refocused the purpose of the programs from addressing poverty to achieving equal access to justice.[2]

Today, legal aid programs continue to focus on issues affecting the poor.  People of color, are three times as likely as whites to be poor, according to the 2000 Census.[3]   People of color are more likely to experience substandard housing conditions; poor medical care; inferior education; a higher unemployment rate; and discrimination in the welfare system. [4]  These conditions are the consequences of institutional racism. 

Institutional racism is any system of inequality based on race. It is the differential access to the goods, services and opportunities of society. [5]   Traditionally, policies were put in place promoting racial segregation and disparities in wealth between white and black people.  For example, the Social Security Act of 1935, excluded agricultural workers and domestic servants, mostly blacks.[6]  In the Wagner Act of 1935, “blacks were blocked by law from challenging the barriers to entry into newly protected labor unions and securing the right to collective bargaining.”[7]   Similarly, the National Housing Act of 1939, tied property value and eligibility for government loans to race.[8]  These are only a few illustrations of policies enacted depriving people of color common liberties that were afforded whites.  Subsequent laws passed to eliminate these resultant injustices have been unsuccessful.

Race and poverty issues go hand in hand and underlie the mission of legal aid programs today.  Therefore, legal aid must revamp their approach to poverty issues in order to achieve success in the war on poverty and access to justice.  The fight must go where it is needed the most and would be most effective.  Thus, race based advocacy must be a priority.[9]   Using the same tools utilized historically to fight racial discrimination and poverty, the staff of legal aid programs must learn to evaluate cases with a racial lens, looking beyond the individual problem to examine the systemic affect the problem has on the entire community.[10]     

If the action limits equal access to resources and advancement or causes a negative disparate effect on people of color, then legal aid lawyers should consider the use of anti-discrimination laws or civil rights laws to address the problem.[11] The effects of institutional racism can no longer be ignored and must be abolished, if equal access to justice for all is ever to be achieved.


[1] Alan W. Houseman, Racial Justice: The Role of Civil Legal Assistance, CLEARING HOUSE REV. 5-14 (2002)

[2] See Houseman, supra note 1, at 8.

[3] See Houseman, supra note 1, at 5.

[4] See Camille D. Holmes, Linda E. Perle &Alan W. Houseman, Race-Based Advocacy: The Role and Responsibility of LSC Funded Programs, 36 CLEARING HOUSE REV. 61, 63-64. (2002).

[5]  Donald J. McCormack (1973). Stokely Carmichael and Pan-Africanism: Back to Black Power. The Journal of Politics, 35, pp 386-409. doi:10.2307/2129075. (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2129075)

[7] Supra, note 8.

[8] Supra, note 8.

[9] See Holmes, supra, note 6 at 62.

[10] See Holmes, supra, note 6 at 61.

[11] Paul E. Lee and Mary M. Lee, Reflections from the Bottom of the Well: Racial Bias in the Provision of Legal Services to the Poor, 27 CLEARINGHOUSE REV. 311 (Special Edition 1993).

Posted on February 12, 2016 by Morgan Yingst
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Member Comments (1)

ah, yes. law reform is what the conservatives called it in the 1970's. they wanted legal aid offices funded by the federal govt. to only represent individuals in individual cases with individual problems. none of this class action or law reform stuff that had the potential to aid many people in one law suit. this class action and law reform stuff fostered judicial activism. and also, usually, it was a plaintiff suing the government. the same govt. that paid the legal aid atty. who was helping the plaintiff.

the legal services corporation act forbids law reform for offices that receive federal money., even if they use other money, non federal, to pay the law reform lawyer.

the ability to do what the article advocates requires an act of a republican controlled congress to accomplish. good luck with that.

yes, i am a former legal aid attorney from the 1970s.