OBABL Q and A with Elie Mystal

David Lat and Elie Mystal

Will Lim and Elie Mystal

Earlier today I wrote about my impressions of the popular legal blog, Above The Law.   Now, ATL’s editor-in-chief, Elie Mystal, weighs in on the discussion by participating in an OBABL Q and A.

OBABL:  Would you share your general impressions regarding comments generated on posts that contain an African American component?

ELIE:  In every post, there are a small minority of people who want to seek to say the most negative and hurtful things they can imagine. If it’s a post involving women, the sexist comments rain down. If it’s a post about gays the homophobes are out in force. The comments when we talk about an African-American or an African-American issue are sadly predictable, but the goal is the same. Some people just want to say that most hurtful thing possible. Every site that allows anonymous commentary has to deal with this at some level.

OBABL:   I’d like for you to share your thoughts and feelings regarding the change in tone of comments directed at you before and after your identity was disclosed. I followed the ATL IDOL competition closely. You were the runaway favorite, but this seemed less so once you posted your picture.

ELIE:  The change in tone was entirely predictable to me and every “black/white/other” friend I have. During the competition, my friends and I joked about how race would suddenly play a role in the negativity directed at me if I won the competition. But let’s not forget that I’ve been black “all my life.” I learned a long, long time ago to detach my feelings of self-worth and accomplishment from the prejudiced perspective of a minority of people. My mother was born in 1950 in the heart of Mississippi. She dealt with a brand of racism I still can’t fully comprehend. I deal with a couple of idiots who want to hurt my feelings. I try to keep that perspective as I go about my day.

OBABL:  Please share with me your perspective on the BLSA flap.

ELIE:  It reminded me that absolute racial tolerance and equality is actually an unattainable goal that people from all walks of life have to work towards everyday. It always bothers me when a person (black or white) says “I’m not prejudiced,” because the minute you feel like that is the minute you stop trying to be even more tolerant and open to new ways of understanding an issue. The best a person can hope for is to not let prejudice influence the decision right in front of them. You do your best and then you move on to the next decision. It’s an ongoing, daily, largely internal struggle.

That said, that internal struggle is exhausting and everybody makes mistakes from time to time. That’s what happened here. I make mistakes all the time. All you can do is try to learn from them and move on. Based on the BLSA president’s apology, I think that is what she is doing. If everybody handled their mistakes like she has, we would all make even more progress.

OBABL:   What advice would you offer to minorities working in racially tense environments?

ELIE:   Ha. If I had a great answer for that question I’d spend the rest of my life trying to get the message out. My thoughts on this are always evolving: as I get older, as I experience more successes and failures, as I get more jaded, as Obama wins Indiana …I think that the one thing that has been relatively consistent is that I’m not “afraid” of both being black and being in a professional environment. I don’t try to “act white” or “act black” or pretend that race has never played a factor in my life or suggest that I’ve been a victim of the worst kinds of oppression. I’m the sum of all my experiences, and being a minority is part — though not necessarily the most important part — of those experiences. I try my best and don’t suffer fools. Hopefully that will work.

OBABL:   What percentage of your comments would you estimate are unsympathetic to the concerns and experiences of black attorneys? Would you say they represent an accurate sampling of ATL’s readership?

ELIE:  The racist idiots who comment represent a very small percentage of the overall ATL commenters and a negligible percentage of the overall readership. You’d be surprised that in a comment thread of over 200 comments how the really offensive comments are generated by the same 3 people, posting over and over again trying to masquerade as different people. We’ve even got people who will post something offensive as the 5th comment and then 50 comments later say, “I don’t agree with the way #5 said it, but he has a point…”

On a good post we’ll get tens of thousands of unique readers that generate a couple of hundred comments of which a handful, generated by 15 people, will be racially offensive. Whatever.

OBABL:   Let’s say for the sake of this discussion that the comments do accurately reflect the views of your readership. Where does that leave us, both black and white attorneys? How do we find common ground and learn to work together?

ELIE:  If I may be so bold, I’d say that the common ground between white attorneys and black attorneys is “green.” And people of both races have been working together on that front for ten or twenty years now.

But of course their are people who hold an immense amount of racial animus towards “others.” I have no idea what to do with these people, but I know that they are losing. I think that the comments do accurately reflect that there are some real racist jackasses out there. And they might be sitting in an office right next to you. But the thought that “some people that you work with are racist” is not really breaking news. You try to work with the people you can work with and “overcome” the people who stand in your way. It’s difficult sometimes, but again I try to hang on to the perspective that my parents had it worse and the hope that my kids (if I have them) will have it better. You just have to keep fighting and trust that you are on the right side of history.

OBABL:   How have you enjoyed your tenure at ATL? (Obviously you’ve made Lat happy with those extra visitors and page views). I do hope you’re not growing weary:-).

ELIE:  This is the best job I’ve ever had. I’m a writer and there are two things that every writer wants: 1) the opportunity to write, 2) readers. I have both. Everyday is an opportunity to do something I enjoy … how could you not love that?

But the reason why I think things are working is because I’m part of an excellent team, both in terms of ATL specifically and also Breaking Media in general. Ideas are constantly flying around the office or over email. I get outstanding input from all of the other ATL contributors and day-to-day Lat is very actively involved with everything everybody is doing. I think sometimes people pay a little too much attention to the “byline.” The ATL operation is a true team effort and that’s why it is successful.

Most importantly, I trust my team. Any writer will tell you that the writing process is intensely personal, but that “good” writing comes from feedback and interaction. Lat and I will discuss certain posts on a word-by-word basis. Because we trust each other, it makes the posts better, the site better, and the working environment invigorating. And then there is this stable of commenters who are not shy about giving me feedback. Sure, it seems harsh sometimes, but the writer who is afraid of criticism will quickly become a stale and irrelevant writer. I try to learn from my critics, supporters, friends, and enemies.

Writing. Is. Fun.

OBABL:   If there is anything you’d like to add, please do so.

ELIE:  I’m surprised that you didn’t ask some version of the “affirmative action” question because that’s the hook that I find most of the race baiters try to hang their antebellum opinions on. But perhaps you didn’t because you feel as I do that the AA “debate” is the biggest red herring we have going in our educational and professional community.

I find the “you’re only here because of AA” insult to be the most consistently annoying, but I’ve heard it so many times –even from white friends I otherwise consider to be truly tolerant people — that I’ve learned that the insult comes from ignorance and not animus.

Some people think that AA allows “dumber” or “less qualified” people to get into schools or get jobs “in order to make up for the centuries of racial oppression in this country.” … If I thought that was what AA did I’d probably hate it too. But that’s not what AA is all about. AA, Reparations, nothing “makes up for” enslaving a people. Nothing makes up for trying to exterminate a people either. Some debts cannot be repaid. Instead, AA is a fledgling attempt to recognize that a diversity of thought and experiences is crucial to a great education and quite useful in a professional environment as well. I went to school with rich black people and poor white people. With Africans and Europeans. With legacies and kids who were the first member of their family to go to college. With middle-class black kids just like me, and middle-class white kids just like me. And I learned things from that diverse group of people that can simply not be taught in a book or a lecture. That is the point of affirmative action. We learn “better” when we are exposed to people who have different experiences from what we are used to.

Professionally, I don’t know how you can even think of running a law firm that claims to service a diverse and complex set of clients if you have 500 lawyers that all hail from a substantially similar backgrounds. Every now and again, a white guy from Lubbock is going to have a different idea on how to move a negotiation forward than a woman from San Francisco. If I were a client, I’d want both “counsel” if I could have it.

Standardized test scores and GPA tell a part of the story, but the concept that a person with a 3.4 GPA can’t possibly be “as good a lawyer” as a person with a 3.6 GPA is patently ridiculous. Tom Brady couldn’t win the starting job outright in college, and Michael Vick had all the “measurables” to be the best QB the NFL has ever seen … but that’s why they play the games.

A friend of mine who works at a top law firm recently said to me “Elie, I don’t want to piss you off but I honestly wish I were a minority right now. It would be so much harder for them to fire me if I was.” The email almost made me cry. It hurt me not because my friend thought that minorities had an unfair advantage over him. It hurt because my friend, in the back of his mind, thought that if he were just competing on “a level playing field” with minorities, he’d win.

That’s my problem with the anti-AA argument. Some white people feel that if the choice is between them and a mediocre racial minority or woman, the mediocre racial minority or woman will “get it.” But that group of white people doesn’t seem to see that the easy “solution” to their perceived problem is to simply not be mediocre. You’re worried that a black woman with a 170 will get into Yale over you with your 171? Get a 180 and end the discussion. Or take your really good 171 and go to another really good law school and make it happen from there.

I don’t know how my life would have played out to this point if I was white. But I don’t assume that it would be “better.” Different? Absolutely. But better? Who can say? The biggest Texas Hold ‘Em pot I’ve ever won I had two 5s in the hole. The biggest one I’ve ever lost I had two 8s. You play the cards you’re dealt.


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