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Constructing an equitable society: The civil rights lawyer as a social engineer

Civil Rights Attorney

Charles Hamilton Houston, a prominent attorney known as the “man who killed Jim Crow,” once said, “A lawyer is either a social engineer or a parasite on society.” In his perspective, a lawyer can serve as a social engineer for a more equitable society.

Through a highly skilled understanding of the U.S. Constitution, social engineers utilize its provisions and interpretations to help underprivileged communities and citizens. It has been the goal of several civil rights lawyers to embody Houston’s vision and advance the fight for social justice and meaningful progress.

ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice Chair Angela J. Scott has made it part of her mission to educate attorneys and law students on how they can be social engineers. The Section’s latest webinar series, The Civil Rights Lawyer: Perspectives on the Profession, aims to inform and inspire future civil rights attorneys. Leading the conversation on what it means to be a civil rights lawyer in day and age, this four-part webinar series will provide insights and perspectives about the different pathways in pursuing a career in the realm of civil rights law.

The second installment of this series, coming up on February 19 at 12:30 p.m. EST, focuses on the Houston’s idea of the “social engineer.” In commemoration of Black History Month, this latest installment of the series will recognize lawyers who are working to engineer a more racially just country, illuminating the different ways in which attorneys can operate as social engineers and become champions for an equitable society.

“While we hope to inspire attorneys to go into the civil rights practice area, we also hope this series will help identify ways in which all attorneys can contribute to what should be our collective mission. As lawyers we should all take ownership in the defense of the civil and human rights to which we are all entitled so that we live in a fair, equal and just society,” Scott said.

The role that civil rights lawyers and social engineers play has not lost its grave importance to society. While social engineers have made incredible progress since slavery and segregation, there are still several adversities that communities of color face. Forms of oppression have evolved from slavery into mass incarceration, biases and prejudices, wealth disparities, housing inequalities, and police brutality.

In light of recent protests surrounding these issues, a shared belief has emerged that social engineers are in great need to object to unjust law and act against inequality. This belief extends that if lawyers take an indifferent stance on these issues or choose to remain silent, they are at risk of becoming what Houston termed as a “parasite on society.”

The Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice is proud to partner with the Young Lawyers Division and Law Student Division on this program. Registration for The Civil Rights Lawyer: Perspectives on the Profession is free and open to all members of the public.

For additional reading and information, please visit the links below:

Find more information about the webinar series and Part 1 here: The Civil Rights Lawyer: Perspectives on the Profession

Priyanka Shingwekar Priyanka Shingwekar is a Government Student at Georgetown University and a Public Interest Intern at with the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice at the American Bar Association.