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“I want to refer to non-Latino Spanish-speaking lawyers”

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Reality so often is more pathetic than fiction.

Yesterday, I was talking with a woman on the way down the courthouse elevator. She works in the courthouse, and we spoke in Spanish, her native tongue; I do not have as much of a throughout-the-day chance to speak Spanish now that I am no longer with my former law partner, whose Spanish is impeccable and whose practice heavily involves the language.

This woman said she was happy to meet an additional Spanish-speaking lawyer (my Spanish is intermediate, bolstered by a quarter century of practice), because some people sometimes ask her for names of such lawyers. Then came the often uncomfortable question: ‘Where are you from?" Some just want to know where I grew up. Others actually want to know my ethnic and/or religious background. Once when asked that question, the follow-up was: "Are you American or Jewish?" as if the two are mutually exclusive. The questioner had sold me a bottle of water at a New Orleans airport newsstand, pre-Katrina, and I stormed out labeling her out load "Stupid! Stupid!", which was hardly in sync with my goal of a t’ai chi life twenty-four hours a day.

To this woman on the elevator, I answered "Connecticut, and now in the Washington area a long time." She replied: "So, you are not born abroad?" JK: "That’s right." She responded: "Good. I don’t want to refer people to lawyers from Latin America [yet she was born a Spanish speaker]. They take advantage of their own." JK: "I’ve heard enough. Your words make no sense. Have a nice day." (Moreover, who can speak Spanish better than a native-born Spanish speaker?)

Sadly, bigotry remains alive and thriving among too many people, even sometimes by people against their own ethnic group. Perhaps more sadly, too many people do not stand up to such attitudes.

What to do about it? When many years ago I complained to a very selfless and capable public interest lawyer/leader/giant about ongoing rampant bigotry, he replied: "That is why we pursue housing discrimination and employment discrimination lawsuits." However, successful discrimination lawsuits alone will not solve the problem. People who express bigoted attitudes need to be addressed one-by-one, if they have the capacity to listen to reasoning.

Addressing bigots can make waves. Make waves if that is the only way to address them. Do not just sit safely in the middle of a boat hoping it does not rock, only to hit a huge rock that tears apart your boat and sinks it anyway. 

How do you handle such situations? Jon Katz.