People wiped away tears as they listened to Kim Foxx deliver the keynote address at the Peoria Bar Association’s 16th Annual Diversity Lunch.
Foxx is the first African American woman to serve as Cook County State’s Attorney in the 100 years the office has existed. She is only the second woman to serve in that office.
She spoke without notes. She spoke from life experience. She spoke compellingly about why diversity is desperately needed to ensure justice. She spoke with grace and candor. No vitriol or indignation.
She spoke about the discrimination and marginalization she lived through and what changed the course of her life.
Fewer than 1% of the 2,400 prosecutors nationwide are women of color. That helps explain, in part, America’s crisis with mass incarceration.
When 86% of people in jail are Black but 86% of states attorneys are white, that helps explain the problem.
No, don’t rationalize that most crimes are committed by African Americans, and that’s why most inmates are black. That’s false. The truth is African Americans get charged and convicted of crimes white people also commit but for which they are not arrested and prosecuted. When society operates from a white position of privilege and authority, the result is injustice and mass incarceration.
Foxx told her audience she grew up in public housing in Chicago to a teenage mother who was in her senior year in high school when her daughter was born.
“There were no lawyers in my Cabrini Greens neighborhood,” Foxx said, explaining her first encounter with an attorney was when she was 6 and in court with her mother who was trying to get child support.
“I was amazed these people in court were advocating for us,” Foxx said, recalling she told her mother “I want to be a lawyer.’
Her mother’s response: “It shall be so.”
Foxx’s mother moved her family from Cabrini Greens to Lincoln Park so her daughter could attend good public schools. The family lived in federally subsidized Section 8 housing and was forced to move frequently because of late rent subsidies. When her mother, who was bipolar, got into an altercation, she was suspended from her job. The family had been living paycheck to paycheck.
“For six months in my junior year in high school, I was homeless,” Foxx said.
Her mother smoked marijuana to help with the bipolar disease because she couldn’t afford prescription medications for the disorder.
Foxx said she’s not interested in prosecuting minor, nonviolent drug offenses that have played a significant role in creating the country’s mass incarceration crisis.
Foxx is a survivor not just of homelessness but of sexual abuse.
“I don’t prosecute low-level offenses that disrupt people’s lives forever,” she said. “I don’t feel good prosecuting the easiest fish in the barrel.”
Early in her career, she represented children with DCFS.
“I advocated for children just like me. These kids were written off, and I couldn’t help not see myself in them,” Foxx said.
She does not make decisions shaped by how best to get reelected to office; she makes decisions based on justice.
“I don’t worry about re-election,” she said. “I can’t be passive when you talk about my community. It’s not fair to these babies not to have opportunities.”
Foxx said her first TV ad when she was running for office was her daughter reciting the Lord’s Prayer over a bathtub.
Why? Because when Foxx was growing up and shots were fired in the Cabrini Greens housing project, children were rounded up and put in the bathtub –– considered the safest place in any apartment. And they prayed. That was a universal life experience of children growing up in Cabrini Greens.
Her mother always preferred to live in the ‘hood, but Foxx now lives in an affluent Chicago suburb.
She recalled once picking her children up after a sleep-over with her mother when her children recounted a good time with their grandmother but said she became strange when she put the children in the bathtub when fireworks were going off.
“Years after I had hidden in the tub, my babies had to hide in the tub. It broke my heart,” Foxx said, explaining why she is intentional about diversity.
“I’ve known extreme poverty. Economic opportunities mean safe communities. Diversity matters,” she said. “Diversity equals access and opportunity.”
Foxx received a standing ovation.
In appreciation of her talk, she was given a painting by Peoria artist Ryan Rashad Reed. The piece depicted the Scottsboro Boys, a now infamous 1932 case involving the conviction of nine African Americans ranging in ages from 13 to 19 for the alleged rape of two white women on a train near Scottsboro, Ala. Medical examinations of the women refuted that any rape occurred.
There were lynch mobs, all-white and all-male juries, rushed trials, rowdy mobs and delayed and shoddy legal representation. The defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death and to life in prison. The Communist Party and the ACLU intervened and there were a number of re-trials. One of the accusers recanted her allegations. The case triggered changes in the law, but the lives of the nine “Scottsboro Boys” were ruined.
Diversity matters. It should be a national, state and local priority.
“Women’s Rights are Human Rights”
Hillary Clinton, attorney and women’s advocate, issued a clarion call to the world at the UN Women’s Conference in Beijing when she declared, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights.”
The UN Human Rights Committee has stated access to abortion and prevention of maternal mortality are human rights. The committee further asserts that states must not criminalize or stigmatize abortion and should remove existing barriers to safe and legal abortion including barriers caused by “exercise of conscientious objections” by medical providers.
Civil rights evolve from recognition and understanding of human rights. It’s time for every civil rights organization in America to underscore the right of all women to safe, legal access to abortion and to comprehensive contraception.
When Dr. Rahmat Na’Allah called out an antiquated procedure that creates two-tiered access to tubal ligation for women on Medicaid, every civil rights organization in the country should back her.