In the fall of 2016, I landed a doc review job related to a huge merger. The agency that hired me as a “contract attorney” told me to show up for orientation at a ballroom in the Washington Hilton (where Hinckley shot Reagan in 1981). A ballroom? Should I wear a tux?
I arrived at the hotel around mid-morning and made my way through the busy lobby to the ornate ballroom. Outside the room there was a long linen-covered table piled high with tasty pastries, delicious fruit, and coffee. My colleagues assaulted the table, many walking away with plates so loaded with goodies that it seemed inevitable that half of the stuff would fall off by the time they reached their seats. I would come to learn from my colleagues that contract attorneys have a propensity to hoard free food. If pizza were offered for lunch at the doc review office, the line would form almost instantly. Those at the front of the line would load their plates with multiple slices of the pie with little or no regard for whether those behind them would get any. Hence the stampede to get in line upon the announcement of the pizza’s arrival. Of course, I tried to load up my plate that morning at the hotel but knew I would drop it within seconds. Fortunately, a kind woman offered to help me, as many would at lunches at the offices—after I clawed my way to the front of the line without regard for those behind me.
I was stunned when I entered the (freezing) ballroom. It was packed with over 200 contract attorneys! There was lots of lively conversation and laughter. Many of them hailed each other with warm salutations indicating that they knew each other well, that maybe they were good friends. “Hey, girl, how’ve you been!” As I continued doing doc review work, I learned that lots of the folks knew each other because over the years as contract attorneys they worked on the same projects. Yeah, you heard that right—years. Wait, you say, I thought lawyers worked in law firms or in other career jobs. Being a contract attorney is just a temporary thing, not a career, right? How could it go on for years?
I’ll come back to this.
Getting back to the ballroom, I realized that I was looking at a “pop-up” law firm, and a very diverse one. Age-wise they ranged from the young ones looking to be fresh out of law school to the older, seemingly retired or retiring lawyers. More than half were persons of color, mostly black. More than half were women. Some were talking in Spanish, others spoke with an accent indicating they were of African origin. For someone who’s always pushed for diversity in the legal profession (and academia), I thought that rocked!
But maybe it didn’t.
Let’s start digging to see what lies beneath this narrative. We’ll begin with the following story based on true demographic facts: It was just after the noon hour when Gary walked into the McDonald’s only a block from his apartment. He was drenched in sweat from playing pick-up basketball on a very hot and humid Saturday in D.C. He was also famished, having eaten just a stale donut for breakfast, washing it down with a Red Bull.
Gary ordered his favorite meal there: A Big Mac, large fries, and a large chocolate shake. He deserved it, he thought to himself, because he left it all on the court and led his team to victory that morning. He found his favorite spot at a table looking out on the street corner. He loved cars and tested his knowledge by ticking off the specs of any given car driving through the busy intersection as he dug into his hamburger and fries. His shake that day tasted especially good, better than the Coca-Cola Slurpee he had the other day at the 7-Eleven on the opposite corner of the intersection.
Sounds like Gary had good morning and was enjoying a lunch that most of us would crave for but never admit it. Life is good for Gary, right? Maybe not.
You see, Gary is African American who is in between menial jobs and lives in Mayfair, a poor African American neighborhood on the east of the Anacostia river, the east side being largely black and poor. On the west side of the river there’s a much wealthier world where only about thirty-three percent of the residents are black. The nearest grocery store is nearly a mile away and Gary doesn’t own a car or have access to one. He avoids taking public transportation because of the violent crime that plagues the eastside—a friend of his was stabbed to death on a bus two months ago.
It turns out that Gary lives in a “food desert,” a term that has come to describe poor neighborhoods that don’t have access to healthy food that can be found in grocery stores. So Gary’s food intake in his part of the world comes from fast food restaurants and convenience stores. He eats Big Macs all the time, unless he decides to wolf down a 7-layer burrito at Taco Bell, which is next to the 7-Eleven, or sinks his teeth into hot, crispy fried chicken at Popeye’s just a block away. Because of Gary’s diet, he’s overweight and suffers from high blood pressure.
Is he living the dream? Hmmm . . .
What’s the point of all this? Frankly, I’m not sure. But while I’m semi-lucid let me try to answer the question. We can’t fully understand “the space” Gary lives in, the space in which he’s eating a Big Mac, without knowing the “meta-narrative.” In other words, Gary’s world wouldn’t exist, or at the very least we wouldn’t be able to understand it, without knowing the overarching world that created and sustains it, a meta-narrative filled with colliding currents of race, class, age, and gender in D.C., in many cases manifested by gentrification that has pushed African Americans, especially those with lower incomes, into the poor, segregated neighborhoods east of the Anacostia. Without that meta-narrative, the fact that a guy named Gary ate a Big Mac would be useless, if not nonsensical, information. Taking it to an extreme, if nothing existed in the universe and suddenly only the narrow story of Gary and his Big Mac sprung into being, it would be gibberish. It wouldn’t even be that because no one would exist to call it so.
Getting back to the ballroom and the question whether the diversity I saw rocked, just as we couldn’t fully answer the question whether Gary was having a good life without looking at the meta-narrative that created his food desert, we can’t fully answer the question I’ve posed without knowing the meta-narrative the created the narrative of diversity I witnessed that morning as I tore into my danish and burned my tongue on super-hot coffee.
I’ll lay out the meta-narrative in my next post, which will begin when I graduated from Georgetown University Law Center in 1986 and joined Arnold & Porter, the second-largest law firm in D.C. at that time. I was livin’ the dream. Private jets, endless bottles of Chateau Lafite 1865, and weekend scuba diving jaunts in the Bahamas.
I’m hallucinating and need to stop.
Time for a Big—I mean, a kale salad.