VIDEO: Seeing the whole picture on race

New London — Richard A. Robinson leads the state’s highest court. But when he walks down the street, even if he’s dressed in a suit, he hears car doors lock.

“It’s one of those moments where as a black man you kind of go, 'It’s happening again,' and then you pick yourself up and you go on. But that’s happening. That’s the kind of thing we need to talk about. Why is that happening? Why are these associations in the back of our head?” said Robinson, chief justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.

The comment came during a wide-ranging discussion on race between Robinson and The Day’s longtime courts reporter, Karen Florin, at Connecticut College on Wednesday night, the first in a series of dialogues on the topic planned by the college and the newspaper.

The event also was part of the newspaper’s efforts to be more proactive about engaging with the community.

Robinson travels the state and country to talk about cultural competency and has been doing implicit bias training for more than 15 years, reaching lawyers, judges and others who may have contact with the legal system.

He often asks those who take his training, as he did with the 200-plus people gathered in Evans Hall on Wednesday night, to think of an iceberg. When you first see a person, you see only 10 percent of who they really are. You see what they look like. Maybe you can determine their gender or get a sense of their religion or something about their socio-economic status.

“We’re already making value decisions about these people based on this 10 percent, but the 90 percent, what you really need to know about them, about how they think, how they live, how they work, who they are, that’s all below that water line,” he said.

When the audience saw him walk on stage, they saw a black man — “a really good-looking black man,” he said to laughs from the audience. The point, he said, is to acknowledge that “because you need to know what you’re doing with that information."

“If you don’t know what you’re doing with that information, then you could be making these leaps and associations. You could be making these value judgements on me based on these stereotypes,” he said.

That doesn’t make somebody a racist, but, he advised, we all need to be careful about what’s in the back of our minds.

Robinson, the state’s first African American chief justice, was sworn in last June after working as an attorney in Stamford for 16 years, and then serving as a judge for the superior and appellate courts, followed by state Supreme Court justice for five years.

Even judges can be susceptible to making a decision based on their gut — something they’re trained not to do because that can be a sign of implicit bias creeping in. Robinson gave a personal example of a time he was presiding over the case of a young African American male who had committed a “knuckleheaded” crime. As he was about to set the young man's bond, Robinson began to feel uncomfortable.

Robinson comes from a close, nuclear family — his parents would’ve been in the courthouse if he were a defendant. The young man had come to court by himself. Robinson realized that’s what was making him uncomfortable. He began asking the man questions and found out his parents weren’t there because they were new immigrants who didn’t know the system or how important it was for them to be there, and, he said “most of all, they didn’t know what kind of trouble he was in.”

Robinson brought the man's family into court, and joked that he realized the man facing his family was going to be a punishment itself. The prosecutor, also realizing the man's situation, offered him a pretrial diversionary program.

Robinson said he heard from the man’s family for years about how well he was doing. “Imagine if I didn’t do what I did,” he said.

Robinson also fielded questions submitted by the public in advance and from those in the audience on such topics as racial inequities in the justice system and how to talk freely about race in light of increased “fragility” and “sensitivity” on the topic. He was asked several times about specific court cases both in Connecticut and beyond but said he couldn’t answer them, given his position.

j.bergman@theday.com

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