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Eva Paterson

President and co-founder of the Equal Justice Society

March 2015

Video Highlights

In 1970, as a 20-year-old college student, Eva Paterson famously debated Vice President Spiro Agnew on The David Frost Show. She went on to become a fierce advocate for civil rights, eventually working for 26 years at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights – including more than a dozen years as its executive director. In 2003 Paterson co-founded the Oakland-based Equal Justice Society, which works to close racial divides “through law, social science, and the arts.” Along with advocacy, the Society co-authors amicus briefs to the U.S. Supreme Court on issues of equal protection and litigates civil rights class actions. In December, Paterson spoke with attorney Paul Henderson, the deputy chief of staff, public safety, for the mayor of San Francisco, about her career, affirmative action, the death penalty, and the nature of implicit bias. Here are edited excerpts from that videotaped discussion.

Q: Where would you see affirmative action in the conversation about civil rights?

The higher education you have, the better community you’re going to live in. You’re going to be able to send your kids to better schools. There’s this ripple effect. People forget that affirmative action is not just about education, it’s also about employment and about contracting. I think the buried part of the affirmative action fight is the contracting piece.

We just finished a study commissioned by the Surdana Foundation, and we found that literally billions of dollars that should have gone to people of color-owned businesses and women-owned businesses did not go to us because of Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative passed in 1996.

Without affirmative action, something like 3 percent of government contracts go to women and people of color. With affirmative action, it’s up to 10 to 25 percent – and that’s a lot of money. We had black men who were in the housing projects and got jobs through affirmative action at the fire department [in San Francisco] and were able to get themselves out of poverty.

You never have that experience where you feel like, now I’m a victim?

I feel like I have a pretty good life. I was in Bakersfield and I didn’t have the lights on in my rental car and I was stopped by a police officer. I was really nervous, and I said, “Officer, here’s my Hertz rental [agreement].” And he said, “Let me see your driver’s license,” and I showed it to him. He said, “Well I’ve got to take it back and make sure you’re really authorized to be driving,” and I wanted to curse him out. Like, “What are you talking about?” But I didn’t. I was angry, but I didn’t feel like a victim. I felt like I was mistreated because I was black. But then I was pulling my car up to the hotel and the two guys who were there to take my bags said, “Oh, he treated you nicely. They’re much nastier to us.” And they are white people. But I don’t feel like a victim. I have a law degree, I can notice a deposition and make people come to my office and answer questions, I can sue a school district, I own my own home.

Can you tell me what your thoughts are about the death penalty process?

Well, I’ll speak personally. I was engaged to a wonderful man who lived in Jamaica, and he was murdered on November 25, 1997. I was devastated. What I’m going to say now may sound very odd, but one of the things that I thought about after he was murdered is, do I think his murderer should get the death penalty? And I thought, no. I would like to have picked up a gun to shoot him myself. I would never do that. But it was very interesting to me, because you always hear people saying, well if you lose someone, you’re going to want the death penalty. And I just thought, it’s just not right, it’s not right, it’s not right. So, it was seeing if I really believed what I said I believed.

“If you lead with “implicit bias” and talk about empirical studies and the line, it’s not threatening.”

—Eva Patterson, attorney and civil rights advocate


How have you evolved in terms of your approach to civil rights?

I’m probably as idealistic as I always have been. I believe in a perfectible world and trying to make things better. I think most people are decent and want to do the right thing, and if you can get the right arguments to them, they’ll do the right thing. I think there are many people who have had their fears of black people stoked by right-wing people, and that’s very sad. I think there are some people who do think you and I are inferior intellectually, morally, spiritually. I believe that good will win out, but I think it’s an eternal struggle because I think the bad guys have more money than we do and are relentless.

How can we discuss race in a way that isn’t wedged in with other issues?

My experience is that people are very uncomfortable talking about race and will run and flee. I think white people are uncomfortable because they’re afraid they’re going to say something that’s offensive, even though they don’t mean to be offensive. So, it’s easier just to be quiet. I think people of color are often filled with such rage that they feel they can’t have a calm conversation about it. … What I have found [is that] if you lead with “implicit bias” and talk about empirical studies and the like, it’s not threatening. Michelle Alexander kind of led the way on this. When she talked at our conference at Stanford you could see people’s shoulders coming down from around their ears, because she wasn’t calling anybody a racist dog. She was just saying we all have these skewed racial views, and people can hear that, and they’re not threatened.

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