Chief Justice Robinson Speaks to Students at GHS
By Richard Kaufman
This week, Greenwich High School has been celebrating Black History Month with a series of speakers and presentations.
On Tuesday inside the Performing Arts Center, students were treated to a presentation from Richard A. Robinson, the first African American to serve as Chief Justice of the Connecticut Supreme Court.
A native of Stamford, Conn., Robinson started out as an attorney in the Stamford law department, and later as assistant corporation counsel for Stamford. He was appointed as a judge in 2000, and became the fifth African American to sit on the Appellate Court. He became first African American to be named as the Connecticut Supreme Court Justice when he was appointed last year.
“We are in one of those uneasy periods of time, where national conversations on religion, race, culture and gender and sexuality are causing us a great deal of angst,” Robinson told the students. “Like you, I have witnessed what is going on. I’ve had a wide range of emotions like anger, fear, grief, resentment, and yes, even despair.”
Robinson recounted his early years as a child, growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s in a time where racism was commonplace.
“I lived through one of the most remarkable periods of time in our country. To quote Charles Dickens, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.,'” Robinson said.
Robinson was born two-and-a-half years after Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy who was accused of offending a white woman, was killed. Robinson said that at an early age, because he had a knack for questioning the way things were, his mother instilled in him an important lesson.
“I can remember one of the very first things my mother telling me to do, was to mind myself and always remember what happened to Emmett Till. My mother was concerned about my well-being,” he said. “I simply could not accept that there were actually laws on the books that prohibited people who looked like me from staying in public places, and from eating at lunch counters or marrying the person they loved.”
As a child, Robinson said he vividly remembers the images of dogs and firehoses being used to attack civil rights demonstrators. But amid all that chaos, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., provided a steady presence.
“He inspired, he persisted and he kept his faith,” Robinson added. But the death of King was devastating to Robinson, his family and the nation.
Robinson pressed forward, and decided to take on the mantle of inspiration, persistence and faith. He urged the students to do the same in their lives.
“I wasn’t quite sure where I would end up, but I knew it would be somewhere where I could make a difference,” Robinson said. “Although I did not realize it until much later, all the experience in my youth lead me to a realization that courts could be a powerful force in the making of things right.
The road to holding the state’s top judicial post wasn’t easy. Robinson still faced racism, and he recalled two instances that stick out to him during his career in law.
During one of his first board meetings, someone in attendance said in a not so low side-whisper, “I guess I’ll have to learn to speak Swahili.”
Another woman, upon finding out that Robinson was assigned to represent her in court, complained to his supervisor that he didn’t have enough experience.
“My supervisor told me my experience was probably not the motivating factor, and refused to remove me from the case. I subsequently won the case and considered telling her I never wanted to represent her again,” Robinson said. “But I got over it, I went on to win every single case where I represented her. I don’t know what I savor more; winning the cases or the look on her face when I did.”
The country is in a much better place today than it used to be, Robinson added.
“When I was born, it was improbable, if not impossible, for my parents to think that their son would ever become an attorney for the city of Stamford and a judge on the Appellate Court, a Justice of the Supreme Court and now Chief Justice,” he said. “It is not lost on me that I’ve held these positions not because I was the first African American qualified to do it, but because I am the first African American who was given the chance to do it.”
Robinson trains lawyers and judges to recognize implicit bias and subconscious characterizations. He warned the students that while they may not believe in certain stereotypes, the brain might still subconsciously use those stereotypes to classify groups of people.
People are like icebergs, Robinson said, and you can only see things such as gender, age, race and level of wealth at the surface. “When you start getting down to culture and things you really need to know about a person in order to like or dislike them, they’re all below the water line. It takes time to get there. You have to get off your autopilot, get off that feeling in your gut that tells you ‘I like or don’t like this person,’ and get to know people,” Robinson said.
Students also learned about micro messaging and microaggressions, which are small, unspoken and often subconscious, and can appear in certain products. For example, Robinson showed images of lotion that had the words “for dark to normal skin” on the bottle. He also showed a package for a baby sling, that depicted a white mother and her husband, compared to another package that just featured a single, black mother.
Justin Martinez, a 10th grader at GHS, said Robinson’s presentation was eye-opening.
“It was surprising to me how we process information and how we don’t even know it. I never really paid attention to that until just now,” he said. “I’ m going to stop judging people off of what I just see. I’m going to start to get to know people a little more and understand them.”
Another 10th grader, Anna McDonnell, said it was inspiring to see McDonnell speak about his experiences and how he was able to reach his goals.
“I think the big takeaway is it’s really inspiring to see someone in that position because it’s especially important in high school for people to see someone in that big of a position,” she said. “You can be anything if you persist enough, and it doesn’t matter about your race or sexual orientation. If you just push, you can be there.”