Five Questions for Sherrilyn Ifill ’84, New Head of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund
This month, civil rights lawyer and University of Maryland law professor Sherrilyn Ifill ’84 starts in her new role as president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), Inc. Ifill is the second woman to hold the position and the seventh director-counsel since Thurgood Marshall founded the group in 1940. The frequent political and election night commentator previously worked as assistant counsel for the organization, litigating voting rights cases. Ifill is a Queens native and has worked as a law professor at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law since 1993. She is the author of On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century, which was a finalist for the 2008 Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.
How did your experience at Vassar prepare you to work as a civil rights lawyer and professor?
I came to Vassar thinking that I would be a lawyer—international human rights or civil rights. The intellectual atmosphere at Vassar really solidified my sense of wanting to be deeply engaged in the world of ideas and critical thinking. The time I spent writing papers in the library, or arguing with my peers in my senior central course on Shakespeare, or in Professor Norman Hodges'’ South Africa course stand out as great experiences of the mind that I won’t ever forget.
LDF has a history of working toward racial justice and equality. What are some of the most important issues and/or cases that you’re working on at LDF?
Voting rights remains an ongoing challenge. The passage of laws in 19 states after the 2008 election that restricted access to voting was really remarkable and merited the strong response that you saw from civil rights groups this year. In early 2013, the Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of key aspects of the Voting Rights Act.
Of course, ongoing disparities in education and the criminal justice system warrant our attention. I’m particularly interested in economic equity, especially following the financial crisis that has hit all Americans hard but has really ravaged so many African American communities and families.
What are your goals for your tenure at LDF?
I’m very eager to ensure that LDF’s attention is focused on the most marginalized African Americans. That’s why barriers to economic equity are so important to me. There’s very little public discussion about the poor in this country. I’d like to see us work effectively to remove legal barriers to economic advancement. The over-incarceration of African Americans must be relentlessly attacked. Crime rates are at the lowest they’ve been in decades, yet our incarceration rate has risen through the roof—and this has been borne principally by African Americans and often for non-violent drug crimes. It’s devastated too many African American families. And, of course, LDF remains, at its core, focused on quality education for African American children. Education really is the key that unlocks the door to equality.
What, if any, role does your organization have in the current Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, which challenges affirmative action?
LDF has filed an amicus brief in Fisher v. University of Texas.
I stand as a personal witness that diversity in the classroom is an essential part of a high-quality education. I can remember many classes at Vassar in which the perspective I offered was, shall we say, unique. It also helped me to hear the perspective of students who did not share my background. Sometimes their views shocked me. But I needed to be exposed to different ways of thinking outside of my experience growing up as a black girl in Queens.
Those discussions at Vassar and New York University School of Law were sometimes tough, but they prepared me to conduct my classroom in a way that respected diverse viewpoints when I became a professor. They also helped me to see alternative perspectives and to be a better civil rights lawyer. But affirmative action is not just for the benefit of minority students. It’s a two-way street. So, I wish that more whites who sat in classrooms or lived in dorms for the first time with black or Latino/a students during their university years would speak up about how their thinking and intellectual life was enriched by affirmative action.
In your view, is there a generation gap among African Americans when it comes to their knowledge of the history of organizations like LDF?
Of course. There’s always a generation gap. In a way, it’s good. Young people need to form their own groups and organizations—to have the experience of mobilizing their peers. It doesn’t mean that the more longstanding organizations are irrelevant; they just have to make room. During the Civil Rights Movement, the NAACP had to make room for new groups like SNCC (the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Both organizations, along with many others, played a critical role in the great successes of that movement. The problems of racism and racial discrimination are still enormous. There’s more than enough work to go around. It’s just important that all of the groups and individuals working in this space respect and listen to one another.
Interview conducted by Joshunda Sanders ’00, an Austin, Texas-based writer and journalist. She blogs at jvictoriasanders.com.