Reflections on Stress and Hope from an African American Prosecutor
Contributing Author: Jennifer Webb-McRae, County Prosecutor, Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
As a person who has spent 25 years practicing within the field of criminal justice (as a defense attorney and now as a County Prosecutor), I don’t watch crime shows. When I surf the web or social media, I purposely don’t click on videos of crime caught on camera. For me, it’s too much like work. In my mind I have enough sorrow and misery to which I must attend at my job. Abstaining from doing so has been a coping mechanism that provides a buffer between my professional and private lives.
However, in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, I was glued to the television. As the mother of a black boy (who is now actually a young man), I felt jarred by the lack of humanity I saw unfold toward someone who looks like my son. I felt powerless as a mother to protect my son from encounters that could result in a threat to his safety simply due to the color of his skin. It wasn’t the first time I had felt this way. Somehow knowing that it also wasn’t likely to be the last brought on a moment of great despair.
Oftentimes, being the first African American to be County Prosecutor in my county feels like a heavy burden. Although, I know it is a privilege to break a glass ceiling, there are so many unresolved issues relating to racial justice that it can be overwhelming. With some in my community, I went from being perceived as this fair, tenacious attorney who fought for justice for her clients to being the woman who represents everything wrong with policing and the criminal justice system in my community. I constantly ask myself whether I have done enough to make the system better for people who look like my son.
As a minority, I also experience that nagging feeling that my white counterparts could never understand or care as much as I do. Otherwise, why are we still experiencing such inequities in 2020? The tentacles of racism (in systems such as housing, education and employment) that lead us to where we are right now in criminal justice are so pervasive that it sometimes feels like we are sweeping back the tide of the ocean with a broom. The sense of responsibility to effectuate lasting systemic change in areas where I do have influence such as the school-to-prison pipeline, prison reform and re-entry honestly feels quite overwhelming.
Interestingly, watching the protests in the aftermath of the Floyd killing also left me encouraged. Seeing images of people from all walks of life and every demographic come together to protest and demand immediate change proved to me that people do care. It felt like there had been a shift in the atmosphere. It felt like the world was re-awakening (maybe for the first time since the Civil Rights movement) to the fact that racial injustice isn’t only a problem for minorities — it is a problem for America.
On one show, Harvard Professor Cornell West was asked, “Where do we go from here?” He quoted Irish novelist and playwright Samuel Beckett for the proposition that, “We as a society must try and if we fail, we must try again and fail again better.”
Upon reflection, this gives me tremendous hope and relieves some of the stress that I carry as an African American prosecutor. When I feel as though my work is not enough, I have to keep on trying. When I feel that my work has not met the mark that I set out to meet, I can learn from my mistakes and try again better. When I feel as though others don’t care as much as I do, I can remember that there are good people from all walks of life who do care and enlist their support so we can collectively move in the right direction.
There is pressure to make a difference right now but the pressure shouldn’t be related to the fact that we might fail. Rather, it should be cast upon those who fail to try. As we examine our business, we need to approach this work with the mindset that we’ll make mistakes and sometimes miss the mark. That’s ok, we can get up, dust off our shoulders, and try again better.
Note: Any prosecutor who wishes to be a partner in dismantling systemic racism within the Criminal Justice system can start with the following resource:
Prosecutorial Culture Change. A Primer, Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at John Jay College, 2020: https://www.prosecution.org/prosecutorial-culture-change
Jennifer Webb-McRae is a member of NDAA’s Well-being Task Force, serves on the Executive Committee of the Board of Directors. she is currently the County Prosecutor with the Cumberland County (NJ) Prosecutor’s Office.