Learning, Reflecting and Doing: Marisa Darden’s Thoughts about Institutionalized Racism

A Message from Paula to GlobalEd Leadership Readers:  

I’m pleased to include this timely and insightful blog by legal expert Marisa Darden.  Although it is not about schools, it is about learning and doing.  All of us, no matter what country we live in, can and must examine our beliefs about equity and race. Even though the work that most of us do is not within the criminal justice system, our voices and actions can help it improve. The criminal justice system in turn impacts the educational system and in many nations the education system, too, needs structural reform. In order for all our children to flourish, the value of the lives of each and every child and youth on this planet is paramount. Although some of these ideas are about the USA, you may find some relevance for your country as well. Attorney Darden provides some wonderful tips and resources for helping us educate ourselves, our children and getting out of the bubbles many of us live in.

Attorney Marisa Darden


I’ve been watching the events of the last few days with a mix of sadness, anger, frustration, helplessness, and fear.  I don’t have words of comfort or compassion, and sympathize with the protesters who feel disenfranchised, marginalized, unseen, unheard, and overlooked. I am still processing my feelings, but more than anything, I feel hope – cautious optimism that we are on the precipice of real, tangible, and marked change in our society. 

My experience as a state and federal prosecutor puts me in a unique position to authoritatively opine about the intersection between race and law enforcement in this country. I have had the pleasure and honor of working side by side with police officers, of all races, who work tirelessly every day, often without thanks, to make their communities safer.  And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that institutionalized racism is woven into the fabric of our society, and permeates the criminal justice system in a way that has exacerbated other inequalities black and brown Americans endure. The net effect of this is that even the best officers, and the best prosecutors, are complicit in a structure that is designed to disproportionately punish men of color for their actions, making their lives, and their livelihood, vulnerable.

We live in such polarized times, but criminal justice reform has earned bi-partisan national support. Regardless of your political affiliation, I encourage everyone to support smart police reforms (increased racial bias training, officer body cameras, etc.), changes to state and federal sentencing laws and guidelines, and sweeping changes to our approach to incarceration in this country. These are tangible issues that can have a huge impact on communities of color, and would go a long way to demonstrate that America is committed to seeing people of color as human – worthy of true equality. 

So, how do we do that? It’s a tall order, I understand. But if you, like me, are feeling helpless and want to do SOMETHING, here’s a quick, non-exhaustive, suggestion list. 

What Can I Do? 

1. Support “objective” news – The concept of news has lost its way. I believe there is still such a thing as FACTS. I don’t purport to have vetted every source (and admittedly lately have absorbed information from a variety of sources and then hoped my synthesis is as close to fact as there is…) but I find PBS is pretty objective. Public Broadcasting in general is vital. Consider supporting your local PBS station, either by watching (shout out Judy Woodruff!) or donating here: https://www.pbs.org/. 

In Cleveland, The Cleveland Scene has been doing some great reporting on these issues, and as the Plain Dealer limps to its death, local news matters now more than ever. Consider donating. https://www.clevescene.com/

2. Support Voter Registration Initiatives. There are voter registration drives and organizations everywhere, and consider donating or volunteering to encourage all eligible voters to register and vote. Democracy only works when its citizens exercise their rights. We can debate about the many issues that surround fair and empowered voting, but at the most basic level, can we agree that everyone who can vote, should vote? September 22nd is National Voter Registration Day. https://nationalvoterregistrationday.org/

3. Support Criminal Justice Reforms. The Equal Justice Initiative has consistently done some very specific, mission-driven work around mass incarceration, criminal justice reform, and wrongful convictions. They can use your money. https://eji.org/.

Also, an organization called Campaign Zero is focused on police reforms and preventing the use of excessive force. Their work is timely and impressive. https://www.joincampaignzero.org/ They have begun a new campaign this month called “8 Can’t Wait” which advocates for 8 tangible policy changes to police conduct, which have shown that, if implemented, could reduce police violence by 72%. Many of these are included in the Federal Consent Decree under which Cleveland Police currently operates (i.e. our local police are still under Department of Justice supervision). You can read more about these on their website – https://8cantwait.org/ 

Consider using your influence to encourage police departments to enact the following reforms:

  • Ban Chokeholds and Strangleholds
  • Require De-escalation training and enforcement tactics
  • Require officers to give a verbal warning before shooting
  • Require officers to be trained to exhaust all other alternatives before shooting
  • Create a duty for officers to intervene and stop excessive force used by other officers and report these incidents up the chain of command
  • Ban shooting at moving vehicles
  • Develop a force continuum that limits the type of force and/or weapons that can be used to respond to specific types of resistance
  • Require officers to write a written report each time they use force or threaten to use force against civilians

4. Consider joining a civilian board tied to your local police department. 

Most major police departments have civilian review boards, community boards, friends of police organizations, and other structures set up to meaningfully interact with community. Typically, these boards are comprised of law enforcement, less powerful stakeholders in their communities, or people who do not have the agency or power to influence meaningful change. Big Law attorneys, for example, have a lot of that power, and engaging with your local police would be a great way to leverage that. 

5. Vote for DA Candidates who have a plan for handling police shootings

If you’re interested in this one, contact me and I can say more about this. In short – District Attorneys presenting cases of police misconduct to a grand jury is not the best way to ensure an objective presentation of the facts, and state and federal law has created an incredibly difficult burden of proof standard for convictions. Individuals running for DA in your community should have a cogent, clear plan for how to deal with these issues when they arise. Given the close, necessary, working relationship local law enforcement has with its prosecutors, District Attorneys should consider pledging to bring in a neutral entity to investigate all police-involved death cases, to make charging recommendations and act as a neutral third party in any investigation. This is a very easy change that would still empower local District Attorneys to make the final call in charging decisions, but could create necessary transparency and accountability throughout the process. This strategic partnership could be a neighboring county DA with similar demographics, a state Attorney General’s office, or the Department of Justice if they are able to reinstitute and refund the Civil Rights Division in a meaningful way. 

6. Vote for Candidates Who Demonstrate Leadership Qualities. 

I feel very strongly that our political structure has lost its way, and the current individuals in positions of power in the Senate and the White House are not equipped to demonstrate and execute the kind of leadership required to do the work this nation will require moving forward.  This week, I have seen many politicians stay silent, or worse, blame extremist groups or threaten violence, in a way that is unproductive, does not encourage healing, and does not inspire reconciliation. I am excited about the prospect of any candidate, from any party, that demonstrates a command of objective, factual information, recognizes the gravity of this moment in our politics, exhibits the leadership qualities to which I aspire, and is willing to make and stand by the hard decisions. Consider donating to their campaigns.

7. Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

Studies have shown that diverse schools and social circles result in better outcomes for all students and families alike. Take a hard look at your friend group and consider intentionally diversifying your network. You can do this in a number of ways, but try to meet and interact with people who do not look like you by volunteering outside your neighborhood, trying a new class or activity in a more diverse community, or enrolling your child in a sport or extracurricular across town. These new experiences can lead to a greater sense of empathy, trust, and genuine connection building.

Also consider reading books about race and class to educate yourself on these issues. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of recommendations (full disclosure, I’ve read most of these and others have come highly recommended by trusted friends): 


Book List for Adults:

1. White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo

2. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

3. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Also check out his article in The Atlantic called The Case for Reparations, which should be available online)

4. Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum

5. If you like biographies, Frederick Douglas by David Blight is a great place to start

6. For fiction, I’d read anything by Toni Morrison if you haven’t already. Tar Baby is one of her early works that really encapsulates the essence of the black struggle.  

A list of books for children can be found here: https://www.embracerace.org/resources/26-childrens-books-to-support-conversations-on-race-racism-resistance?fbclid=IwAR2KjvhT9nOic7FEhS1wL3W7wg0Do0k2YO3ztKxJy7dt-X9dgIHyhoyo1Co “

Marisa Darden is a Principal in the Government Investigations and White-Collar Group at Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP. Previously, Marisa was an Assistant United States Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, and is a former Assistant District Attorney in the Manhattan DA’s Office in New York City. Marisa is a graduate of the University of Michigan, the London School of Economics, and Duke University School of Law. After beginning her career at a New York law firm, Marisa clerked for the Honorable Morrison C. England, Jr., United States District Court Judge in the Eastern District of California. She can be reached at marisa.darden@squirepb.com. 

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