Tirien Steinbach by Bethanie Hines

Tirien Steinbach

East Bay Community Law Center,
Berkeley, CA

Tirien Steinbach, Executive Director of the East Bay Community Law Center, has a deep personal and professional connection to the 14th Amendment.

Tirien’s love for both education and the law comes from her family. “The 14th Amendment is a quintessential example of all that is right and noble and hopeful about our laws, and also simultaneously, all that is wrong and disingenuous and heartbreaking about them,” she notes. Tirien sees the 14th Amendment as containing the soaring ideals of broad human rights that countered the atrocities of slavery, ended the continued tyranny of post-Civil War racism, and declared a “reset” for the United States described as the Reconstruction.

However, the 14th Amendment also represents the uneasy consolidation of power with the federal government. Ratification of the 14th Amendment was required for the Confederate states to rejoin the union, and, as the states that started and then lost the Civil War, the former slave states had no choice but to rejoin the union. “This early history of the 14th Amendment tells us so much about the subsequent 150 years of struggle to make real the ideals held in the amendment, and the century and a half of states’ rights activism rooted in resentment and racism,“ Tirien observes.

In her role at the East Bay Community Law Center, Tirien advances the principles of equal protection and due process enumerated in the 14th Amendment. Every day, we draw inspiration from leaders like Tirien whose fight to fully realize the 14th Amendment represents the best in all of us.

What does the 14th Amendment mean to you?

The 14th Amendment was born of struggle, suffering, distrust, and division, as well as aspiration, inspiration, power, and compromise.

I often say that I love the law as James Baldwin described loving America: I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually. I love U.S. law and the legal system, and I have much to criticize about them.

My great grandfather, William Sylvester White Sr., was born in Bowling Green, Kentucky in 1881, just thirteen years after the adoption of the 14th Amendment, and eighteen years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln. He graduated from Fisk University in 1900 and moved north to attend graduate school at the University of Illinois to become a chemist. He was the only Black person in his master’s program and he was top of his class. However, that year, the long-standing tradition of a guaranteed job for the top graduate was not honored, which meant my great grandfather worked on the railroad as a Pullman Porter until he had saved money to open his own pharmacy on Chicago’s Southside.

My grandfather, William Sylvester White, Jr., was raised to believe in the power and necessity of education. As his mother, Matilda, taught him, education was the one thing that could not be taken away. Grandpa Syl attended University of Chicago for undergrad and law school and graduated in 1937. He was one of the first Black U.S. Attorneys in Chicago, and then, during WWII, one of the first Black commissioned officers in the Navy, later called “The Golden Thirteen.” He became a juvenile court judge and was later appointed to the Illinois Appellate Court. My grandpa Syl is one of the reasons I attended law school, and he was there in 1999 when I walked across the stage at my graduation from Berkeley Law.

The 14th Amendment, particularly the first section guaranteeing equal protection and due process under the law, represents the great power, potential, and unrealized promise of the law. Without the 14th Amendment, my family could not have pursued their careers and life paths; my grandfather would never have become a lawyer and dedicated his life to upholding the law. Yet despite the 14th Amendment and the protections that it afforded, Black families, including mine, faced and still face discrimination and barriers to realizing the aspirations of true equality.

How are you still fighting for equal protection today?

Through the courts, legislation, policies and politics, the lofty ideals and protections promised by the 14th Amendment were immediately after its adoption – and continue to be – relentlessly challenged and undermined, particularly as it relates to race and racial discrimination. In the 14th Amendment, we have an unrealized promise of inclusion and equality. Fighting for justice and equitable protection for the law means challenging lawyers, law schools, legal systems, and the legal profession to address both historic and current inequity, exclusion and injustice, and to work to change ourselves and the systems to be what we want to see in our democracy.

How can other people #Powerthe14th?

In order to make real the ideals of fairness and justice, we need to acknowledge that the playing field is not level with respect to race, gender, and other dimensions of diversity. Despite the letter of the law, there are many people that are, in the words of Professor jon powell, kept outside of the “circle of human concerns,” the circle that determines who are and who are not protected by, and feel the full benefits of, the law.

To #Powerthe14th, people can learn about our legal and cultural history! We must talk about how to better align the intentions and ideals proclaimed in Section 1 of the 14th Amendment with the impacts of our policies, practices, laws and legal advocacy. There are some great videos by Institute for Justice, PBS, Van Jones, and Yale that can help us better understand the 14th Amendment and how we can realize it. To me, the 14th Amendment is a constant reminder that we have work to do.

Photo: Bethanie Hines Photography

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