BLAPA celebrates champions of social and racial justice at annual Spring Dinner

The annual Spring Dinner of the Black, Latino, Asian Pacific American Law Alumni Association (BLAPA) drew an ebullient crowd to Capitale on April 1. Referring to the evening’s theme, “BLAPA 4.0: Still Blazing Trails,” Rafiq Kalam Id-Din II ’00, BLAPA’s board president, explained, “We are constantly being self-reflective. We are constantly seeking to evolve.”

In that vein, Kalam Id-Din revealed that, after a student told him the BLAPA acronym seemed not to encompass the student’s Native American identity, the organization had decided to rename itself the Law Alumni of Color Association (LACA), making the Spring Dinner the last official BLAPA event.

BLAPA presented the President’s Distinguished Leadership Award to John Sexton, president emeritus of NYU and dean emeritus of the Law School. Sexton recalled talking about the landmark Supreme Court decision Regents of the University of California v. Bakke with his then-professor Derrick Bell when the case was decided during Sexton’s 2L year at Harvard Law School. Bell, a pioneer in critical race theory, encouraged him to write an article on the best course forward for affirmative action in admissions programs post-Bakke. A dozen years later, when Bell was protesting Harvard’s lack of faculty diversity, Sexton, who had become NYU Law’s dean, invited his former professor to visit for as long as Bell liked. Bell remained for two decades until his death in 2011.

Three alumni were honored with Distinguished Alumni Achievement Awards. Vijaya Gadde ’00, general counsel of Twitter, recounted how, as a newly arrived immigrant in a small Texas town in the 1970s, Gadde’s father struggled to find work. When he found an opportunity to collect insurance premiums door to door, his boss told him that he feared for the safety of someone with Indian heritage; Gadde’s father would have to meet with the local Ku Klux Klan leader to get permission to walk around his own community.

“Nobody was there to defend my father,” said Gadde. “Nobody gave voice to those people in that community. My family felt very powerless in those moments. And when people ask me why I went to law school—I went to law school to make sure that people have a voice and that people have someone to fight for them.”

Judge Albert Diaz ’88 of the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, another awardee, grew up in public housing, was the first in his family to finish high school, and enlisted in the Marines. Diaz subsequently became the first Latino judge on the Fourth Circuit.

“We all know that there’s much work to be done when it comes to diversity in the legal profession, and indeed in our larger society,” he said. “Those of you who toil in this area know full well how progress can often be slow and frustrating. The goal of a more inclusive profession is made even more challenging following the seismic changes that have occurred in our legal profession. All the more reason, though, to continue to work toward what our Constitution dubbed ‘a more perfect union.’”

The third honoree, Vanita Gupta ’01, heads the US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, which she joined two months after Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Subsequent similar incidents in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, and elsewhere have only added to the challenges of her job. But she remains undaunted.

“Cynicism really is the province and the privilege of the complacent,” said Gupta. “Don’t look for excuses. Don’t turn the other way…. We know all too well the dangerous consequences that occur when others try to exploit difference with discrimination rather than build unity through understanding.”

Posted April 13, 2016