On Cherelle Griner and the Black Lawyer American Dream

Cherelle Griner, wife of Brittney Griner, speaks during a rally at Footprint Center on July 6, 2022 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Cherelle Griner was a third-year law student when her legal trajectory changed forever. In February 2022, she was notified that her wife, WNBA basketball star Brittney Griner was arrested and detained by Russian officials on smuggling charges. For the next 294 days, Cherelle Griner would summon all of her lived and professional experiences to advocate for her wife’s freedom. In what she later would describe as the “darkest moments of her life,” she had to watch from a distance as her 6’9″, unapologetically Black, queer, loved one was perp-walked and globally shamed by the Russian criminal system. And she again had to watch as the judge issued her wife a nine-year sentence to a penal colony and denied Brittney Griner’s appeal.

In these moments, she was confronted with the cruel reality of the Black Lawyer American Dream.

The Promise and Limitations of a Law Degree

My parents, like many Black parents that descended from the Jim Crow and civil rights era, advised me that there were only two career paths: doctor or lawyer. While they acknowledged the lucrative possibilities in these professions, they emphasized the freedom that would accompany them. They believed these jobs could prevent much of the suffering that Black women endure due to systemic racism. So our family plunged into educational debt. We hoped we would have tangible and intangible returns on this investment, including lives free from incarceration, police violence, health discrimination and the systems built to destroy Black lives. Unfortunately, that dream was not our reality.

I remember phone calls and plane rides. An early morning call from my relative telling me that the police were questioning her in her child’s hospital room. As I flew across the country to reach her, I reckoned with her vulnerability and my own. I am still haunted by having to muster all of my legal professionalism to the sneering officers who sent news vans to set up outside of her home while our family endured our deepest despair. 

Years later, I would receive a late-night phone call from an incarcerated relative. Like Brittney Griner, her crime was that she was queer, Black, over 6 feet tall and in a homophobic country. As I spoke to her in her jail cell, trying to sound confident and optimistic, I internally anguished over how helpless I was.

Again, I boarded an airplane—devoting equal space to my tears and concocting a legal strategy. In both instances, the law degree that I and my parents had put so many resources into obtaining was insufficient in the face of misogynoir and homophobia. 

Historical Significance of Black Lawyers

My parents’ belief in the power of Black lawyers was shaped by Thurgood Marshall, Margaret A. Burnham and Constance Baker Motley. These lawyers rose to prominence during a time when simply having a law degree could result in white vigilante violence. My parents, and Black people nationwide, saw these lawyers learn the code to hold powerful white men and the systems they created accountable. They also saw the backlash against the gains of the civil rights movement via the onslaught of the war on drugs, “welfare queens” and urban redevelopment. 

I adopted my parents’ dreams as my own. The tension between civil rights history and reality inspired me. I studied Black legal victories and complexities. I was profoundly impacted by the disdain directed at a prominent Black woman lawyer, Anita Hill, by an all-white judiciary committee that included then-Senator Joe Biden. 

I graduated law school committed to helping others and with much to learn about the help I could provide. Years later, I celebrated Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s ascent to the Supreme Court. I recognized the historical and symbolic importance of her confirmation. I held that recognition with the reality that an institution that took this long to appoint a Black woman and had recently gutted Roe v. Wade, still had a long road to transformation.

Systemic Racism Ensnares All Black Lawyers

In the U.S., race remains the primary indicator of health and social outcomes. Black lawyers are underrepresented in the legal profession and face systemic discrimination in their work. Anti-Blackness is baked into every U.S. system of government, from criminal justice to child welfare to business development to education to housing to debt structures. Every Black lawyer I know has a personal and/or familial case they are fighting. While some of us are able to wield our law licenses to the benefit of our loved ones, a quick scan of any data set on incarceration rates, employment discrimination and disparities in health treatment shows that Black lawyers cannot save us all.

As executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, one of the largest legal clinical programs in California, I have the privilege of speaking to many young people about my journey with the law. I aim to be honest, particularly about my student loan debt and the emotional toll of lawyering against white supremacy. While my law degree did not shield my family from state-imposed violence, I am reckoning with the privilege it provided me during my darkest moments. Our family is on a healing journey that informs my identity as a Black woman lawyer. 

Cherelle Griner has already indicated that now that her wife is free, helping others is intrinsic to her path forward. Undoubtedly, her fight will inspire Black lawyers everywhere. And I hope it renews the love and legacy required for this role.

Legacy and Love

In the midst of her wife’s detention, Cherelle Griner graduated cum laude from North Carolina Central University School of Law. Her legal knowledge could not protect her family from crisis—but her persistent, deliberate and strategic negotiation won her wife’s freedom. By Cherelle Griner’s own testimony, her legal advocacy was powered by her love and her ancestors. 

Brittney Griner is home, against odds that increasingly seemed too insurmountable. Activists, journalists, athletes and artists, many of them Black women, loudly and persistently called attention to her unjust incarceration. But without a doubt, the lawyer in her family—her wife, Cherelle Griner—is responsible for her homecoming. Her advocacy matches the historical and current reality of the critical importance of Black lawyers to Black liberation.

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Zoe Polk is head of the East Bay Community Law Center.