BY ALEXIA ELEJALDE-RUIZ
Juan Thomas was a senior in college, a bit adrift and unsure where life might take him next, when he woke up to the news one morning that Carol Moseley Braun had beaten serious odds to win the 1992 primary for Illinois’ U.S. Senate seat. The Chicago-area native decided then that he would return to his home state to help her become the first black woman senator.
“It gave me a sense of purpose and direction,” Thomas said.
Twenty-five years later, after several forays into politics, Thomas feels a new, weighty purpose as president of the National Bar Association, the nation’s largest and oldest network of black lawyers and judges.
The Chicago attorney has taken the helm of the 92-year-old organization during what he believes is a time of national crisis — “a crisis of consciousness, a crisis of character and a crisis of competence,” he said.
One of Thomas’ first orders of business as he began his one-year term in early August was to announce that chapters will provide pro bono legal services to peaceful counterprotesters arrested at white supremacist rallies. That offer does not extend to those who resort to violence.
Thomas, 46, is founder of The Thomas Law Group and of counsel to Quintairos, Prieto, Wood and Boyer. He graduated from Morehouse College, a historically black men’s college in Atlanta, and got his law degree at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Thomas has served as a township clerk, as a member of a school board, and as labor counsel to the Illinois secretary of state. He traces his political experience to high school, when he was president of the Illinois Association of Student Councils.
“I was kind of a nerd, if you will,” he said. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
Q: Was there a formative moment that shaped your interest in law and politics?
A: I was always a news junkie. My parents bought me, when I was 9 years old, presidential trivia cards. And I decided I wanted to be the first black president. And I’m still upset today that Obama beat me to it. But the presidents were either farmers or lawyers. And I have asthma, and my grandfather had a farm in Mississippi and I used to spend my summers down there. And I quickly realized that if I wanted to be president I wasn’t going to be a farmer, so I was going to be a lawyer. Also, two men from afar inspired me. Jesse Jackson running for president. And then Harold Washington here in Chicago running for mayor in 1983.
Q: How do you view the role of the National Bar Association in the context of the current state of the country?
A: At no point in my lifetime have we seen what we are seeing today, what I consider an attack on our democracy, our rule of law, when people in high office question the competency of judges because of their ethnicity, when we have a president that will deliberately create terms like “fake news” and attack the media. There is a serious problem in our society when that becomes normalized. I believe black lawyers need to be the conscience of the nation and speak out because so much of what our country is has been built on the backs and the sweat and tears of people of color.
This country is becoming much more diverse. In the next 20 to 30 years, our white brothers and sisters will be the minority. There’s a tension, there’s a fear, and I understand that to some extent. But we need leadership in this country that works to bring people together. People that are uneducated living in rural America that tend to be white have more in common with urban blacks who are also suffering from poor schools, lack of education, lack of economic development. But because of the race line that’s been drawn, poor whites don’t see themselves in the same boat as poor blacks and poor Latinos. So it’s important we really show how we have more in common than we have that divides us. We also have to work to fix the Voting Rights Act, we have to work on criminal justice reform, immigration policy needs to be addressed.
Q: You mentioned working on immigration, which the White House has said hurts Americans competing for low-skill jobs. Do you think that’s true in poorer African-American communities where unemployment is high?
A: I think that is a false narrative that’s been espoused to keep communities apart. In my experience, many of those low-wage jobs that the immigrant population ends up doing — cutting grass, picking crops, dish-washing — a lot of folks in other communities don’t take those jobs because the pay is so low.
Q: But what if employers had to raise wages to attract them?
A: Well, I do believe in a living wage minimum wage. There are employers who pay people who are not citizens this dangerously low wage, I think it’s a travesty. But when you (raise wages), business is going to increase prices.
Q: What’s an urgent priority you want the association to address?
A: We just launched our political action committee, and we are trying to raise money to help elect candidates who support our legislative and policy agenda.
Q: How do you think companies’ diversity and inclusion policies are going?
A: There’s still room to grow. For me, it’s truly about inclusion, and are we allowing people to be who they are. And I think corporations and government entities have to be intentional about it. I don’t see the intentionality. I see: “Well, we can’t find the qualified minority, they don’t want to work here.” That’s a bunch of hogwash. You have to go seek it and cultivate it. Every time it’s time to hire minorities, qualifications becomes part of the conversation. We don’t talk like that when we hire white people. Because one of two things are true: We presume the white candidate is qualified, or there is some sense that this person is a good fit because they’re one of us. And that’s the discussion we don’t always like to have. Because white people have affirmative action too. It’s called the good ol’ boys system. Their uncle went to school with the senior partner, they’ve been buddies for 30 years and now he needs a job, and he gets a job. But when it’s time to hire me, it’s about qualifications. This is where I think the debate gets lost. The evaluation is different. I don’t like these white supremacists marching either, but that’s easy to call racism. What’s much more impactful, what happens every day, is the implicit bias, the different standard of review. It’s not that you deny me because I’m black; you evaluate me differently because I’m black.