Person

Janai Nelson

Nationality:

American

Born:

December 12, 1971

Organization:

NAACP

Janai Nelson is an academic, entrepreneur, and civil rights attorney. After working at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) for 13 years and establishing herself as the organization’s “long-time second-in-command,” [1] it was announced that Janai Nelson would become the LDF’s director-counsel in Spring 2022.

Nelson believes that the United States is a deeply racist country which has only recently begun to undo its racist culture and legal system. In November 2021, she Tweeted: “It’s easy for some to forget how very young our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy is and how susceptible it is to reverting to the white supremacist order that defined this country for over 400 years (and never really disappeared).” [2]

Early Life and Education

Janai Nelson was born on December 12, 1971. [3] She grew up in a middle-class Black neighborhood, an experience that she credits with informing her political views. She described her neighbors as being “nailed to the ground in their conditions and future possibilities. And while I didn’t have any words or language to explain it, I just knew that couldn’t be right. Something had to be unfair about the system in which all of this was happening. There had to be some invisible force that was making this occur. As I got older, I was able to name systemic racism. I was able to name structural discrimination and understand why these disparities existed.” [4]

Nelson would later say:

“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been deeply incensed by racial injustice and obsessed with fighting to end it. That drive influences nearly every aspect of my life—from the career path I’ve chosen to the art I consume, the intellectual community of which I’m a part, the businesses I support, and the outlook I try to impart to my children and the other young people in my life. I also believe that, in a society that is predicated upon Black subjugation and structurally positioned to perpetuate Black oppression, one of the most revolutionary acts is to have unconditional love and empathy for the most marginalized among us, which I try to practice and exhibit however I can.” [5]

Nelson earned a bachelor’s degree from New York University and a J.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles School of Law. [6]

Career

Janai Nelson served as a clerk to David H. Coar at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. The following year, she clerked for Theodore McMillian at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. [7]

In 1998, Nelson began practicing law on a NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF)/ Friend Frank Fellowship. [8] From 1998-2000, Nelson worked as a litigation associate at Fried Frank, an international law firm based in New York. [9]

From 2000-2005, Nelson became the director of the political partisanship group at the LDF. [10] She worked as part of a legal team on NAACP v. Hood, a class-action challenge to alleged voter suppression against Haitians during the 2000 presidential election. [11] From 2002-2004, Nelson was a vice president and board member of Our World Neighborhood Charter School in New York. [12]

In 2003, Nelson co-founded and ran Brownstone Babies LLC, a “women- and minority-owned company” that manufactures and sells dolls. Nelson’s co-founder, Crystal Granderson-Reid, was a model, writer, and freelance consultant. [13] In 2008, Nelson and Granderson-Reid founded Be Free Global, a non-profit which provides micro-loans to children for creative projects. [14] The group was funded by a portion of Brownstone Babies’s profits. [15] The group’s revenue never surpassed $50,000, and then went defunct in 2013. [16]

In 2005, Nelson left the NAACP to work on a Fullbright Scholarship at the Ghana Legal Resources Center. [17] Her project was entitled: “Democracy, Development and Detention: The Intersection of Prisons and the Construction of Citizenship in Ghana.” [18]

From 2006-2014, Nelson worked as a professor of law, an associate dean of student faculty, and an associate director of the Ronald H. Brown Center at St. John’s University in New York, NY. [19] In 2013, Nelson was named one of Lawyers of Color’s 50 Under 50 minority professors making an impact in legal education. [20]

From 2009-2010, Nelson sat as a board member of the Noel Pointer Foundation, a nonprofit that develops music programs at schools. [21]

In 2014, Nelson returned to the LDF to work as an associate director-counsel. [22] She was one of the lead counsels for the litigation in Veasy v. Abbott (2008) which successfully challenged a Texas voting law that required photo identifications, on the grounds that such requirements constituted discrimination against minorities. [23] [24] She was also the “lead architect” in NUL v. Trump which unsuccessfully tried to overturn President Donald Trump’s ban on federal agencies and contractors engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion training. [25]

LDF Counsel-Director

In November 2020, the LDF announced that Nelson would take over as counsel-director of the organization from Sherrilyn Ifill in Spring 2022. After the announcement, Nelson was interviewed by the Washington Post. She described the LDF as “fighting against a revitalized mission to advance White supremacy, and we are making progress.” [26]

Political Views

Janai Nelson has asserted that the United States is a deeply racist country which has only recently begun to undue its systematically racist culture and legal system. In November 2021, she Tweeted: “It’s easy for some to forget how very young our multi-racial, multi-ethnic democracy is and how susceptible it is to reverting to the white supremacist order that defined this country for over 400 years (and never really disappeared).” [27]

Nelson supports ending the filibuster in the U.S. Senate. [28]

When a Wisconsin jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of homicide on self-defense grounds, Nelson wrote: “The #Rittenhouse verdict is a mirror of how numb we are to the loss of human life, how white innocence is a necessary myth in this country’s identity, and of our criminal legal system’s susceptibility to grand manipulation.” [29]

Nelson has spoken favorably about the 1619 Project. [30]

Nelson supports teaching critical race theory in schools. [31]

George Floyd Protests

In the summer of 2020, protests and riots erupted throughout the United States in reaction to the police-custody death of George Floyd later found to be murder by a Minnesota jury. Nelson described her view of the protests and riots:

I believe that the “why” of this moment lies in the utter travesty of George Floyd’s killing and the history of impunity-invited violence against Black bodies that it represents. His brutal death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers presented a harrowing visual of what it means to be Black in America… This devastating incident awakened many… Americans who had previously turned a blind eye to systemic racial discrimination. With this new gaze we have an opportunity for a true reckoning with our past and the deep fissures of injustice that continue to plague us. This confrontation… is absolutely necessary to bring about true transformation… [32]

In 2021, Nelson reflected:

We saw last summer the spontaneous galvanization of an intergenerational multiracial, multiethnic movement in response to police violence and in response to other inequities in our society. It was explosive in the most positive way. [33]

References

  1. Bogage, Jacob. “’We have to push the boundaries’ on civil rights, says incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund president.” The Washington Post. November 18, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/11/18/naacp-ldf-janai-nelson/. ^
  2. “Janai Nelson.” Twitter. November 22, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1462964577612836865. ^
  3. “Janai Nelson.” Celebsagewiki. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.celebsagewiki.com/janai-nelson. ^
  4. Bogage, Jacob. “’We have to push the boundaries’ on civil rights, says incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund president.” The Washington Post. November 18, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/11/18/naacp-ldf-janai-nelson/. ^
  5. “Janai Nelson.” Vanity Fair. August 24, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2020/08/black-lives-matter-activists-photos. ^
  6. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  7. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  8. “Janai Nelson.” LDF. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.naacpldf.org/about-us/staff/janai-nelson/. ^
  9. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  10. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  11. “Janai Nelson.” LDF. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.naacpldf.org/about-us/staff/janai-nelson/. ^
  12. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  13. “Crystal Granderson-Reid.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/crystal-granderson-reid-5943905a/. ^
  14. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  15. Adams, Eric. “Constituent Spotlight: Crystal Granderson-Reid and Janai Nelson.” The New York State Senate. July 5, 2011. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.nysenate.gov/newsroom/articles/eric-adams/constituent-spotlight-crystal-granderson-reid-and-janai-nelson. ^
  16. “Be Free Global.” Internal Revenue Service. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://apps.irs.gov/app/eos/detailsPage?ein=352352136&name=BE%20FREE%20GLOBAL&city=Brooklyn&state=NY&countryAbbr=US&dba=&type=EPOSTCARD,%20REVOCATION&orgTags=EPOSTCARD&orgTags=REVOCATION. ^
  17. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  18. “Janai Nelson.” Fulbright. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://cies.org/grantee/janai-nelson. ^
  19. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  20. “Janai Nelson.” LDF. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.naacpldf.org/about-us/staff/janai-nelson/. ^
  21. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  22. “Janai Nelson.” LinkedIn. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.linkedin.com/in/janai-nelson-4257271b/. ^
  23. “Veasy v. Abbott.” Harvard Law Review. February 10, 2016. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://harvardlawreview.org/2016/02/veasey-v-abbott/. ^
  24. “Janai Nelson.” LDF. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.naacpldf.org/about-us/staff/janai-nelson/. ^
  25. “Janai Nelson.” LDF. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.naacpldf.org/about-us/staff/janai-nelson/. ^
  26. Bogage, Jacob. “’We have to push the boundaries’ on civil rights, says incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund president.” The Washington Post. November 18, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/11/18/naacp-ldf-janai-nelson/. ^
  27. “Janai Nelson.” Twitter. November 22, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1462964577612836865. ^
  28. “Jenai Nelson.” Twitter. November 22, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1463007906673184768. ^
  29. “Janai Nelson.” Twitter. November 19, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1461771230999105541. ^
  30. “Janai Nelson.” Twitter. November 16, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1460823426046828544. ^
  31. “Jenai Nelson.” Twitter. November 15, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://twitter.com/JNelsonLDF/status/1460416776529977345. ^
  32. “Janai Nelson.” Vanity Fair. August 24, 2020. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2020/08/black-lives-matter-activists-photos. ^
  33. Bogage, Jacob. “’We have to push the boundaries’ on civil rights, says incoming NAACP Legal Defense Fund president.” The Washington Post. November 18, 2021. Accessed November 23, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2021/11/18/naacp-ldf-janai-nelson/. ^
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