Racism past, present in prison, policing

Add This

Scholars, activists, citizens aim for action at 36th annual Marion Thompson Wright lecture.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore (GSNB ’98) captured the essence of the 2016 Marion Thompson Wright Lecture (MTW) held this past Saturday at Rutgers University – Newark (RU-N) with the title of her keynote address, “Too Soon for Sorry.” Gilmore explained to the overflow crowd of 700 gathered for the daylong conference that in the 1990s, as rumor spread that then-President of the United States William Jefferson Clinton was preparing to apologize on behalf of the nation for its embrace of slavery well into the 19th century, an intellectual countercurrent emerged. To apologize, the argument went, would be hypocritical when systematic oppression of African Americans continued to pervade so many aspects of everyday life in our country.

Gathered by the Clement A. Price Institute on Ethnicity, Culture and the Modern Experience and graciously welcomed by interim director Mark Krasovic and Price Institute Fellow John Johnson, Gilmore and a lineup of other nationally and locally prominent activist intellectuals spent the day exploring the origins, expanse, and persistence today of such discrimination, especially in the realm of criminal justice, for this year’s MTW conference, titled, “Long Time Here: Prisons and Policing in African-American History.” Often cited throughout the day would be data from the Prison Policy Initiative showing that the U.S. prison population has grown 430% since 1982, to 2.3 million; 40% of that population is black, compared to only 13% of the total U.S. population, reflecting an incarceration rate for blacks six times that of whites.

In his welcome to the diverse audience of academics, public, private, and nonprofit sector leaders, and community residents, Rutgers President Robert Barchi underscored the challenge of trying to make sense of those statistics. "I'm a neuroscientist,” Barchi said, “and these numbers just don't compute for me," going on to describe several ways in which Rutgers has been working to improve life chances for formerly incarcerated individuals, including the New Jersey Scholarship and Transformative Education in Prisons Program (NJSTEP) established in 2005 and based at RU-N, which was lauded as a model by President Barack Obama when he visited RU-N in November 2015.

In enthusiastically received opening remarks, RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor underlined the urgency of the MTW theme, which she called “arguably the issue of this moment” in American history. Referring to numerous, widely covered instances in recent months of fatal violence suffered by African Americans at the hands of police, she urged resisting the “proclivity in the face of police violence to invoke a ‘perfect storm’ of human error.” She called instead for taking responsibility for our shortcomings and recognizing that we can and must do better, reflecting the aspirations of MTW co-founder and Board of Governors Distinguished Professor the late Clement A. Price that this annual conference would foster “fulsome public dialogue” and spur resolve to undertake collective action for change. “We can’t bend the arc of history even a small way toward justice if we don’t talk, together, and what gives me hope is that the next generation wants to do more than talk. So, today, let us listen, talk, and coalesce across difference, intersecting around the shared urgency of doing better.”

Gilmore, a professor of earth and environmental science at the City University of New York Graduate Center and director of its Center for Place, Culture and Politics, made clear that to do better, we must untangle many related problems, asserting that disproportionality in incarceration of African Americans “is not the problem, criminalization is." In this, her first lecture at Rutgers since defending her 1998 dissertation in geography—which became her critically acclaimed book, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis and Opposition in Globalizing California—she marshaled incarceration statistics, penal law, demographic and economic data, military and industrial development trends, and campaign finance contribution records to show complex relationships supporting her argument that prejudice is woven deeply, broadly, and tightly into the American socioeconomic system. She suggested that this is why “so many people come out to advocate” for a range of social justice issues, but many end up focusing on criminal justice reform because so many of our challenges today are rooted there.

Another featured MTW speaker, Heather Ann Thompson, a professor of history at the University of Michigan who is a sought after analyst by policy makers and the media, agreed that mass incarceration is a fundamental problem facing our nation, calling it “the civil rights crisis of the 21st century." Remarking that we are only coming to recognize this crisis now, she argued that a range of the most persistent challenges facing urban America can be traced to policy choices going back to the 1960s, when policing in “black and brown neighborhoods began to create a new social order through criminal justice.”

Thompson noted that the 60s were when law and law enforcement began to focus on drug possession; incarceration became the solution of choice over treatment and violent crime got worse as families and neighborhoods were devastated by the increasing removal of people, particularly black men. She finds it no coincidence that at the same time public safety strategies were adopted placing police officers within schools in those same neighborhoods where civil rights protests also were most prominent, to both enforce drug laws and inhibit youth protests about social conditions. She sees such strategies as having increased in severity since then, placing increasingly severe restrictions on civil liberties, such as the designation of entire neighborhoods where warrants are no longer needed for some police actions—what she calls the “criminalization of public space”—and the annulment of voting rights for felons in 48 of the 50 states.

The final MTW featured speaker was Khalil Ghibran Muhammad (GSNB’04), director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of the New York Public Library system, who is widely considered one of the nation’s most influential thinkers on race and crime. Muhammad, who once was a teaching assistant for MTW co-founder and historian Price, took a longer historical view, finding origins for persistent discriminatory criminal justice practices in the post-Civil War era. He traced to that time the justification for contemporary policing practices such as “stop and frisk,” under which police may detain and pat down people on the street in high-crime neighborhoods—a practice employed overwhelmingly in predominantly black neighborhoods.

One influential historical source Muhammad cited was Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, an 1896 book written by Frederick Hoffman, who was an actuary for a major insurance company. Drawing upon crime statistics from the 1890 census, Hoffman presented what he considered to be an irrefutable argument that crime was concentrated in predominantly black neighborhoods because the “criminality of the negro exceeds that of any other race of any numerical importance in this country” and that until “the negro learns to respect life, property, and chastity, until he learns to believe in the value of a personal morality operating in his daily life, the criminal tendencies…will increase.” At the same time, Hoffman excused crime in predominantly white neighborhoods, attributing it largely to broader stresses in society at large, such as poverty, which “year after year drive an increasing army of unfortunates to madness, crime, or suicide.” In such rationalizations, Muhammad said, we find the roots of the persistent, fallacious argument still heard today that there is high crime in black neighborhoods today because black people are prone to bringing it on themselves. As Muhammad put it, however: “That's what un-freedom looks like: having to behave differently” to avoid being jailed or killed.

Moving from reflection on the MTW theme to action, Vice Chancellor for External and Government Relations Marcia Brown moderated a panel of local activists, soliciting their ideas about how to realize the kinds of reforms suggested by the day’s featured speakers. Former Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey Deborah Jacobs encouraged the audience and speakers to “keep doing what you’re doing” as voices calling consistently for change in our criminal justice system. Victor Monterrosa, recently appointed by Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to the Newark Civilian Complaint Review Board, called upon audience members and all citizens to speak up when they see problems with policing.

Larry Hamm, chair of the People’s Organization for Progress, an independent, grassroots political organization based in Newark, animatedly urged the audience to take concrete action, such as joining the organization’s weekly protests at the Newark federal building to advocate for the U.S. attorney to investigate recent cases of violent, sometimes fatal arrests in New Jersey in which grand juries refused to issue indictments. Junius Williams, director of the Abbott Leadership Institute at RU-N and an attorney who long has played a fundamental role in civil rights advocacy in Newark, suggested that we do all we can to cultivate the next generation to understand the history of, and advance, the struggle for greater justice—a key theme of his 2014 memoir Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power.

Williams’ remarks harkened back to those at the start of the day from Baye Adofo Wilson ('92), director of Newark’s department of economic and housing development, who brought greetings from Mayor Baraka and the city council. Reflecting on his own attendance at MTW as an RU-N student and advisee of the late professor Price, he stressed the importance of embracing the spirit of the day’s event and seeing the connection between finding solutions to mass incarceration and spurring economic development in Newark.


Photo: Ruth Wilson Gilmore gives the keynote address. Photo by Fred Stucker.