Clint Smith is a outstanding author, instructor, and Harvard Ph.D. candidate. We spoke with him about the ongoing difficulty of racial injustice and its effects on our felony justice system and youth sentencing in this country.
Right here we are in 2018, 50 years after the assassination of Dr. King. The place are we on this second in phrases of race relations in our country? The legacy of racism? Have we made “progress,” or is that even a time period that is sensible to discuss in this context?
We need to make it possible for we’re having a nuanced conversation around progress. We’re in a moment during which some students and writers are telling us that things are literally higher than they’ve ever been, and that regardless that we’re inundated with dangerous information, it’s essential to take a broader historic take a look at the arc of progress that has been made across time. I feel books and ideas like these deliver up some really necessary points, and I also assume that criticism of these concepts stems from the proven fact that in sure spaces we’ve made large progress, and in different spaces we haven’t. It’s necessary to disaggregate knowledge to see who progress is occurring for and who it isn’t.
The racial wealth hole is growing, not shrinking. Many faculties are more re-segregated than they have been since earlier than Brown v. Board of Schooling in 1954, and to provide an extended historic arc to the analysis, we are too quick to imagine that the most egregious examples of racial violence occurred a long time in the past, once they weren’t that way back at all. The primary slaves came here in 1619, the Emancipation Proclamation was in 1863, and then in 1964 and 1965 there’s the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
So, it’s solely been about 50 years since black individuals in this nation have had even a semblance of legal and legislative freedom. For the 350 years prior to that it was basically authorized to discriminate towards, dehumanize, delegitimize, and disenfranchise black individuals. In case you kick someone for 350 years, and then stop kicking them for a seventh of that quantity of time, it’d be disingenuous to take a look at that individual and say, “What’s wrong with you? Why don’t you have the same academic outcomes as me? The same economic outcomes as me? Why is there so much violence in your community?”
But again, we have now this deeply ahistorical conception of the narrative of our nation’s historical past with racism, and that permits us to misdiagnose and misunderstand the modern racial panorama. Clearly, the felony justice system is a large part of that.
Sure, let’s speak extra about how this pertains to the legal justice system in the age of mass incarceration. And the way it relates to dwelling in an era during which an unprecedented number of youth, notably brown and black youth, are serving excessive sentences.
The historical past of racism and white supremacy on this country and its relationship to our legal justice system is deeply profound, and it impacts every side of American political and social life. One can’t begin to know the method that Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson, for example, without understanding the methods during which the Ferguson police division has primarily criminalized poverty as a proxy from criminalizing blackness, as is documented in the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report.
The Department of Justice Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department is absolutely necessary and illuminating, and it made clear something that has been anecdotally understood by communities of colour for a very long time. This country made a very specific selection about 40 years ago about how we’re going to interact with the problems of crime and poverty, and the lack of providers, mobility, and alternative for black and brown and poor individuals. And that’s where we go from 300,000 individuals in our felony justice system in 1970 to 2.2 million in 2010.
This is obviously mirrored in obligatory minimums, in the large amount of control that prosecutors have been given, and in the undeniable fact that upwards of 90-95 % of all courtroom instances end in plea offers which means harmless individuals plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit simply so they can get out of jail. And so the relationship between all of these social and political phenomena are deeply interwoven and deeply interrelated, and can’t be understood with out one another.
In terms of juvenile justice, I feel at this point we’ve a reasonably in depth body of social science that exhibits the means that black youngsters are adultified. The adultification that black women experience, that black boys expertise. The best way by which Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy whom they known as if he we have been someone much older than he was. Younger black women expertise faculty self-discipline at far higher charges than their white counterparts. We now have the historical past, the social science, and the knowledge to reveal the ways through which all of these various things intersect.
To your point, seventy % of individuals serving juvenile life with out parole are individuals of shade. You’ve worked with many of these individuals. What impression does this sentence have on them, and on their communities?
The first thing that you simply understand whenever you begin working with this population is that however for the arbitrary nature of sure circumstances, I might very simply have been on the different aspect of the prison bars. We function beneath this strange delusion in American life that we inherently deserve the alternatives we’ve had. We don’t account for the ways during which so many other issues — one million issues which might be beyond our control — had to happen for us to be in the positions we’re in. And for those who assume that you simply inherently deserve the constructive issues you’ve gotten gotten, then implicitly, you’re suggesting that the individuals who experience rather more destructive outcomes inherently deserve these.
That extends especially to our prisons, where the concept of prison is based on a certain social isolation and removing. On the one hand, American society is beginning to recognize the methods through which the demise penalty is an egregious and horrific crime. And on the other finish, we’ve the mythology of the “nonviolent drug offender,” however even in case you let loose every nonviolent drug offender, you’d still have round 1.7 or 1.6 million individuals in the system, nonetheless accounting for one-fifth of the world’s complete.
If we need to have an actual dialog about ending mass incarceration, we’ve got to ask a much more troublesome set of questions about situations the place individuals have committed physical harm towards someone else, and those are questions that aren’t politically palatable, however I feel they’re necessary.
Does it make sense to place a toddler in a cage for the rest of their life for one thing that they did once they have been 15, 16, 17 years previous? Although all the social science exhibits that your probability of committing crimes decreases precipitously after you’re 30-35 years previous? That your mind isn’t absolutely developed till you’re 25? That by 2050, our prisons will probably be 30 % crammed with people who find themselves 55 and older?
And yet we’re unwilling to have that dialog, actually because it demands a kind of empathy and nuance that has typically been missing in the discourse around mass incarceration as a result of violent crime isn’t seen as one thing that’s deserving of context and a kind of orientation in the direction of understanding in the similar means that nonviolent crime is, even the notion of violent vs. nonviolent is a false dichotomy. Lots of issues which might be referred to as violent crimes don’t truly involve physical hurt towards anyone, and so much which are referred to as nonviolent are somewhat more difficult than that.
All that’s to say, in my conversations with people, I attempt to get us to assume of the context through which somebody lives which will lead somebody to do something which would put themselves able to have them sentenced to life in jail, as a toddler, and once more fascinated with which youngsters are we considering of as youngsters and which are we considering of as a population that are type of disposable.
You employ the phrase empathy, and I do know you’ve referenced a “double standard of empathy” or “selective empathy” in your work — in other words, the concept that folks don’t feel empathy evenly, or the similar method, for certain populations. Does this double normal exist / play a task with regards to harsh sentencing practices?
Yeah, I feel there’s 100 % a double commonplace. The difficulty is that may be a recognition of that double normal enough to vary it, and the reply on that isn’t necessarily clear both. There was an enormous Stanford research achieved a number of years ago. It confirmed that when you may assume that a group of white people who have been informed that black individuals have been disproportionately handed draconian sentences, that they might say, “That’s terrible, let’s make it so that doesn’t continue to happen.”
But truly makes them double down on the existence of the sentences, because it perpetuates of their minds the concept that black individuals are deserving of them, or are an inherently harmful group of individuals. I feel typically individuals assume a recognition of one’s bias will forestall the bias from occurring, however typically it only reinforces it.
How do these dynamics, and this reality that brown and black youngsters are more likely to be funneled into the felony justice system and get extra excessive sentences once there, influence their childhoods?
What does it imply to develop up in a world that is always taught to worry you? What does it inform a younger baby about who they are when the messages they maintain getting about themselves are that they’re somebody to be feared, someone to be caged, someone to be surveilled, someone who requires an occupying police drive who is regularly harassing and interrogating you and individuals you’re keen on? That creates an actual and ongoing trauma for any young individual.
I keep in mind once I was educating highschool, some of my youngsters thought that their group was the method it was because that they had internalized so much of the racism that they’d been inundated with about themselves. Like, oh, properly, we don’t work very exhausting, or we’re violent, or we did this to ourselves. They usually’re not accounting for the many years of public policy selections which were made to de-prioritize their communities but in addition take assets from and plunder and decimate the social service infrastructure and economic infrastructure in many of these places.
To deliver it again, we will’t begin to know why the United States is the solely country in the world that sentences youngsters to life with out parole, and why black and brown youngsters are disproportionately impacted by this sentence without this history — it’s deeply tied to a centuries-long historical past of white supremacy and racism on this country, and the method that it has constantly advanced, constantly reinvented itself, constantly tried to regulate and recalibrate to a brand new and modern moment, during which it turns into more delicate and more egregious and harder to explicitly detect.
Comply with Clint on Twitter @ClintSmithIII.