Unless Americans come to grips with the long, ugly history of race relations, there is little hope of making fundamental changes in the criminal justice system, speakers told the Smart on Crime conference at John Jay College Tuesday.
Lawmakers and activists cannot tackle criminal justice reforms without addressing systemic racial disparities in the U.S., a conference at John Jay College was told Tuesday.
“They go hand-and-hand,” G.T. Bynum, mayor of Tulsa, Okla., told a discussion panel exploring the continuing impact of racial bias on the criminal justice system.
Bynum noted that his own political career was inspired by the responses to the “massacre” that destroyed Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood in 1921, leaving at least 36 dead, and some 10,000 homeless. Often called the country’s worst “race riot,” the incident was sparked and led by whites, effectively obliterating what was then considered the wealthiest African-American community in the U.S.
He noted that none of the ringleaders of the massacre were ever prosecuted, even though police could have easily found out who they were, and compared it to the swift law enforcement reaction to the deadly 1995 Oklahoma City bombing seven decades later.
Other members of the five-person panel made similar points about the nation’s failure to acknowledge the lingering effects of racism on official behavior. The panel was part of the college’s second annual Smart on Crime Innovations Conference, a two-day event where scholars, activists and politicians from across the nation convene to discuss innovative strategies to replace the now-discredited “tough-on-crime” approaches of the 1990s.
Bynum cited as one example from his own city a community-policing model that calls for residents to play active roles in maintaining public safety in their neighborhoods. He said placing the burden solely on police officers can create a disconnect between residents and often overworked and understaffed police forces.
“Criminal justice in the community is reliant on the community,” he said. “It’s every citizen’s job in the community to make that community safer.”
The community-policing model, he added, will not only control crime but also help police officers and residents view one another as allies.
Jason Hernandez, whose life sentence for selling crack cocaine was commuted by former President Barack Obama in 2013, said he doubted that he would have received similar treatment by a white president. Though he championed more diversity in the criminal justice system, he said the issue is deeper than that.
“When you have a Hispanic or African-American officer, prosecutor, or judge—they’re usually one of the worse ones,” he says.
“We have to change their mindset. There is no connection between the defendant and the ones that are arresting them, prosecuting them and imposing their sentences.”
Kimberly Foxx, State’s Attorney for Cook County, Il., said it all comes down to access.
As a black woman who lived in public housing in a single-parent household, she argued that she has more in common with the defendants and victims that walk through her courtroom than with the lawyers that work for her. She described how external factors, such as the lack of access, can ruin people lives and lead to mass incarceration.
“It doesn’t begin with the criminal justice system,” she says. “Every piece of those factors—education, affordable housing, mental health access—ends with the criminal justice system.”
For Jeffrey Robinson, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Deputy Legal Director, said learning the true history of U.S. race relations should be the first start of anyone looking for solutions to racial disparities.
“This history is hidden, but it’s hidden in plain sight,” he said. “If we don’t have a common baseline of what race has done to us in America, then it will be impossible to go forward, because we’re all talking about different things.”
Candice Jones, president of the Washington, DC-based Public Welfare Foundation, discussed racial disparities in incarceration and warned people not to rely solely on politicians to find solutions.
“I don’t think we should get under any illusion that one political party is going to save us on this issue,” she said.
“In this nation, we’re dealing with a crisis of human bondage that groups profit from. We have to get concrete pretty quickly on how we’re going to address this stuff. We don’t have another two generations to sacrifice.”
The Smart on Crime conference continued Wednesday.
J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.