Racism on Campus is Nothing New. A Sustained Anti-Racist Campus Movement Would Be.

Student protests at Brown University in 1968.

As a first-year student at Brown University I was detained for trespassing by campus security.

In my own dorm.  In sock feet.

You see, I left my dorm room to go to the bathroom and didn’t bring my college ID along. I guess I should have known better. As a black student it was always an unstated expectation that I justify my presence on campus. Black students were a small minority on campus. And we were often seen as interlopers even after admission.

I was reminded of this incident this week as protests escalated at the University of Missouri (Mizzou) over a string a racist incidents there culminating in the ouster of the state university System President Tim Wolfe. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, many being veterans of the Ferguson struggle nearby, using a wide range of tried-and-true and cutting edge tactics, Mizzou students won one of their main demands, something many observers had said was impossible.

This powerful example of the power of protest and student organizing was met with rightwing media ridicule, attack by the Missouri Lt. Governor and even death threats against students. Just a day after the jubilation at the resignation of the University President, the campus was a ghost town as Mizzou students stayed away from class amid the tense climate.

Missouri students were not alone. Students at Yale University were in motion as well. Outrage over racism there was sparked by an administrator’s email communication stating that cautioning against racist Halloween costumes was a violation of free speech. Then grew over reports of a “white girls only” fraternity party the same weekend. Students at Yale were fired up by the time Mizzou made national news.

The fight was joined Thursday when the already planned Million Student March — demanding the elimination of all student debt, free college education for all, and $15 minimum wage for campus workers — stood in solidarity with Mizzou students.

What is new today is not racism on campuses both elite and public. It’s not student protest around the issues affecting their lives. What is new is the national scope of the protest and the breadth of the support, from professors to trade unions, to community supporters, to civil rights organizations. It brings together traditional and innovative student organizations, student governments and individuals.

Some 115 campuses took part in the protests, which were organized by United States Student Association, the Student Labor Action Project, and others. More than 1,000 students gathered at the University of California at Berkeley Thursday. It’s the kind of student action not seen in a generation.

To cap off the week, in Southern California, Claremont McKenna College Dean of Students Mary Spellman resigned Thursday amid protests there over racism on campus.

Ultimately the protests at Mizzou and elsewhere are not so much about this administrator or that as they are about demanding that institutions of higher learning create a space for students of color. It’s the same issue we were struggling with years ago.

Some commentators seem to think students protest because they are young and naive and motivated by intellectual concerns (or even under the influence of radical professors). But students today — as always — are largely motivated to action by the pressing issues impacting their lives and educations. It’s not academic.

Certainly the students in the struggles today have made mistakes — and they will certainly make more — but if sustained and nurtured, this week could signal a new multi-racial campus movement, with racial justice at its core, that could spark national change in the country in a wide range of issues. And maybe inspire others to get in motion as well.

When I was detained as a student it was not an isolated incident. Police and security harassment of black male students in particular was commonplace and some of us took to wearing our IDs around our necks as a visible sign of our alienness and defiance on a majority white campus.

It was no accident then that the student of color dropout rate at Brown was higher than for whites. We often lacked needed support and student services. Many of us were on financial aid and under constant economic pressures of working full-time while trying to get an education. A recent report says students of color at Brown today are still facing similar challenges.

So we had meetings, wrote up demands, protested and marched. We even achieved some small victories. We were also aware that our very presence at Brown was due to the successful protests of those that preceded us. It was the protests of a small group of black students in the 1960s that forced Brown to adopt goals for diversity in admissions that opened the door to our very presence.

That’s the nature of the struggle for progressive social change. Each struggle builds on those of the past. If we are successful, learning the lessons along the way to raise the struggle to a higher level.

Racial Segregation: Righting the Wrong and Making Restitution

At a time in history when crime continues to decline, same-sex marriage is legal, and innovation is powering advances in technology and bioengineering – one issue fails to progress: racial justice.

The unemployment rate for African-Americans continues to be more than twice that of whites. Public schools are more segregated now than they were in the 1950s and young black males are 21 times more likely to be shot and killed by the police than their white equivalents.

Widespread media coverage and outcry at the murders inside the African-American church in Charleston, and protests sparked by the killings of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown, transform the statistics into real faces.

Yet outside the political sphere, there is a continued lack of recognition and acknowledgement in the U.S. that institutionalized racism and white privilege are pervasive.

Derald Wing Sue – professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, internationally acknowledged expert on multiculturalism and diversity, and author of Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence – said he asks his students:

“How many of you socialize with people who are racially, culturally different than yourself? How many of you go into communities of color to celebrate the community events, to attend Asian Baptist churches, the black churches, how many of you do that? How many of you live in an integrated neighborhood?”

The reality here is that residential racial segregation is condoning a system of institutionalized racism where specific demographics are bearing the inevitable, negative consequences of policies set by those in power. Ultimately, race – a social construct – becomes a crucial factor in the outcome of violence whether that violence be physical, economic, political, or legal.

In the Architecture of Segregation Paul Jargowsky describes the rapid re-concentration of poverty since 2000. The concentrated poverty is racial in nature and the result of measured policy choice. Exclusionary zoning has developed with the movement and investment toward suburban neighborhoods. The wealthier suburbs reject affordable housing, keeping poor and low-income individuals in the city or fading suburbs.

Ruth Peterson, retired professor of Sociology at Ohio State University and former director of the Criminal Justice Research Center, and Lauren Krivo, professor of Sociology and affiliated professor in Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, introduce the concept of racial-spatial divide in their work Divergent Social Worlds: Neighborhood Crime and the Racial-Spatial Divide. In an extensive study accumulating crime and related data for 9,593 neighborhoods in 91 cities in the year 2000, the authors verify a connection between race, place, and crime, and prove that residential segregation is the principle reason why social worlds of people are so opposing. In short, the disadvantaged are isolated from the advantaged, and it runs across racial lines.

What the Architecture of Segregation Report and racial-spatial divide illustrate are two neighborhood studies showcasing structural housing policies – which stem from racial segregation – making particular groups more susceptible to cases of violence. Exclusionary zoning and private discrimination create the concentration of urban poverty, which inevitably means education disadvantages, labor disadvantages, increased welfare dependency, social disorder, and a loss of commercial business.

And it is an argument made again and again as young men like Michael Brown are killed on the streets, igniting a demand for change, but progress is still invisible and emotions raw a year later.

In a powerful reflection on race, John Metta, an African American who spoke to an all white audience at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in White Salmon, Wash. said: “… People are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.”

In the realm of racial justice, personal choice significantly reflects public policy and vice versa. Evident, are not only structural housing policies gone wrong, but also an inability to call them out.

If we commit an active effort in putting ourselves in unfamiliar situations, events, and discussions where authentic relationships and conversations can be cultivated, we can convert an increased understanding of institutionalized racism into righting the wrong and making restitution. We like to consider ourselves nondiscriminatory, multicultural, bias-free, and nonracist – yet this has yet to be transcended to a point where we are open to living side by side with each other.

It is time to demand that our political dogmas reflect the inclusive, nondiscriminatory attributes we claim to have. But first, we must represent those qualities outright.

Andrea Rocha is senior at the University of Washington and an intern at the Alliance for a Just Society. 

Prison Reform, a Step Toward Racial Equality and Respect

Last month, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison as he begins pushing congress to reform the nation’s criminal justice system.

Obama is urging meaningful sentencing reform, steps to reduce repeat offenders, and reform for the juvenile justice system to improve public safety, reduce runaway incarceration costs and make the criminal justice system fairer – and for good reason. The U.S. criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform.

To start, the system is riddled with racial bias and inequity. In 2011, the New York City Police Department made more stops of young black men than there are young black men in the city. Nearly one in three black men are imprisoned in their lifetime, while only one in 17 white men are imprisoned. When sentenced, black men are sent to prison for periods that are up to about 20 percent longer than white male defendants with similar crimes.

Sixty percent of incarcerated persons are black or Hispanic, even though they compromise only 28.6 percent of the population combined. While African Americans make up only 13 percent of the U.S. population, 40 percent of prisoners are black. According to Politifact, an organization that investigates and evaluates public political statements, the United States imprisons a larger percentage of its black population than South Africa did at the height of apartheid – a reality that should quickly put the issue into perspective.

In addition, over the last four decades, the number of incarcerated persons increased 500 percent, and now includes about 2.2 million adults in local jails, state prisons, and federal prisons. The number of women in prison increased 832 percent between 1997 and 2007 while the male population grew by 416 percent during the same 30-year period. Black women are more than six times as likely as white women to be incarcerated during their lifetimes.

Despite crime rates steadily declining during the last 25 years, incarceration rates have risen steeply. While increasing police force sizes can be an effective crime reduction strategy, studies suggest long prison sentences have little effect on crime rates. What this tells us? The resources spent confining people to boxes, for years and years, proliferates a system not even proven to work.

Policy decisions such as mandatory sentencing, long sentences for violent and repeated offenses, and intensified criminalization of drug-related activity, have also added to the explosion of state and federal prison populations. While the portion of persons in state prisons convicted of violent crimes makes up more than half that population, at the federal level violent crime accounts for only 7 percent of the federal prison population. More than 1/3 of the federal prison population is black, and more than 1/3 is Hispanic, yet those figures pale in comparison to the demographics of state prisons, where there are more than 5.5 times as many black inmates as there are white inmates.

Further, state spending on correction has outpaced spending on most other government functions, and in most states it is the third largest expenditure category behind education and healthcare.

At these costs, we might expect prisoners’ most basic economic rights to be respected. But that’s not what we find. Nearly half of the U.S. prison population works, but “the median wage [earned by inmates] in state and federal prisons is 20 and 31 cents respectively.” Because incarcerated persons do not qualify as “employees” under the law, they do not have labor rights.

Many see this as an extension of 19th century slavery due to its historical legacy. The comparison is not far from the truth. In three states – Texas, Georgia and Arkansas – inmates work for free.

So where does this put us and what should reform look like?

In light of these numbers we must not only recognize the inadequate state of our criminal justice system, but also demand a response to change it.

Meaningful reform must:

  1. Target racial bias by fighting institutional and structural inequities
  2. Reduce prison populations in a responsible manner (for example through rehabilitation and reintegration of incarcerated persons)
  3. Provide measures to enforce inmates’ human rights.

Likewise, the president and congress should urge states to follow suit.

In Weighing Racial Discrimination, Consider Outcome, Not Just Intent

In the last two weeks, the Supreme Court handed down some monumental decisions: health care subsidies were upheld, ensuring millions will continue to see the benefits of the Affordable Care Act; and marriage equality became the law of the land, allowing LGBTQI people to marry. But, there was another major decision tucked in there, too: in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., et al, the Supreme Court affirmed that it is not the intent of racial discrimination that matters, but the impact.

In some instances, rules may be in place that appear to be colorblind or even prevent racial discrimination, but racial bias and racist actions still lead to disparate impact. This was the case in Seattle, where the city’s Office for Civil Rights uncovered evidence of discrimination at 13 rental properties across the city. There, prospective tenants were treated differently depending on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or national origin. Such discrimination is not limited to housing, of course; people of color, especially, are discriminated against in nearly all areas of life, including policing, employment, and childhood education.

When we envision discrimination, we typically think of situations like these where it comes from individuals and leads to a broader impact on people of color.

However, the recent Supreme Court decision centered on a case where funds designed in part to combat segregation were distributed so that they instead contributed to continuing segregation. Here, it was not racist individuals or racial bias that led to such disparate impact; it was, instead, a lack of recognizing that impact and thinking strategically about alternatives that could better counter the existing segregation.

This short-sightedness and lack of a racial justice lens led to a concentration of low-income housing in communities of color, contributing to, rather than changing a system that ghettoizes low-income communities of color.

On July 8, President Obama announced stricter rules against housing segregation, including requiring local governments to account for “how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities.” This is an important step in helping local governments avoid the short-sighted actions that occurred in Texas, and could make significant progress in addressing the concentration of poverty in communities of color.

However, we must recognize that systemic and economic racism are entwined within more aspects of our society than housing. Expecting a housing fix to assure we avoid the 1968 prophecy noted by Justice Kennedy that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and un-equal” would itself be short-sighted. Instead, we must seek to recognize, call out, and address all policies and actors that, intentionally or not, perpetuate a system of economic racism. Whether in health outcomes, voting rights, policing, higher education, employment, or nearly any other area, policies and actions must take into account their impact on people of color in order to dismantle to a system of economic racism that has existed in this country for far too long.

Oregon bans racial profiling

The Alliance and our affiliates Center for Intercultural Organizing and Oregon Action have been organizing to put an end to racial profiling in Oregon for a decade. The first week of July, 2015, those years of organizing paid off when the Oregon Senate passed HB 2002 – a comprehensive anti-profiling bill – and sent it to the governor’s desk for her signature.

The work that built toward this victory traces back to 2006, when OA, CIO and the Alliance partnered with the Northwest Constitutional Rights Center and the Portland Police Bureau to organize a groundbreaking series of community listening sessions across Portland that brought together community members and Portland police officers for real dialogues on the issue of racial profiling.

After those sessions, the Alliance co-authored a report, Listening Sessions Report: A Community and Police Partnership to Eliminate Racial Profiling (PDF), that documented the problem and offered concrete recommendations for eliminating profiling in Portland.

But that was only the beginning of this work. In the years since, CIO and OA have continued to organize around profiling issues – collecting stories from community members who have faced profiling, making the connections between police profiling and discriminatory “ICE holds” (when immigrants are held in local jails after their charges are cleared at the behest of Immigration and Customs Enforcement), building coalition relationships, engaging in dialogues with law enforcement associations, and mobilizing grassroots supporters to build momentum for change.

The passage of HB 2002 last week represents a landmark victory in this long fight to end profiling.

HB 2002 provides a clear definition of profiling and requires all law enforcement agencies in the state to ban it. The definition encompasses profiling based on race, ethnicity, skin color, national origin, language, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political affiliation, homelessness, and disability – a comprehensive definition that can serve as a model for other states.

HB 2002 also establishes a process for accepting and addressing complaints about profiling and includes provisions for the collection and analysis of complaint data – critical handles for enforcing the profiling ban.

While we celebrate this win with our Oregon affiliates and partners, we’re already looking ahead to what’s next: more boots-on-the-ground work to make sure the new law is fully and fairly implemented.

Here’s what Kayse Jama, Executive Director of CIO, had to say: “By defining profiling and establishing a consistent process for recording complaints, we can help build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. This legislation is an important step toward ending a systemic problem, but it does not mean our work is done. Actual change has to be felt on the ground.”

Read the full press release.

CIO celebrates anti-profiling victory
Staff and members of Oregon’s Center for Intercultural Organizing celebrate the passage of anti-profiling legislation in the state.

AJS Statement on Charleston, S.C. Shootings

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The Alliance for a Just Society joins the world in mourning the brutal deaths of nine people murdered in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, SC this week. We have in our thoughts and prayers the families and lives of Reverend Clementa Pinckney, Daniel L. Simmons, Ethel Lee Lance, Myra Thompson, Rev. Depayne Middleton Doctor, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton. We may not have known them, but we name them, and vow never to forget the personal victims of racist violence and their stories.

We are appalled by the racist violence and terror. We are angry that more than 50 years since Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. last spoke in that same church that we are still unable to face racism in our country.

Racism dehumanizes and abuses people of color and reinforces vast inequality, while protecting those with power and privilege. Violence, terror and fear are essential pillars of racism – whether it’s the official violence at the hands of the police and military; vigilante violence by the mob, or the action of a “lone gunman.”

But there is no lone gunman. Anyone who has a hand in allowing racism to thrive in any corner of our society, in our homes, our living rooms or taught to our children, has to acknowledge that it must end now. We don’t need any more wake up calls. We have awoken.

The lost lives of the nine men and women, moms, dads, sisters, uncles, grandparents, brothers, children, friends, teachers, and all that they were and meant, cannot simply be mourned… they must be a catalyst for change – and we must be that change.

Today is the 150th Anniversary of Juneteenth Day, the first celebration of the end of slavery. Yesterday the Supreme Court ruled that Texas can forbid people from putting the Confederate Flag on their state license plates, and yet, many Southern states still fly confederate flags. Our country still struggles to acknowledge that #BlackLivesMatter.

We believe that “no one is free until we are all free.” We’re still not free.

Testimony: A Living Wage Is about Family Prosperity

Yesterday I got the chance to testify to the Washington state House Labor and Workforce Development Committee.

Our living wage research findings set a standard, that mere survival is not an adequate measure of a healthy society, and not an expectation we should be striving to set. It’s about a living wage that positions families to build for the future and realize their dreams. Continue reading “Testimony: A Living Wage Is about Family Prosperity”

Ferguson October Draws a Rainbow of Solidarity

In the Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis, Missouri, the case of Dred Scott was first heard in 1847. Dred Scott and his family sued for freedom from their slave owner on the grounds that they had been removed from a “slave state” and brought to U.S. territories in which slavery was illegal.

The case ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1857 ruled that Scott had no standing to sue for rights under U.S. law since no black person – free or slave – was a citizen of the United States.

Fast forward to this past weekend: October 11-12, 2014. Three thousand protesters from throughout the country gathered in the literal and figurative shadow of the Old Courthouse to call for justice in the police killing of Michael Brown two months earlier in nearby Ferguson, Missouri.

The Ferguson October weekend of action and resistance is four days of protest, forums, discussion, prayer, and reflection aimed at putting a spotlight on Mike Brown’s killing and the broader issues of police brutality and accountability nationwide.

One of the most striking things about the event is its breadth and diversity.

Saturday’s march, titled “Justice for All” had a large local contingent, but also drew students from colleges such as Grinnell University, Howard University, University of Cincinnati and many others.

Carpools arrived from as far away as California, Florida, Maine and Washington state. Large groups of young African Americans came heeding the call “Black Lives Matter!” – but so did Latino, Arab, Asian and white marchers. Signs were in Korean, Spanish, Arabic and English. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, all faiths, and Atheists, were represented.

Activists from the environmental justice movement, Palestine solidarity movement, immigrant rights movement and the civil rights movement, both new and old were here in solidarity. Labor unions, community organizations, student groups and churches marched behind their banners.

All ages participated, from babes in arms to 90-year-old human rights activist and Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein. The mood was somehow both mournful and exuberant.

The Alliance for a Just Society joined with dozens of organizations in endorsing Ferguson October and calling for justice for Mike Brown.

One of the greatest accomplishments of the movement in Ferguson and the greater St. Louis area in the past two months is the development of a dynamic group of young people who have been peacefully marching, protesting and calling for Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Michael Brown to be indicted. The grand jury had its deadline extended into 2015, a delay that leaves the family and the community waiting for answers.

These young people – many of them sleeping in tents in and around Ferguson for weeks ­– have been harassed, arrested, tear gassed and vilified by authorities ever since the police turned peaceful protests into an uprising eight weeks ago. Rev. Renita Lamkin from St. Charles, Missouri has spent weeks working with local youth and mediating with police during almost nightly confrontations. She was hit with rubber bullets fired by police recently while working to keep the peace.

Speaking to the assembled crowd Saturday, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said he believes a national movement against police brutality has begun in Ferguson.

“The blood of Mike Brown has seeded a great revolution in this country,” said Rev. Sekou

Meetings throughout the weekend discussed taking the movement outward both to keep attention on the unresolved situation in Ferguson, but also to address the everyday experience of racist policing across the country. Whether this moment in history can become a historic movement is up to the organizers and activists heading home after this weekend. But many here believe there is a unique and rare opportunity to make headway on these issues right now.

The system of racism that subjects black people in particular, and people of color generally, to all sorts of indignity, suffering and death may not seem that different that the one that enslaved Dred Scott one hundred and fifty years ago. But one thing that has changed is the rainbow of support and solidarity that was represented here this weekend. It reminds us all that Michael Brown was a human being deserving of rights and life, and that black lives matter. To all of us.