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From Frustration to Fairness

By Sarah Arnold                                                                                                                        

December 2, 2014

Three RDCJN members, Charis KubrinYassar Payne, and Victor Rios, have all recently given TED talks which express how their dissatisfaction with the prevalence of racial inequality in the criminal justice system motivated them to combat discrimination in hopes of creating a better more just society. Their actions perfectly embody the purpose of the RDCJN, which promotes scholars’ study of the role of race/ethnicity in politics, crime and criminal justice, and society as a whole in hopes of making meaningful positive change. Each of these authors has experienced frustration with society’s unjust treatment of people of color, but rather than accepting the status quo they have conducted research, taken political action, and propagated their ideas in order to change society’s perceptions and treatment of young men from racial minorities.

Charis Kubrin, a criminology professor at the University of California at Irvine, spoke of her amazement of discriminatory use of rap lyrics in the criminal justice system in her TED talk “Rap on Trial,” which she gave in September. In her talk she spoke of her shock when an all white jury convicted a young black college student of terrorism charges based on a few lines of threatening text scribbled on a piece of paper. Kubrin extensively analyzed these words and concluded that based on her analysis and her expertise in rap music these words were part of a rap song, not an imminent threat to the United States. Despite her convincing testimony for the defense as an expert witness, the jury convicted Olutosin Oduwole of attempting to communicate a terrorist threat, and Kubrin believes that the jury’s decision was based not on facts but on emotion, namely fear. Out of her frustration with the case, she decided to look into the frequency of the use of rap lyrics by prosecutors, and her findings were staggering. She and her colleague Erik Nielson, an Assistant Professor at the University of Richmond, found that rap lyrics were being used routinely to convict young black males of various crimes. This practice disproportionately and unjustly affects young black men because of the people’s perception of rap music and rap artists as threatening in comparison to other genres of music. Kubrin and Nielson published their article and included their findings in an amicus brief for the Supreme Court case Elonis v. United States, which began oral arguments yesterday, December 1st.

Yasser Payne's TEDx Talk: Walk With Me

This past August Yasser Payne, a professor in the Department of Black American Studies at the University of Delaware, spoke of the tragedy of inequality that he witnessed working as a street vendor in his youth, and how this motivated him to start the Street Participatory Action Research Program in his TED talk “Walk with Me.” As a child he witnessed and felt the vast economic disparity between the rich and the poor as well as the struggle that people on the street had to get by. His experiences prompted him to start the Street PAR Program, which recently intensively trained fifteen street-identified people in activist-based research skills over two months. This program culminated in a study examining the connection between education and employment in two low-income areas in Wilmington, Delaware, a city that is still largely segregated by race and class. Their findings which included high unemployment rates, high high-school drop out rates, and high exposure to violence were used to make seventeen policy recommendation to politicians and policymakers.

In 2012, in his TED talk “From ‘At Risk’ to ‘At Promise’: Supporting Teens to Overcome Adversity” Victor Rios discussed his experience of being seen as a child at-risk and how this led him to study urban youth of color, helping him to promote the perception of young men as “at-promise” rather than at risk. As a child he was considered at-risk by his teachers because he came from a single-parent household that relied on welfare and because he had very poor eyesight but could not afford glasses. While he did not originally feel as though he was at-risk, the label acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy and as he got older he became involved in illegal activity, spent time in a juvenile detention facility, and at fifteen watched his friend get shot and killed in front of him. While most of his teachers continued to see him as at-risk, there was one teacher who saw him as “at-promise” and empathized with him. This teacher’s support helped him refocus his priorities so that he could start to academically and emotionally grow. He finished high school, went to college, received a Ph.D. in sociology, and joined the faculty at UC Santa Barbara.  He is now an Associate Professor of Sociology, who conducts research on juvenile justice and its connection with race. His research and lived experiences have led him to believe that societal perceptions are a key to helping “at-risk” youth change their lives. He suggests that by investing in and enhancing the dignity of young people at-risk, we will be able to reduce crime. Additionally he believes that if schools, police, and families treat Black and Hispanic youths as at-promise rather than at-risk, and thereby give them opportunities for positive change and avoid labeling them as criminals, these young men will grow and flourish.

These three activist professors, like thousands of other Americans, have faced adversity and witnessed the injustice of racial discrimination in this country, and yet they all still have hope for and unceasingly grasp for a more just world. Whether it is by helping Latino youth flourish, by working to end the discriminatory use of rap lyrics in trials, or by empowering street-identified people to work towards increasing education and employment, all three of these RDCJN members inspire me.  If people who are willing to fight for a fairer world exist, I know that there is hope for a better future.