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Christian Davenport, Melissa Burch, Shea Streeter, and Earl Lewis.

 

 

 

After months of protests and pandemic, we find ourselves in a period in which everything feels open to question. From the fields of history, anthropology, and political science, four LSA professors explore post-carceral life, the role of protest in democracy, how race influences our perceptions of police violence, and how these tumultuous and terrible months could help us create a better world.

After months of protests and pandemic, we find ourselves in a period in which everything feels open to question. From the fields of history, anthropology, and political science, four LSA professors explore post-carceral life, the role of protest in democracy, how race influences our perceptions of police violence, and how these tumultuous and terrible months could help us create a better world.

 

 

 

The convergence of COVID-19 and protests against police violence have created a singular cultural moment. Social historian Earl Lewis—the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and the director of the Center for Social Solutions—assesses the long series of events that have brought us here and how our history can help us move forward.

Lewis is the founder and the director of the Center for Social Solutions, which nurtures research and partnerships that address urgent social problems. Their work is founded around four pillars—water insecurity, the dignity of labor in an automated world, diversity and democracy, and slavery and its aftermath.

The way we frame these last few months, from COVID-19 and its aftermath to the protests against police violence, will have a big effect on the way we think about them. As a social historian, how do you view them?

Earl Lewis: COVID-19 has done something that we’ve never seen before: It has slowed the world. In a digital moment where everything moves with the click of a mouse and you can send information across the world in a matter of seconds, it forced us to slow down. We got to see the ways in which people we had once thought were marginal were essential. It was not just the doctors and the nurses who were essential, but also the postal carriers and mail sorters, the food clerks, and folks working at a series of other jobs. People who were able to work from home could see that they were able to because somebody was at that meat packing plant and the Amazon warehouses.

As the level of interdependence became much clearer, the inequities and inequalities did too—not just in the risk of exposure, but in the overrepresentation of Black and brown people dying from COVID-19, particularly in major cities. There were co-morbidity factors like hypertension and diabetes, but there was also the legacy of slavery: inadequate access to health care and the added burdens, psychological and physical, of being one paycheck away from being dispossessed of something as basic as a home.

And then you add on this searing image of George Floyd having his life taken away from him. And for what? Michael Milken, the financier who was convicted of insider trading and spent time in jail, is now back and making repentance for all he did. We're talking about millions of dollars and not an allegedly forged $20 bill. Bernie Madoff robbed millions of their life savings, and he too got his day in court. No one put a knee on his neck and exterminated him in plain view. One can pull a thread from Emmett Till in 1955 to George Floyd in 2020, through 65 years of America supposedly getting better, and see that certain humans are viewed as less valuable than others. They pay an ultimate penalty for what looks like a minor transgression in the broader context.

And it’s the power of seeing all of this, the weight of a moment. Black Lives Matter is more than a catch phrase. It’s a way of organizing communities and framing some fundamental questions about police and policing.

Now the question is, what kind of movement can we sustain? The sad truth of the matter is, of course, that George Floyd won't be the last to be killed for what seems like a minor transgression. Can we reform policing in America without reconstructing America? That’s the question I keep asking.

This does feel like a familiar cycle: a high profile case of police brutality followed by protests that get a lot of media attention and don’t progress any farther. What does it take to enact change?

EL: At some point we need to actually feel the pain, the hurt, and the anger. If you can’t or don't feel, you are not inclined to actually do something in the long run because it remains an intellectual exercise.

This may be our moment for a truth-and-reconciliation project for the United States. We have never been able to do that, and I think, in fact, that some people don't want the truth. The notion of reconciliation will require us to deal not only with the sin of slavery, but with the sin of confiscating native lands and all that entails. Perhaps we can make sure that this moment is not lost so we won’t be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years about another incident because we didn't have the strength and willpower to do what’s necessary now.

The convergence of COVID-19 and protests against police violence have created a singular cultural moment. Social historian Earl Lewis—the Thomas C. Holt Distinguished University Professor of History, Afroamerican and African Studies, and Public Policy, and the director of the Center for Social Solutions—assesses the long series of events that have brought us here and how our history can help us move forward.

Lewis is the founder and the director of the Center for Social Solutions, which nurtures research and partnerships that address urgent social problems. Their work is founded around four pillars—water insecurity, the dignity of labor in an automated world, diversity and democracy, and slavery and its aftermath.

The way we frame these last few months, from COVID-19 and its aftermath to the protests against police violence, will have a big effect on the way we think about them. As a social historian, how do you view them?

Earl Lewis: COVID-19 has done something that we’ve never seen before: It has slowed the world. In a digital moment where everything moves with the click of a mouse and you can send information across the world in a matter of seconds, it forced us to slow down. We got to see the ways in which people we had once thought were marginal were essential. It was not just the doctors and the nurses who were essential, but also the postal carriers and mail sorters, the food clerks, and folks working at a series of other jobs. People who were able to work from home could see that they were able to because somebody was at that meat packing plant and the Amazon warehouses.

As the level of interdependence became much clearer, the inequities and inequalities did too—not just in the risk of exposure, but in the overrepresentation of Black and brown people dying from COVID-19, particularly in major cities. There were co-morbidity factors like hypertension and diabetes, but there was also the legacy of slavery: inadequate access to health care and the added burdens, psychological and physical, of being one paycheck away from being dispossessed of something as basic as a home.

And then you add on this searing image of George Floyd having his life taken away from him. And for what? Michael Milken, the financier who was convicted of insider trading and spent time in jail, is now back and making repentance for all he did. We're talking about millions of dollars and not an allegedly forged $20 bill. Bernie Madoff robbed millions of their life savings, and he too got his day in court. No one put a knee on his neck and exterminated him in plain view. One can pull a thread from Emmett Till in 1955 to George Floyd in 2020, through 65 years of America supposedly getting better, and see that certain humans are viewed as less valuable than others. They pay an ultimate penalty for what looks like a minor transgression in the broader context.

And it’s the power of seeing all of this, the weight of a moment. Black Lives Matter is more than a catch phrase. It’s a way of organizing communities and framing some fundamental questions about police and policing.

Now the question is, what kind of movement can we sustain? The sad truth of the matter is, of course, that George Floyd won't be the last to be killed for what seems like a minor transgression. Can we reform policing in America without reconstructing America? That’s the question I keep asking.

This does feel like a familiar cycle: a high profile case of police brutality followed by protests that get a lot of media attention and don’t progress any farther. What does it take to enact change?

EL: At some point we need to actually feel the pain, the hurt, and the anger. If you can’t or don't feel, you are not inclined to actually do something in the long run because it remains an intellectual exercise.

This may be our moment for a truth-and-reconciliation project for the United States. We have never been able to do that, and I think, in fact, that some people don't want the truth. The notion of reconciliation will require us to deal not only with the sin of slavery, but with the sin of confiscating native lands and all that entails. Perhaps we can make sure that this moment is not lost so we won’t be having this conversation again in 5 or 10 years about another incident because we didn't have the strength and willpower to do what’s necessary now.

 

 

 

There has been an interesting juxtaposition between people who are protesting the stay-at-home mandates and people protesting against police violence. Some protestors are championed as patriots while others are depicted as anti-American thugs. How do you interpret that divide?

EL: I’m scheduled to teach a course on African American history this fall, and, at some point in the semester, I’m sure I will use two images: one of the Black Panthers marching on the state capitol in California in the 1960s with their guns over their shoulders and another of militia groups walking on the state capitol in Lansing with their faces covered in 2020.

Each image speaks to the interplay between history and race. California and federal officials labeled the Panthers a terrorist organization and spearheaded a campaign to eliminate them. At the time of this interview, in spring 2020 I have not seen evidence that the militias have been targeted in a similar manner. In fact, in some communities, the militia has been met with more restraint from law enforcement than seemingly unarmed peaceful protesters. If the actions of militia members turn more openly violent, I expect reference to home grown terrorism and Timothy McVeigh to resurface. And there will undoubtedly be greater calls for curtailing their public displays. But, at this moment, the photos capture two different responses to armed protest.

As allies to the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of white people have called out the need for white people to acknowledge their privilege. I understand the motivation and the sentiment behind it, but I haven’t seen much articulation about what owning white privilege actually means or seen the effects of white people owning their privilege. How do you view the idea of white privilege in this moment of social unrest?

EL: The idea of white privilege has probably always been there, but it has only been labeled as such for the last decade and a half. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between white privilege and white power. I think white privilege may be too easy. It almost assumes that if white people would only check their privilege, that’s somehow all that’s required. If they’re cognizant of their privilege, if they check their privilege, then the world will be equal.

In my view, let people say they can check their privilege, but make sure that they actually interrogate their power: the power to set the norms and to create the rules, to create the narrative, and to shape the tropes. All of those pieces get intertwined in a story about privilege, but I actually think it’s fundamentally a story about power. So I’d like people not just check their privilege, but to examine their power too.

The protests that we’ve seen across the country include people of different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together. At the same time, with COVID-19, we're physically separated and have been for what feels like a long time. Do you have any thoughts or historical lessons about unity that might apply to this period that we are living through?

EL: I think in a certain way, independent of the protests, COVID-19 reminds us of our commonalities. Some communities were certainly more vulnerable to it, but it’s not a disease that discriminates. It killed a whole lot of Chinese people before it came to Europe and the United States. We know it is killing thousands in Brazil, and vulnerable populations across the African continent. We can see its devastation in India, and even Russia. Social media, the John Hopkins COVID-19 site, and many others all remind us that there's a common enemy out there that can take anyone out.

We’re all living in a period of ambiguity, and I’ve noticed how many people really hate ambiguity. They can’t deal with it, but I think that's our common future for this next period, and I think that comes back to the shared humanity too. The virus’s risk is a certainty, but it brings along a lot of ambiguity that’s difficult for a lot of us.

But the wanton killing of someone for a minor transgression has no ambiguity. Philando Castile was killed even after telling the police officer, I have a gun here and I have a license to have a gun. Let me show you the license. That was enough for the officer to pull the trigger. Was that officer properly trained? No. But more than that, I think the officer was scared, that a Black man’s body produced fear in him.

It doesn’t help when politicians claim some people are good people and others are bad. It gives people in authority a license to discriminate, and in a way that can be lethal. So in some odd kind of way, the coronavirus may have actually made us aware of our shared humanity a little more. When leaders don’t end up demonstrating empathy, the people are left to insist that the collective is the only way that we can produce change.

That sounds like an optimistic note.

EL: Most people who believe in social movements are optimists. If you don’t believe that a place can be better, you tear it up. But if you believe that we have not yet realized the best part of ourselves, you may have some hope for trying to figure out how to build it up.

In some ways, I would argue that the Black Lives Matters movement has been an optimistic movement from the beginning because these were young people who were trying to figure out how to build something rather than to tear it apart. And if we are smart, we will treasure and nurture that impulse rather than demonizing it. And I can only hope we're smart enough.

There has been an interesting juxtaposition between people who are protesting the stay-at-home mandates and people protesting against police violence. Some protestors are championed as patriots while others are depicted as anti-American thugs. How do you interpret that divide?

EL: I’m scheduled to teach a course on African American history this fall, and, at some point in the semester, I’m sure I will use two images: one of the Black Panthers marching on the state capitol in California in the 1960s with their guns over their shoulders and another of militia groups walking on the state capitol in Lansing with their faces covered in 2020.

Each image speaks to the interplay between history and race. California and federal officials labeled the Panthers a terrorist organization and spearheaded a campaign to eliminate them. At the time of this interview, in spring 2020 I have not seen evidence that the militias have been targeted in a similar manner. In fact, in some communities, the militia has been met with more restraint from law enforcement than seemingly unarmed peaceful protesters. If the actions of militia members turn more openly violent, I expect reference to home grown terrorism and Timothy McVeigh to resurface. And there will undoubtedly be greater calls for curtailing their public displays. But, at this moment, the photos capture two different responses to armed protest.

As allies to the Black Lives Matter movement, a lot of white people have called out the need for white people to acknowledge their privilege. I understand the motivation and the sentiment behind it, but I haven’t seen much articulation about what owning white privilege actually means or seen the effects of white people owning their privilege. How do you view the idea of white privilege in this moment of social unrest?

EL: The idea of white privilege has probably always been there, but it has only been labeled as such for the last decade and a half. I’ve been trying to figure out the difference between white privilege and white power. I think white privilege may be too easy. It almost assumes that if white people would only check their privilege, that’s somehow all that’s required. If they’re cognizant of their privilege, if they check their privilege, then the world will be equal.

In my view, let people say they can check their privilege, but make sure that they actually interrogate their power: the power to set the norms and to create the rules, to create the narrative, and to shape the tropes. All of those pieces get intertwined in a story about privilege, but I actually think it’s fundamentally a story about power. So I’d like people not just check their privilege, but to examine their power too.

The protests that we’ve seen across the country include people of different races, ages, and socioeconomic backgrounds coming together. At the same time, with COVID-19, we're physically separated and have been for what feels like a long time. Do you have any thoughts or historical lessons about unity that might apply to this period that we are living through?

EL: I think in a certain way, independent of the protests, COVID-19 reminds us of our commonalities. Some communities were certainly more vulnerable to it, but it’s not a disease that discriminates. It killed a whole lot of Chinese people before it came to Europe and the United States. We know it is killing thousands in Brazil, and vulnerable populations across the African continent. We can see its devastation in India, and even Russia. Social media, the John Hopkins COVID-19 site, and many others all remind us that there's a common enemy out there that can take anyone out.

We’re all living in a period of ambiguity, and I’ve noticed how many people really hate ambiguity. They can’t deal with it, but I think that's our common future for this next period, and I think that comes back to the shared humanity too. The virus’s risk is a certainty, but it brings along a lot of ambiguity that’s difficult for a lot of us.

But the wanton killing of someone for a minor transgression has no ambiguity. Philando Castile was killed even after telling the police officer, I have a gun here and I have a license to have a gun. Let me show you the license. That was enough for the officer to pull the trigger. Was that officer properly trained? No. But more than that, I think the officer was scared, that a Black man’s body produced fear in him.

It doesn’t help when politicians claim some people are good people and others are bad. It gives people in authority a license to discriminate, and in a way that can be lethal. So in some odd kind of way, the coronavirus may have actually made us aware of our shared humanity a little more. When leaders don’t end up demonstrating empathy, the people are left to insist that the collective is the only way that we can produce change.

That sounds like an optimistic note.

EL: Most people who believe in social movements are optimists. If you don’t believe that a place can be better, you tear it up. But if you believe that we have not yet realized the best part of ourselves, you may have some hope for trying to figure out how to build it up.

In some ways, I would argue that the Black Lives Matters movement has been an optimistic movement from the beginning because these were young people who were trying to figure out how to build something rather than to tear it apart. And if we are smart, we will treasure and nurture that impulse rather than demonizing it. And I can only hope we're smart enough.

 

 

 

Police violence is not new, but the national protests staged in opposition to it have certainly raised its media profile. President’s Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor of Political Science Shea Streeter studies the circumstances that lead communities to protest and the way race and gender can affect how individuals perceive violence.

Are there particular circumstances that are more likely to inspire a community to protest against police violence?

Shea Streeter: Yes, but, surprisingly, only two: whether the person was unarmed and whether a video of the incident is released to the public. The cases we see at the national level tend to follow this very clear profile. But, of course, there are many other cases that we never hear about because they don’t get publicized.

Do white people and Black people tend to view episodes of police violence differently?

SS: Generally, yes, but the racial views do occasionally overlap. There is some early work that shows that white folks and Black folks pay attention to very different aspects of these situations. They remember things differently, and they have completely different sorts of filters that affect what they see or even what they read. Even with video, people have different interpretations of what actually happened.

White people tend to place more weight on what the officer said, or they argue something happened that the video doesn’t show. I think this is partly why the response to George Floyd's killing was so strong. The video showed the whole sequence of events, from beginning to end. Nothing was off camera.

Why did so many people protest over the summer rather than, say, in 2014, when Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed?

SS: In 2014, Black Lives Matter was in its infancy and most people were not aware that police violence was a problem. Michael Brown’s death and the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, were the sparks that shed light on the multitude of cases of Black people getting killed by the police. What we saw this summer, six years later, is the accumulation of a great deal of organizing work on the part of activists and victims’ families.

Another reason why protests have grown is a rising awareness of the continued problem of racism in this country. After President Obama was elected, there were symbolic gains in terms of race. There was this assumption that the symbolic gains—“We’ve had our first Black president so we've dealt with these race issues”—had translated into material gain. “African Americans weren’t disadvantaged anymore. Now they can be president.” Or that was still the thinking in 2014.

Police violence is not new, but the national protests staged in opposition to it have certainly raised its media profile. President’s Postdoctoral Fellow and Assistant Professor of Political Science Shea Streeter studies the circumstances that lead communities to protest and the way race and gender can affect how individuals perceive violence.

Are there particular circumstances that are more likely to inspire a community to protest against police violence?

Shea Streeter: Yes, but, surprisingly, only two: whether the person was unarmed and whether a video of the incident is released to the public. The cases we see at the national level tend to follow this very clear profile. But, of course, there are many other cases that we never hear about because they don’t get publicized.

Do white people and Black people tend to view episodes of police violence differently?

SS: Generally, yes, but the racial views do occasionally overlap. There is some early work that shows that white folks and Black folks pay attention to very different aspects of these situations. They remember things differently, and they have completely different sorts of filters that affect what they see or even what they read. Even with video, people have different interpretations of what actually happened.

White people tend to place more weight on what the officer said, or they argue something happened that the video doesn’t show. I think this is partly why the response to George Floyd's killing was so strong. The video showed the whole sequence of events, from beginning to end. Nothing was off camera.

Why did so many people protest over the summer rather than, say, in 2014, when Michael Brown and Eric Garner were killed?

SS: In 2014, Black Lives Matter was in its infancy and most people were not aware that police violence was a problem. Michael Brown’s death and the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, were the sparks that shed light on the multitude of cases of Black people getting killed by the police. What we saw this summer, six years later, is the accumulation of a great deal of organizing work on the part of activists and victims’ families.

Another reason why protests have grown is a rising awareness of the continued problem of racism in this country. After President Obama was elected, there were symbolic gains in terms of race. There was this assumption that the symbolic gains—“We’ve had our first Black president so we've dealt with these race issues”—had translated into material gain. “African Americans weren’t disadvantaged anymore. Now they can be president.” Or that was still the thinking in 2014.

 

 

 


However, I don’t think anyone in 2020 could argue that we’re in a post-racial society as they did in the first half of the Obama presidency. Since then we've seen all these videos, not just of police violence, but of white women calling cops on Black people barbecuing, Black people being arrested at Starbucks, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Because of the COVID lockdowns I think people were paying attention more to the news about these racialized incidents as well as the racial disparities in the impact of the virus. The accumulation of evidence has made it impossible not to recognize the country still has a big racism problem.

At the same time, the awareness of racial bias hasn’t always extended to recognizing problems with the police. People could agree George Floyd shouldn’t have been shot in far-away Minneapolis, but they weren’t necessarily willing to speak out against their own police. In some of the communities where we saw protests in June, I know, from my own data, that there had been police killings in those communities that hadn’t led to protests. Then over the summer, we saw people in those same communities making homemade Black Lives Matter signs and going to the streets. Everyone was protesting against racism, but not all were calling for police accountability at home.

Because the protests have been national, does that indicate a change in racial attitudes across the nation?

SS: Oh, I definitely think it’s progress. In 2014, not as many people protested, but then we had the Women’s Protest, the March for Our Lives, and continued Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. People have become acclimated to protesting and have learned a lot about how to do it well.

In majority white towns, people saw how many non-white people live there. Many people joined local protests, wanting to express their solidarity with Minneapolis, but didn’t think there was an issue where they lived. And then they learned that people in their community had had similar experiences.

I think there is something about going to a protest in your own town that really opens you up and shows you what’s actually going on. At these protests it is common for people to take the mic and share their story. When someone in your town shares a story about their son getting killed by police, that’s a very different experience. It might not change your perceptions about the police—I think that's a little bit harder—but I think it can change your perceptions about race.

What is it like to be a scholar who studies communities’ responses to police violence during a period in which there have been so many significant and painful protests against it?

SS: Mostly I feel like I should have more answers, to be able to say more than, “Here’s the research about police violence,” or, “Here are the patterns of protest.” People want answers to these deeper questions and want to know how to stop it from happening. I’m chipping away at providing a framework to think about those bigger questions, but, right now, it’s kind of a mix of feeling like my work is important and completely insufficient at the same time.

On a very personal level, seeing the outrage and grief immediately after George Floyd was killed was striking. I read these cases every day. Seeing the world respond with such emotion was incredibly powerful. It galvanized me, and it was also a moment of personal catharsis. I always try to remember all of the names and all the families, and it’s sad and exhausting. It was powerful to suddenly share that with millions of people around the world.


However, I don’t think anyone in 2020 could argue that we’re in a post-racial society as they did in the first half of the Obama presidency. Since then we've seen all these videos, not just of police violence, but of white women calling cops on Black people barbecuing, Black people being arrested at Starbucks, the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Because of the COVID lockdowns I think people were paying attention more to the news about these racialized incidents as well as the racial disparities in the impact of the virus. The accumulation of evidence has made it impossible not to recognize the country still has a big racism problem.

At the same time, the awareness of racial bias hasn’t always extended to recognizing problems with the police. People could agree George Floyd shouldn’t have been shot in far-away Minneapolis, but they weren’t necessarily willing to speak out against their own police. In some of the communities where we saw protests in June, I know, from my own data, that there had been police killings in those communities that hadn’t led to protests. Then over the summer, we saw people in those same communities making homemade Black Lives Matter signs and going to the streets. Everyone was protesting against racism, but not all were calling for police accountability at home.

Because the protests have been national, does that indicate a change in racial attitudes across the nation?

SS: Oh, I definitely think it’s progress. In 2014, not as many people protested, but then we had the Women’s Protest, the March for Our Lives, and continued Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests. People have become acclimated to protesting and have learned a lot about how to do it well.

In majority white towns, people saw how many non-white people live there. Many people joined local protests, wanting to express their solidarity with Minneapolis, but didn’t think there was an issue where they lived. And then they learned that people in their community had had similar experiences.

I think there is something about going to a protest in your own town that really opens you up and shows you what’s actually going on. At these protests it is common for people to take the mic and share their story. When someone in your town shares a story about their son getting killed by police, that’s a very different experience. It might not change your perceptions about the police—I think that's a little bit harder—but I think it can change your perceptions about race.

What is it like to be a scholar who studies communities’ responses to police violence during a period in which there have been so many significant and painful protests against it?

SS: Mostly I feel like I should have more answers, to be able to say more than, “Here’s the research about police violence,” or, “Here are the patterns of protest.” People want answers to these deeper questions and want to know how to stop it from happening. I’m chipping away at providing a framework to think about those bigger questions, but, right now, it’s kind of a mix of feeling like my work is important and completely insufficient at the same time.

On a very personal level, seeing the outrage and grief immediately after George Floyd was killed was striking. I read these cases every day. Seeing the world respond with such emotion was incredibly powerful. It galvanized me, and it was also a moment of personal catharsis. I always try to remember all of the names and all the families, and it’s sad and exhausting. It was powerful to suddenly share that with millions of people around the world.

 

 

 

For a lot of formerly incarcerated people, the punishment for their crime doesn’t end when they finish their sentence. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Melissa Burch has investigated the ways in which having a criminal record limits people’s opportunities—especially when they are already marginalized along lines of race, class, and gender.

In your research, you have explored the ways in which the carceral system reinforces social and economic inequalities—particularly for people who have a criminal record. What have you found?

Melissa Burch: The barriers created by a criminal record are nearly too numerous to list, but they include securing housing, private or public; being eligible for student loans and other financial assistance; and adopting or fostering children. In fact, in many cases, people with criminal records lose custody of their own children. Many states also restrict people’s right to vote or serve on a jury.

In the realm of employment, which is my focus, the law basically allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record. There are also tens of thousands of legal statutes that bar people with criminal convictions from working in particular professions or obtaining licenses to work in licensed professions—even when their convictions are completely unrelated to these fields. And there's really no evidence to support the idea that someone with a criminal conviction is necessarily more of a risk than someone without one.

In my view, criminal records are an easy way for governments to appear to protect some people from others and to manage risk throughout society. They promote this idea that we can quickly and easily identify who is potentially dangerous and who is not—like, ‘Don’t worry, we did a background check.’

But criminal records don’t sort the world into good people and bad people. They capture who has been surveilled, policed, criminalized, and punished. They can’t accurately capture who has done what.

For a lot of formerly incarcerated people, the punishment for their crime doesn’t end when they finish their sentence. Assistant Professor of Anthropology Melissa Burch has investigated the ways in which having a criminal record limits people’s opportunities—especially when they are already marginalized along lines of race, class, and gender.

In your research, you have explored the ways in which the carceral system reinforces social and economic inequalities—particularly for people who have a criminal record. What have you found?

Melissa Burch: The barriers created by a criminal record are nearly too numerous to list, but they include securing housing, private or public; being eligible for student loans and other financial assistance; and adopting or fostering children. In fact, in many cases, people with criminal records lose custody of their own children. Many states also restrict people’s right to vote or serve on a jury.

In the realm of employment, which is my focus, the law basically allows private employers to discriminate on the basis of a criminal record. There are also tens of thousands of legal statutes that bar people with criminal convictions from working in particular professions or obtaining licenses to work in licensed professions—even when their convictions are completely unrelated to these fields. And there's really no evidence to support the idea that someone with a criminal conviction is necessarily more of a risk than someone without one.

In my view, criminal records are an easy way for governments to appear to protect some people from others and to manage risk throughout society. They promote this idea that we can quickly and easily identify who is potentially dangerous and who is not—like, ‘Don’t worry, we did a background check.’

But criminal records don’t sort the world into good people and bad people. They capture who has been surveilled, policed, criminalized, and punished. They can’t accurately capture who has done what.

 

 

 

Can post-carceral programs be reformed to make them more effective?

MB: Absolutely. But until, as a society, we let go of our deep attachment to the idea that a criminal record is a permanently meaningful piece of information that we must consider over and over for the rest of someone’s life, I don’t think we’ll be able to make much progress.

The post-carceral problem is always framed as, ‘We want people to succeed when they're coming out of prison, but we also have to protect the public’s safety.’ As long as we're attached to this idea that we keep communities safe by monitoring and surveilling and tracking and stigmatizing—with GPS monitoring or systems of parole and probation—we won’t be able to fully invest in the kinds of resources that actually build safety.

What should people understand about the ways in which a criminal record compounds existing structural inequalities, such as those tied to a person’s race, class, or gender?

MB: For many people who have participated in my research, a criminal record is but one negative credential added to a lifetime of structural disadvantage. It’s hard to separate criminalization from the deep structural marginalization that results from racism, economic abandonment, and lack of access to quality education, or health. For people without social capital—a relationship with someone in the business community, the ability to jump on a computer to fill out an online job application, or access to basic tools like reliable transportation, or clothing for an interview—a criminal record pretty much seals the deal. People who might otherwise have been able to find a way out of systemic marginalization find themselves stuck there instead.

For Black people a criminal record creates a stigma that is a racialized stigma. The sociological research shows unequivocally that the nexus of Blackness and criminality creates an intense reaction—especially in situations like employment. For white people, a criminal conviction can be seen as an anomaly or just a bump in the road. For Black people, it’s often seen as something inherent that speaks to their character in some special way.

Criminalization, race, and gender intersect in interesting ways. Women who have been criminalized are generally seen as less threatening than men. But Black women—and, in some cases, Latina women—aren’t afforded that benefit of the doubt. A lot of the women who participated in my research worked in social services. They were home healthcare workers or they did administrative and secretarial work. In those fields, the barriers created by having a criminal record are high. And there is the existing gendered and racialized division of labor that says who’s fit for what kinds of jobs. Many of the industries that are known to be more open to hiring people with criminal records tend to prefer men. People's individual experiences are varied, of course, but within that variation, there are clear, discernable patterns.

Over the summer, I was encouraged that people were not only talking about police violence, but about the many ways in which our society reproduces privilege and disadvantage. Criminal records are one such mechanism touching millions of people, and they are, in my view, one of the important ways that social inequalities are reproduced. It is one of those key systems that perpetuate inequalities and keep them intact.

Can post-carceral programs be reformed to make them more effective?

MB: Absolutely. But until, as a society, we let go of our deep attachment to the idea that a criminal record is a permanently meaningful piece of information that we must consider over and over for the rest of someone’s life, I don’t think we’ll be able to make much progress.

The post-carceral problem is always framed as, ‘We want people to succeed when they're coming out of prison, but we also have to protect the public’s safety.’ As long as we're attached to this idea that we keep communities safe by monitoring and surveilling and tracking and stigmatizing—with GPS monitoring or systems of parole and probation—we won’t be able to fully invest in the kinds of resources that actually build safety.

What should people understand about the ways in which a criminal record compounds existing structural inequalities, such as those tied to a person’s race, class, or gender?

MB: For many people who have participated in my research, a criminal record is but one negative credential added to a lifetime of structural disadvantage. It’s hard to separate criminalization from the deep structural marginalization that results from racism, economic abandonment, and lack of access to quality education, or health. For people without social capital—a relationship with someone in the business community, the ability to jump on a computer to fill out an online job application, or access to basic tools like reliable transportation, or clothing for an interview—a criminal record pretty much seals the deal. People who might otherwise have been able to find a way out of systemic marginalization find themselves stuck there instead.

For Black people a criminal record creates a stigma that is a racialized stigma. The sociological research shows unequivocally that the nexus of Blackness and criminality creates an intense reaction—especially in situations like employment. For white people, a criminal conviction can be seen as an anomaly or just a bump in the road. For Black people, it’s often seen as something inherent that speaks to their character in some special way.

Criminalization, race, and gender intersect in interesting ways. Women who have been criminalized are generally seen as less threatening than men. But Black women—and, in some cases, Latina women—aren’t afforded that benefit of the doubt. A lot of the women who participated in my research worked in social services. They were home healthcare workers or they did administrative and secretarial work. In those fields, the barriers created by having a criminal record are high. And there is the existing gendered and racialized division of labor that says who’s fit for what kinds of jobs. Many of the industries that are known to be more open to hiring people with criminal records tend to prefer men. People's individual experiences are varied, of course, but within that variation, there are clear, discernable patterns.

Over the summer, I was encouraged that people were not only talking about police violence, but about the many ways in which our society reproduces privilege and disadvantage. Criminal records are one such mechanism touching millions of people, and they are, in my view, one of the important ways that social inequalities are reproduced. It is one of those key systems that perpetuate inequalities and keep them intact.

 

 

 

The protests that spread across the country over the summer might be the biggest in the country’s history. These activities and others like them play a role in the democratic process, says Christian Davenport, professor of political science and public policy and faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies, who studies protests and various forms of political conflict and contention. Protests and uprisings tell us what’s missing in policy debates, and they put pressure on the political system to function.

Many people have made comparisons between the protests of 2020 and those of 1968. Are those comparisons accurate?

Christian Davenport: Anti-Black police violence is not at all new. You can find similar reports from the early 1900s, so that’s one way they’re similar, and they’re similar in that African Americans are truly connected to the reasons for the current protests.

At the same time, they’re different in that the organizations and movements of the 1960s really emerged from the ’20s and ’30s, which had their own gestation period in anti-slavery activities and the European political thought that came over via immigration. In the ’60s, industrialization and unionization were key to organizing, as were Black churches. The protests we saw in the summer had none of those underlying institutions.

In 2020, young people led protests, which is similar to the ’60s in many respects, but John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were being shepherded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). There are few older people shepherding the new young group—a decision that seems to have quite consciously been made. The persecution of the ’60s and ’70s destroyed that historical legacy. King was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated, the SCLC was co-opted. By design, the 2020 protests were leaderless and their objectives were more explicitly social and cultural than political and economic.

Are some kinds of protests more effective than others?

CD: Yes. It varies depending on what you’re trying to change. If you’re trying to get a streetlight, a petition might be more effective than a march. The Occupy Movement was very effective at raising certain types of issues, but the breadth of their issues were not really amenable to their tactics. It would take a long time to inform the American populace about everything involved in capitalism, and would have been incredibly hard to do given the way that Occupy was trying to communicate their message.  

For protests to work, you need to make a calibration between the tactic and the temporal domain where a change can take place. You have to say, okay, these are the things we’d like to change and this is the tactical repertoire available to us, so what can we use to bring about change?

Timing is also important. There is a sociological concept, biographical availability, which basically means you’re available to engage in protest. Do you go to work or do you protest? When going to work is not an option, then you can go protest. In the summer, people were not able to do much and so everyone was kind of available. And then the very concrete and graphic nature of the story about Breonna Taylor as well as the video of George Floyd’s death fed into that biographical availability in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been the case.

The protests that spread across the country over the summer might be the biggest in the country’s history. These activities and others like them play a role in the democratic process, says Christian Davenport, professor of political science and public policy and faculty associate in the Center for Political Studies, who studies protests and various forms of political conflict and contention. Protests and uprisings tell us what’s missing in policy debates, and they put pressure on the political system to function.

Many people have made comparisons between the protests of 2020 and those of 1968. Are those comparisons accurate?

Christian Davenport: Anti-Black police violence is not at all new. You can find similar reports from the early 1900s, so that’s one way they’re similar, and they’re similar in that African Americans are truly connected to the reasons for the current protests.

At the same time, they’re different in that the organizations and movements of the 1960s really emerged from the ’20s and ’30s, which had their own gestation period in anti-slavery activities and the European political thought that came over via immigration. In the ’60s, industrialization and unionization were key to organizing, as were Black churches. The protests we saw in the summer had none of those underlying institutions.

In 2020, young people led protests, which is similar to the ’60s in many respects, but John Lewis and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were being shepherded by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). There are few older people shepherding the new young group—a decision that seems to have quite consciously been made. The persecution of the ’60s and ’70s destroyed that historical legacy. King was assassinated, Malcolm X was assassinated, the SCLC was co-opted. By design, the 2020 protests were leaderless and their objectives were more explicitly social and cultural than political and economic.

Are some kinds of protests more effective than others?

CD: Yes. It varies depending on what you’re trying to change. If you’re trying to get a streetlight, a petition might be more effective than a march. The Occupy Movement was very effective at raising certain types of issues, but the breadth of their issues were not really amenable to their tactics. It would take a long time to inform the American populace about everything involved in capitalism, and would have been incredibly hard to do given the way that Occupy was trying to communicate their message.  

For protests to work, you need to make a calibration between the tactic and the temporal domain where a change can take place. You have to say, okay, these are the things we’d like to change and this is the tactical repertoire available to us, so what can we use to bring about change?

Timing is also important. There is a sociological concept, biographical availability, which basically means you’re available to engage in protest. Do you go to work or do you protest? When going to work is not an option, then you can go protest. In the summer, people were not able to do much and so everyone was kind of available. And then the very concrete and graphic nature of the story about Breonna Taylor as well as the video of George Floyd’s death fed into that biographical availability in a way that otherwise wouldn’t have been the case.

 

 

 

Is it important for protests to have the public’s support?

CD: Yes. Protests require legitimacy to work. People have generally supported the anti-police violence protests, and they’ve been seen as more legitimate as more people have joined in. There were some rifts in support when there was some looting or so-called rioting, but when it was contextualized—that it was just a few people and maybe not even the same people—that went away. Protests have legitimacy if they address topics people generally find acceptable and use tactics that people generally believe to be right or appropriate.

You’ve said that uprisings, as distinct from protests, remind us that something is missing from the political conversation. What role do uprisings play in the democratic process?

CD: Clearly an uprising and a protest put forward by a social movement are not the same thing. In a protest, people articulate the problem and maybe figure out what can be done about it. In an uprising, people are not part of an organization. No one’s articulating a clear message, and there is no authority to tell you what’s going on, which can cause bystanders to ask questions. In this way it can be a vehicle that elevates the concerns of a particular, often disenfranchised, community.

It’s interesting to me that in the ’60s and ’70s you were more likely to see uprisings around issues already associated with civil rights organizations. In a sense, the civil rights organization were seen as part of the problem. Essentially, it was something like: ‘You people aren't doing anything for us. No, we’re not going to defer to you and we’re not going to let you speak for us. We’re just going to hit the streets ourselves.’

Last summer’s protests were more like uprisings than protests in this way. This generation doesn’t know who leads the NAACP, or where the closest chapter is. It’s funny that the media still pulls Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson out there to speak to and for Black folk. They’re not connected to the current activities or where they are coming from. They’re not speaking to these 20-year-olds issuing calls to defund the police.

Indeed, many civil rights organizations would not have gone as far as these calls do. Until recently, police abolition and reparations were associated with radical positions. To have those now at the mainstream is fascinating and unclear. How did that happen? In a way, by having conversations about defunding police and making reparations, we’re indirectly also saying that those radical organizations and individuals who articulated this for decades were right in their analyses. And if they had this right, maybe we should ask if they had other things right too.

But mostly, uprisings are a call to the political system to function. They should not be viewed as something outside the conventional repertoire of political activities. We need to see democratic participation for what it is, and uprisings as well as protests are a form of democratic participation.

 

 
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Design by Becky Sehenuk Waite. Animations by Natalie Condon.
 
 
 

Is it important for protests to have the public’s support?

CD: Yes. Protests require legitimacy to work. People have generally supported the anti-police violence protests, and they’ve been seen as more legitimate as more people have joined in. There were some rifts in support when there was some looting or so-called rioting, but when it was contextualized—that it was just a few people and maybe not even the same people—that went away. Protests have legitimacy if they address topics people generally find acceptable and use tactics that people generally believe to be right or appropriate.

You’ve said that uprisings, as distinct from protests, remind us that something is missing from the political conversation. What role do uprisings play in the democratic process?

CD: Clearly an uprising and a protest put forward by a social movement are not the same thing. In a protest, people articulate the problem and maybe figure out what can be done about it. In an uprising, people are not part of an organization. No one’s articulating a clear message, and there is no authority to tell you what’s going on, which can cause bystanders to ask questions. In this way it can be a vehicle that elevates the concerns of a particular, often disenfranchised, community.

It’s interesting to me that in the ’60s and ’70s you were more likely to see uprisings around issues already associated with civil rights organizations. In a sense, the civil rights organization were seen as part of the problem. Essentially, it was something like: ‘You people aren't doing anything for us. No, we’re not going to defer to you and we’re not going to let you speak for us. We’re just going to hit the streets ourselves.’

Last summer’s protests were more like uprisings than protests in this way. This generation doesn’t know who leads the NAACP, or where the closest chapter is. It’s funny that the media still pulls Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson out there to speak to and for Black folk. They’re not connected to the current activities or where they are coming from. They’re not speaking to these 20-year-olds issuing calls to defund the police.

Indeed, many civil rights organizations would not have gone as far as these calls do. Until recently, police abolition and reparations were associated with radical positions. To have those now at the mainstream is fascinating and unclear. How did that happen? In a way, by having conversations about defunding police and making reparations, we’re indirectly also saying that those radical organizations and individuals who articulated this for decades were right in their analyses. And if they had this right, maybe we should ask if they had other things right too.

But mostly, uprisings are a call to the political system to function. They should not be viewed as something outside the conventional repertoire of political activities. We need to see democratic participation for what it is, and uprisings as well as protests are a form of democratic participation.

 

 

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Design by Becky Sehenuk Waite. Animation by Natalie Condon.
 
 
 


 


 

Mi Gente, Presente

LSA’s Latina/o Studies Program connects and explores identities, perspectives, and disciplines. 
 

Vanishing Act

Alum Brit Bennett’s new novel is a twenty-first-century passing narrative and an instant bestseller.
 

An Unexpected Evolution

Professor Luis Zaman asks hard questions about evolution—ones live microbes alone can’t answer.
 

 

 

 

Starting college looks a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

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Release Date: 10/26/2020
Category: Faculty; Research
Tags: LSA; Anthropology; History; Political Science; Center For Social Solutions; LSA Magazine; Susan Hutton; Social Sciences; Earl Lewis