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Talking about Prison Means Talking about Race
African-Americans are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites. Intentional discrimination is a factor in this—as are poverty, educational attainment, urban density, and white flight from urban centers.
Question: How has racism factored into your study of the penal system?
Robert Perkinson: I think they are entwined in ways that we haven’t fully appreciated. We’ve seen over the past two generations, really you know breathtaking progress in terms of civil rights. My grandparents on my mom’s side are from Mississippi. Their parents were involved in... my great-grandfather was involved in driving the blacks out of a little county in Mississippi, and my 90-something year old grandmother pushed her walker down to vote for Obama in the fall of 2008, and that was stunning for her. I mean something she couldn’t have imagined for most of her life. But, you know, over the same period of tremendous progress, we’ve seen measurable disparities along racial lines and criminal justice worsen.
It used to be that the prison population in the United States was mostly white, now it’s mostly black and Latino. Before desegregation, the rate African-Americans were going to prison at roughly the rate of four times the rate of whites, now they’re roughly going to prison at the rate of seven times the rate of whites. So, it’s a huge contradiction in what’s happened in American race relations and that’s something that civil rights organizations and the media and public policymakers have not been paying attention to.
Question: Why has the racial disparity in prisons become so drastic?
Robert Perkinson: I mean, like everything in our inchoate criminal justice system, it’s difficult to disentangle all of the variables. There is certainly intentional bias in racial profiling by police, in the ways that judges regard certain defendants, even in the ways that probably Public Defenders and certainly Prosecutors and Juries do, and Parole Boards. So, the role of intentional discrimination shouldn’t be minimized. It’s still present with us even in the post-civil rights era. But there are a lot of other factors as well. You can’t very well disentangle it from poverty, educational attainment, urban density, white flight and capital flight out of central urban areas where crime, and even more than crime, incarceration has been most concentrated.
And then too, it is also important for people to know that there is all sorts of ways that race has—that racial divisions have worsened in criminal justice in unanticipated, unintentional ways. Just one example, in the ‘90’s all sorts of legislatures passed laws to enhance penalties if you sell drugs near a school... say 200 yards, 2,000 yards from a school. Well, it turns out that in rural areas, almost every place you might sell drugs is more than 2,000 yards from a school. In the Bronx, or dense parts of Los Angeles, or Washington D.C., every place on the map is within 200 yards of a school or almost, and that means that all defendants who are getting charged with drug crimes in that area, whether school kids were involved or not, are getting those enhanced penalties. Whereas, the meth dealer in rural Nebraska gets a comparatively lighter sentence. And that’s had a big, big racial impact.
Crack cocaine is less—even the racial disparities caused by the differences in sentencing for crack versus powdered cocaine. And we now know these two drugs are identical, pharmacologically. That’s had an even more dramatic racial impact.
Question: Why is it important to talk about race when we talk about incarceration?
Robert Perkinson: There are a lot of criminal justice advocacy organizations that are not sure whether it’s a good idea to stress race. It could be a divisive, could cut into our ability to put together large coalitions as we are trying to reverse some of the prison growth and severity that has accumulated over the past 40 years, but I think in order to really turn in a new direction and to move out of a policy regime that has had such transformative effects, not just in criminal justice, but in urban communities and social welfare policy and just social stratification in the United States generally, that you have to really honestly recon with the causes and there are a lot of scholars who proposed all sorts of reasons for why the U.S. has built this exceptionally large system, and I think the change in racial politics is really the only thing that can explain it fully. Or that we need to think of that central causative variable. I mean to put it a little too simply, what I think happened is a kind of echo of what happened at the end of Reconstruction, when conservatives, white supremacists in that case were able to kind of roll back the expanded freedom after emancipation and install piecemeal, Jim Crow segregation, which then ruled the states of the former Confederacy in a kind of state of sort of quasi-freedom for another century.
And segregationists—conservative segregationists Democrats, originally, like Strom Thurmond in the ‘50’s when the civil rights movement was getting rolling, they seized upon crime as one of their oppositional ways of building opposition to desegregation and Strom Thurmond famously warned that there will be a wave of terror and crime and juvenile delinquency if integration of the races goes through. And when integration of the races did go through over their objections and those southern conservatives were defeated, they retreated to criminal justice as a way—and law enforcement, in particular, as a way to kind of police this incipient social order that they feared and had fought against.
And so the very jurisdictions I found that had fought against desegregation most vociferously have become the nation’s most vigorous jailers. And it’s sort of as if we’ve institutionalized the view of Texas’ U.S. Senator Joseph Bailey who once said that, “Hey, I want to treat the negro fairly as long as he behaves himself. And if he doesn’t, I want to drive him from this country.” And in essence, the United States has done that. We have, in a sense, banished a generation of urban youth to a series of carceral institutions and it’s disproportionately those... you know, there’s people in the middle class who achieve higher levels of educational attainment and income in the African-American community who are not experiencing these disproportionate levels of incarceration, although they are more likely to get stopped by police and so on, but it really is most concentrated among the urban poor.
So, for example, young black men in America who don’t graduate from high school, 60% of them end up in prison. That’s more than join the armed forces, or go to college. It really has become a central stage of life for a whole generation of American youth. And that really has, to the extent that the Civil Rights Movement was about expanding opportunities, making life better for African-Americans, making the United States generally a pluralist democracy, criminal justice has to a significant, if in the mainstream media, under-emphasized extent, rolled back many of the gains of the Civil Rights Movement.
Question: Is there a sense of inevitability about prison among African-Americans?
Robert Perkinson: Certainly, there’s a lot of familiarity in certain neighborhoods across the United States with imprisonment. One in nine African-American kids goes to sleep every night with one parent in prison. One danger some educators worry about, is yeah, by talking about these statistics that shows so many young black men and a lot of black women too, although not in the kind of same percentages, are ending up in prison, especially for drug crimes, that they will feel or develop a kind of nihilistic sense of the future. I hope that is not the case. You know, there is a lot of critique of the criminal justice system in hip-hop music, for instance. It does have the effect of surely making people distrustful toward the government, distrustful toward law enforcement. We see that in some kind of jury nullification and Washington D.C. and the anti-snitching campaign in Baltimore, and so on. So in that sense, it actually, by having such a racially disproportionate impact of criminal justice policies we can actually undermine law and order and public safety. But I don’t think there are cultural factors that lead to greater law breaking once you... there higher rates of arrest among African-Americans than among whites, there is no doubt about that. But once you factor out education, history of child abuse, the family dynamics, poverty—and there are a lot of those variables; you can’t just take out one and explain it—you find that there are all sorts of socially determining factors rather than any sort of racial, cultural pathology I think.
Recorded April 14, 2010
African-Americans are imprisoned at seven times the rate of whites. Intentional discrimination is a factor in this—as are poverty, educational attainment, urban density, and white flight from urban centers.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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