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Plenary 2: Race and Inequality across Systems: Criminal Justice, Education, and Implications for Economic Opportunity

The need for dignity and equality for all people was front and center as panelists and audience members explored policing, education and education choice, and local economies and employment during the final plenary of the 2017 Policy Summit.

“Every one of us in this room, no matter where we’ve come from, we want to be seen as a human being of equal worth and equal value,” said Derrick Darby, a University of Michigan professor of philosophy.

This plenary, he continued, presents the chance to reflect: Are our systems and practices in alignment with people’s basic desire to be seen as human beings of equal value?

True to its title, the plenary examined not equalities, but inequalities. One speaker noted that suspending a black child who misbehaves in school while choosing another intervention for a white child who misbehaves labels one child a problem and the other in need.

Young men of color who are asked what government is don’t say city council or the mayor, plenary moderator Douglas A. Blackmon began. They say, police, the city jail, the courthouse. These are democracy to them.

Darby nodded. The speakers called this deeply troubling.

When the government treats you like you’re a problem to be eradicated, when walking in your neighborhood is treated as if it were a crime, it’s traumatizing, asserted another panelist.

“Why aren’t people taking advantage of the opportunities?” asked Elizabeth Oltmans Ananat, associate professor with Duke University. “When you’re traumatized, it’s hard to take advantage of the opportunities.”


“When it was a crack epidemic, it was crime problem. When it’s an opioid epidemic, it’s a health problem,” said Blackmon, moderator of the plenary and author of Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II.

“Always treat people with respect, no matter what they look like, no matter what you think they did. And always leave people with their dignity. When you take a person’s dignity away, you’re asking for problems that you didn’t need to have. Safe communities are fertile ground for economic growth,” said Mark I. Singer, Leonard W. Mayo Professor at Case Western Reserve University.

At one point, Singer asked the audience, how many of you did something stupid as an adolescent?

There was embarrassed laughter, and many in the audience raised their hands.

He asked another question: How many of you did something really stupid?

Singer talked about police interactions with the public and pointed out that our brains aren’t fully developed until we are 25. We lack impulse control. This is true for police officers, too, it was noted.

“[Some private schools] don’t charge tuition, but you do have to buy a half-million dollar house to gain access,” said Darby, a University of Michigan professor. “We are actually depriving other children and other parents who might not have that wherewithal. Why do any of us donate blood? Not to get ahead—[we] teach our kids that one of the things that’s important about being a successful human is to participate in a communal process where everyone has the same opportunities.”

“If there are two 4-year-olds acting out, the white child will be diagnosed with ADHD, while the black child will often be diagnosed with oppositional defiance disorder. Change the name from James to Jamal, and the diagnosis is different,” said Ananat of Duke University.

Photo highlights:

Practical application:

The ability of police to perform their duties is dependent on public approval of police actions, noted Singer, who has trained police for 30 years. Police forces should be a part of their communities, securing the public’s cooperation, not acting as an occupying force. Higher levels of cooperation will result in less necessity to use physical force. Community oversight of police actions and officer liaisons who work directly with people in the community can help achieve these aims.

One audience member asked the panel how society reduces the fear between people, fear that results in violence and death. On the micro level, it’s coming together to eat or drink, one panelist replied. Mixed-income housing is another unifier, another said.

Post-event Q&A

Some questions posed by audience members didn’t get answered during the Policy Summit. Here, they do get answered.

As it relates to institutional racism and inequalities, what can we as leaders do internally to change policies and processes in a way to eliminate barriers to equality?

Derrick Darby

Derrick Darby, Professor, University of Michigan: Sadly, assumptions about racial differences in intelligence, character, and conduct endure, and continue to hamper the pursuit of educational justice in K–12 American schools. They do so by sustaining sorting practices like tracking [the practice of grouping students in classes only with students whose overall academic achievement is the same as their own], school discipline, and special education placement. These practices contribute to the racial achievement gap, and they serve as barriers to regarding all students as persons with equal dignity. Equity-oriented school principals and other school leaders are working to abolish racial disproportionality in these practices and to end their pernicious effects. Those of us who still believe that education can be the great equalizer for all students, including those historically disadvantaged by racism, can support these efforts by finding ways to empower school leaders to undo the lingering effects of the relationship between racial ideology and schooling. Sharing historical evidence of this relationship is vital for achieving educational justice and closing the racial achievement gap.