Fifty Years on the Police Reform Merry-Go-Round

This guest post is published around the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Robert E. Worden, co-author of Mirage of Police Reform: Procedural Justice and Police Legitimacy

Officer-involved shootings have fallen out of the headlines, displaced by controversies revolving around the White House. But concerns about police conduct and interest in police reform remain palpable. The concerns bear a striking resemblance to those of 50 years ago, when the President’s Commission issued its report. In his book, Working the Street, Michael Brown described them thusly: “allegations of police brutality, race and class discrimination in law enforcement, violation of civil liberties and suppression of rights to protest government actions ….” He could as well have written these words in 2017.

In the last five decades, policing in the U.S. has evolved in many ways. Citizen oversight authorities have proliferated, administrative policies and reporting requirements have been further developed, and early intervention systems for police misconduct have been widely adopted. Federal authority to investigate and intervene into an alleged “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations by state or local police has accelerated the adoption of such reforms not only in more than a score of agencies, through consent decrees and settlement agreements, but also in an untold number of agencies that seek to avoid such intervention.

However, the policing issues of the 1960s remain unresolved in the 2010s. Part of the reason lies in the nature of policing and police organizations. Police work is not susceptible to valid and simple performance metrics. Outcomes – crime levels, disorder, fear of crime, public satisfaction – are affected by many factors other than what police do. Outputs – arrests, tickets – are indicators of activity but not of quality service. A consensus on what constitutes good police work does not exist, so even when officers’ behavior can be observed, conclusive judgments about performance are elusive. How, then, are we to determine whether police are meeting public needs or expectations?

In the absence of truly informative performance indicators, communities and their representatives judge whether their police departments bear the hallmarks of a properly structured and managed police organization. Does the agency have clear lines of hierarchical authority? Does it have – and make transparent – appropriate policies and procedures? Has it adopted (some form of) community policing? Is there a provision for civilian review of complaints against the police? Does the department train its officers in, e.g., cultural awareness, or procedural justice? Are officers outfitted with body-worn cameras?

These structural features may satisfy the expectations of public officials and interested publics, but we typically have no way of knowing whether they have the desired effects on police performance. Even when independent, scientific research is executed, the results are subject to question and debate. Structural reforms may serve to reinforce (or reclaim) police legitimacy, but they tend to be no more than loosely coupled to street-level practice, leaving unresolved the issues that prompted the reform.

Are we doomed to repeating this cycle of reform? Only so long as it takes to remove from street-level police work the ambiguity and uncertainty that has been intrinsic to the situations that we expect the police to handle.

Mirage of Police Reform by Robert E. Worden and Sarah J. McLean is available as a free Luminos Open Access e-book as a free download.


Robert E. Worden is Director of the John F. Finn Institute for Public Safety and Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at the University at Albany, SUNY.


Coming in 2019: Journal of Medieval Worlds

University of California Press is pleased to introduce Journal of Medieval Worlds (JMW), a new quarterly online journal launching in 2019. 

Edited by Edward D. English, University of California, Santa Barbara, Journal of Medieval Worlds will serve as a forum for multidisciplinary scholarship on the world, focusing primarily on 750-1600. The journal’s purpose is to foster innovative research and approaches to pedagogy by publishing peer-reviewed research articles of broad interest that explore interconnections across regions or build meaningful comparisons across cultures.

In an effort to meet the needs of and address the challenges of teaching world history, the journal will also regularly publish reviews of books, textbooks, and relevant exhibitions, as well as essays and features on pedagogy.

Regions addressed in the journal include Japan, China, Central Asia, South Asia, East and West Africa, North Africa, Oceans and Seas, the Americas, Middle East and Levant, and Europe, including Northern and Eastern Europe.

Fields and topics addressed in the journal include, but are not limited to comparative medievalisms, ecology, environment, food and agriculture, the politics of gender, sexuality, health, migration and travel, architecture and urban design, music , and performance, comparative literature, politics, religion, science and technology, and stateless societies.

As the central issues in medieval world history are often best addressed by scholarship that draws on methods and evidence from both the sciences and humanities, multidisciplinary focus is essential to the journal.

Visit the journal at ucpress.edu/go/jmw for up-to-date information leading up to the launch.

Editorial Team
Editor
Edward D. English, University of California, Santa Barbara

Associate Editors
Sally McKee, University of California, Davis
Carol Lansing, University of California, Santa Barbara
Philip Soergel, University of Maryland

The Editorial Board of the journal can be accessed here.

Information for Authors

Journal of Medieval Worlds is accepting submissions for its inaugural volume. Please review the journal’s Author Guidelines before submitting. Submissions and editorial inquiries should be directed to the Editor, Edward English at english@history.ucsb.edu.

 


Cosmic Narratives, Ecology, and Religion

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17

By Lisa H. Sideris, author of Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World


A lively discussion on Edge.org asks prominent thinkers to address the question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?” The answers provide a handy resource for anyone wanting to brush up on epigenetics or confirmation bias or case-based reasoning. The term that caught my eye is the “noosphere.” Its advocate is David Christian, the leading proponent of “Big History,” a science-based approach to history that melds the human and cosmic story into one grand narrative. Big History is exciting, TED-talk-ready stuff, and Christian obligingly narrates the whole shebang—14 billion years ago to the present—in under 20 minutes. It is presented as a modern origin story for all people, a vehicle for restoring meaning in the way that institutional religions did in the past.”

In resuscitating the noosphere, Christian claims it had a brief efflorescence “and then vanished.” It has not vanished, I assure you. You just need to know where to look.

My research on cosmic narratives like Big History and its (overtly) religious counterpart, the Universe Story, has led me down the noosphere rabbit hole. The noosphere designates a planetary sphere of mind, a thinking layer of the planet, that evolves and unfolds much like the biosphere (animate matter) or the geosphere (inanimate matter). It originated with the Russian geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky (1863–1945) and the French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), among others.

A version of the noosphere concept is alive and well in scholarship on religion and ecology today, and in contemporary discourse about the Anthropocene. Some see the noosphere as a precursor concept to the Anthropocene because both signal a geological stage in which humans have become the dominant—and directing—force on Earth systems. In the words of Julian Huxley, “Whether he likes it or not [man] is responsible for the whole future evolution of our planet.”

So, how do we like it? I, for one, am uneasy. Others, not so much. Christian sees scientists’ recent announcement that the Anthropocene began in the mid-twentieth century as vindication of Vernadsky’s ideas. Why that date? Many researchers mark the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945 as the official start of the Anthropocene epoch. Of course, this is hardly an auspicious beginning to our career as planetary managers! Nevertheless, this was the moment, Christian argues, when “the sphere of mind joined the pantheon of planet-shaping spheres [namely] cosmos, earth and life.”

Pantheon. Mind you, we are talking about a geological epoch that began with world-destroying weapons and is proceeding apace with catastrophic climate change.

I worry that cosmic perspectives on human planetary dominance may frame it as a natural, even inevitable, evolutionary stage. My concerns were not allayed when researchers proposed recently that the Anthropocene seems a “predictable planetary transition” from the standpoint of astrobiology. Elsewhere that study’s lead author opines that our environmental crises are “simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history.” Better yet: the Anthropocene marks our “coming of age as a true planetary species.”

Such observations are both unscientific and irresponsible. If asked what scientific concept ought to be relegated to the dustbin of history, I would vote for the noosphere.


Lisa H. Sideris is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University, where her research focuses on religion, science, and environmentalism. She is the author of Environmental Ethics, Ecological Theology, and Natural Selection.


Spirituality, Morality, and Eco-Activism

By Sarah M. Pike, author of For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism

This guest post is part of our AARSBL blog series published in conjunction with the meetings of the American Academy of Religion & the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston Nov. 18-21. #AARSBL17


For the Wild came about because I wanted to understand the lives and motivations behind “ecoterrorist” stereotypes that were current in the news media during the 1990s. During interviews I discovered that memories and emotions may play an important role in shaping activists’ commitments. Love for other-than-human species, compassion for their suffering, anger about the impact of contemporary human lifestyles on the lives of nonhumans, grief over the degradation of ecosystems and the suffering of other animals: these emotions are expressed through and emerge out of what I describe in the book as protest rites.

My book is also concerned with fundamental questions about human identity construction in relation to others, human and nonhuman, expressed through and at the same time created by ritualized actions. I argue that these activists are the radical wing of a broader cultural shift in understanding humans’ place in a multispecies world and a planet in peril. Their actions express trends in contemporary American spiritual expression and moral duties to the nonhuman at the turn of the millennium. Their beliefs and practices reflect a way of being in the world that decenters the human and calls for rethinking our appropriate place in the world. Their stories further our understanding of how younger Americans, in particular, situate the needs of human beings within a world of other species that they see themselves as closely related to and responsible for. The following excerpt is from the introduction:

In July 2000, federal agents raided an environmental action camp in Mt. Hood National Forest that was established to protect old-growth forests and their inhabitants, including endangered species, from logging. High above the forest floor, activists had constructed a platform made of rope and plywood where several of them swung from hammocks. Seventeen-year-old Emma Murphy-Ellis held off law enforcement teams for almost eight hours by placing a noose around her neck and threatening to hang herself if they came too close. Murphy-Ellis, going by her forest name Usnea, explained her motivation in the following way: “I state without fear—but with the hope of rallying our collective courage—that I support radical actions. I support tools like industrial sabotage, monkey-wrenching machinery and strategic arson. The Earth’s situation is dire. If other methods are not enough, we must not allow concerns about property rights to stop us from protecting the land, sea and air.” Murphy-Ellis speaks for most radical activists who are ready to put their bodies on the line to defend trees or animals, other lives that they value as much as their own.

For the Wild is a study of radical environmental and animal rights activism in late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America. I set out to explore how teenagers like Murphy-Ellis become committed to forests and animals as worthy of protection and personal sacrifice. I wanted to find out how nature becomes sacred to them, how animals, trees, and mountains come to be what is important and worth sacrificing for. This work is about the paths young activists find themselves following, in tree-sits and road blockades to protect old-growth forests and endangered bird species, or breaking into fur farms at night to release hundreds of mink from cages. These young people join loosely organized, leaderless groups like Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), coming to protests from contexts as different as significant childhood experiences in nature and the hardcore punk rock music scene. Various other experiences also spark their commitments, such as viewing a documentary about baby seal hunts or witnessing a grove of woods they loved being turned into a parking lot. What their paths to activism have in common is the growing recognition of a world shared with other, equally valuable beings, and a determined certainty that they have a duty to these others.


Sarah M. Pike is Professor of Comparative Religion at California State University, Chico, and, in addition to For the Wild: Ritual and Commitment in Radical Eco-Activism, is the author of Earthly Bodies, Magical Selves: Contemporary Pagans and the Search for Community and New Age and Neopagan Religions in America.


Destroying Yemen: Brothers and Friends Alike, Where Art Thou?

This guest post is part of our MESA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the Middle East Studies Association in Washington, D.C., Nov. 18-21. #MESA2017DC


By Isa Blumi, author of Destroying Yemen: What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World, forthcoming January 2018

I wrote Destroying Yemen with the fumes of anger, frustration, and resignation still potent; friends, family, and enemies alike got whiff and knew to stay away. I cannot help, with now almost 1000 days of incessant violence directed at 18 million Yemenis, to feel my initial, and interim inspiration to write, has any hope of changing a thing. Indeed, it was my conclusion, somewhat reconfirmed in light of the recent events in the region, that ultimately my frustration, fear, and outrage cannot offer much support to the real corrective force of Yemeni resistance. As this book begins its journey as part of a public discussion over what has happened in South Arabia, I hope, therefore, to initiate not only an exchange of reactions, denunciations, and snide competitiveness, but an acceptance to ask broader questions about just what we are doing when writing about Yemen, the larger region, and indeed world.

In much of this effort to account for why Destroying Yemen constitutes the concluding strategic calculation of hitherto obscured global interests, I have tried to identify historic roots, as much as future consequences, to chaos in South Arabia. I believe it is not a regional issue, confined to an arena secured by think-tankers or regional experts. Rather, the destruction of Yemen, as a project, an agenda, a frustrated last-ditch strategic shift, implicates a much broader array of interested parties. This is a war with deep roots, reflective of ideologies that expected, demanded, and justified violence to impose an entirely self-serving process of wealth sequestration. Yemen for decades, in other words, has been at the forefront of globalist projects that objectified Yemen’s millions as collateral to a more potent concern with the natural resources that lay under their feet.

Like most scholars working on the region, I fell in love with Yemen. I had the good fortune to experience Yemen as it just became a unified potential reality in the early 1990s. Traveling the breadth of this stunning land, my wish to keep it entirely romantic could not resist, in the end, the intellectual potential of my growing interests. In Yemen, I recognized counter-narratives that begged for deeper analysis. As evident in Destroying Yemen, I refuse, for example, to surrender the relevance of the Ottoman story in Yemen’s modern story; and in this book, I feel I have made my most emphatic case yet for just how crucial it is to bring historic depth to what are clearly not uniquely (post)modern phenomena. Indeed, Yemen’s destruction is so systematic, so deep a crime, largely because of Yemeni resistance to Empire—be it Ottoman and British, or non-governmental agencies empowered by a mission enshrined in neo-liberal discourse. In this respect, I wrote a book that is contemporary as much as historically revisionist.

And yet, I write while millions are going hungry, dying of cholera, and terrorized (but not defeated) by bombs made in the United States, France, Britain, and Sweden. In this light, I end this blog post as I end my book:

… there has been little to admire from the world’s entanglements with beautiful Yemen. In the end, we must conclude that the imprint of would be global hegemons’ ambitions on Yemen takes its most enduring form in graves, bombed medieval cities, and a whimper from starving children no one wants to hear. And with this stark reality, I have nothing left to do. This in the end is just a book.


Isa Blumi is Associate Professor in the Department of Asian, Middle Eastern, and Turkish Studies at Stockholm University. In addition to Destroying Yemen What Chaos in Arabia Tells Us about the World he is the author of Ottoman Refugees, 1878–1939, Foundations of Modernity, and Reinstating the Ottomans.


Must-Read Issues for the 2017 AAR & SBL Annual Meetings

This week, the joint meetings of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) are convening in Boston, MA from November 18-21. Whether or not you are attending #AARSBL17, we invite you read the following free sample issues from two of our journals in these disciplines, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions and Studies in Late Antiquity

Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions
Special Issue: New Religions in Eastern Europe
Vol. 20, No. 3

READ THE FULL ISSUE

Introduction: New Religions in Eastern Europe: New Forms, Recent Developments
Milda Ališauskienė
Baltic Paganis

Baltic Paganism in Lithuanian Neoshamanic Communities: Neoshamanic Interpretations of a Local Indo-European Religious Tradition
Eglė Aleknaitė

A Catholic Pyramid? Locating the Pyramid of Merkinė within the Religious Landscape of Lithuania
Milda Ališauskienė

Survival Strategies of New Religions in a Secular Consumer Society: A Case Study from Estonia
Ringo Ringvee

“What if it is actually true?” Vissarion’s Followers from Eastern Europe and their Path to the Last Testament Church Community in Siberia
Joanna Urbańczyk

Hit Gyülekezete: A Sectarian State Megachurch in Hungary
Holly Folk


Studies in Late Antiquity
Vol. 1, No. 1

READ THE FULL ISSUE

Why Does the World Need a New Journal on Late Antiquity?
The Editor and Associate Editors

Community Matters
Elizabeth DePalma Digeser

Late Antiquity and World History: Challenging Conventional Narratives and Analyses
Chengpang Lee, Ling Han

How Perilous was it to Write Political History in Late Antiquity?
Anthony Kaldellis

From a Classical to a Christian City: Civic Evergetism and Charity in Fifth Century Rome
Michele Salzman


We Live in a Culture of Commentary

This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association in Washington, DC and the American Academy of Religion in Boston, MA, both taking place November 18-21. #MESA2017DC &  #AARSBL17


By Joel Blecher, author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium

In many ways, we live in the age of commentary. It seems like every cough, sneeze, and throat clearing is swiftly rendered into text, algorithmically circulated across social media, and subject to endless comments from every perspective. A pundit on every phone, a guru in every garage, and an interpreter on every internet browser.

And yet, our commentarial culture, when viewed historically, is remarkably constrained. Terse, even. We even have a phrase for it: “hot takes,” instant reactions that would seem to tap into humanity’s stream of consciousness in a hundred and forty characters or less. Two-hundred and eighty if you’re lucky.

I have spent the last seven years studying a very different culture of commentary—commentary on Muhammad’s sayings or practices, called hadith. While similar to our contemporary commentarial culture in many respects—a key hub of social and intellectual life—hadith commentaries were multi-volume works of art, monuments to knowledge that required deep learning and decades of training and continuous revision. Commentators dedicated their lives to commenting on a collection of hadith—often passing away before they could complete their work—and meticulously crafted their texts to speak not only to their present, but across long periods of time. These commentaries were built for a kind of time travel—their authors bundled up into quires of paper and ink all of the knowledge they could find in the hopes that readers on the other side of the globe and centuries into the distant future might find some benefit in them. While many perished, the greatest ones actually succeeded, and are still read assiduously today.

I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator had spent seven years explaining a single hadith collection, and was only a third of the way through explaining the entire work. Attended by hundreds of students from across the globe, the commentator drew on a rich tradition of commentaries from classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. Emulating the practices of his predecessors, he read each hadith aloud, and used each word or phrase to digress on almost every aspect of the human experience. But when I returned to Princeton later that year to begin my doctoral research, I found that virtually nothing had been published on this complex and multi-layered tradition. I could not even find an entry dedicated to the subject in the Encyclopedia of Islam.

After a little digging into the sources, it became clear just how important and exciting this understudied field was. A quick search yielded hundreds of hadith commentaries produced over a thousand years, and each one told a unique story. A hadith commentary sparked public furors in 11th-century Andalusia. In Egypt in the 14th and 15th centuries, live hadith commentary sessions were the stage for spectacular and sometimes destructive rivalries among Muslim chief justices, while the sultans and emirs in attendance doled out gifts, jobs, and even tax breaks. The tradition found new life in British India in the age of print and mass literacy, and Urdu and English commentators emerged to address the political challenges of colonialism but also to solve intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed.

Said the Prophet of God tells the story of this living tradition across a millennium, and I hope it will be clear why it deserves more than a “hot take.” As a central hub of Islamic social and intellectual life, the story of how Muslims interpreted and reinterpreted hadith has been a missing piece in the academy’s patchwork understanding of Islam and Islamic history. But this tradition is too vast for a single book or a single scholar to undertake. My hope is that this book spurs on future students and scholars to begin to mine this vast literature. In that spirit, Said the Prophet of God does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject, but rather an introduction to further debate, questions, and commentary.


Joel Blecher is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Oriens, and the Atlantic

Said the Prophet of God explores the rich social and intellectual life of hadith commentary and offers new avenues for the study of religion, history, anthropology, and law.

 

 


The (Chronic) Crisis of Legitimacy in Policing

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18, and in relation to this year’s ASC theme of Crime, Legitimacy and Reform: Fifty years since the President’s Commission #ASCPhilly

By Nikki Jones, author of The Chosen Ones: Black Men and the Politics of Redemption (forthcoming June 2018)

Fifty years ago, in the wake of urban uprisings across the country, the vast majority of which were sparked by a negative police encounter, President Lyndon Johnson charged The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders to answer three seemingly simple questions: What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done?

The five problem areas identified then are familiar now: 1) police operations and misconduct in ghetto neighborhoods, 2) police practices that failed to protect Black residents, 3) the lack of effective and transparent grievance processes to report officer misconduct, 4) the lack of clear policy guidelines to direct officer behavior, especially use of force, and 5) the lack of community support for law enforcement.

In answering the President’s charge, the report did not shy away from the topic of race and racism. Instead, the report linked the problem of policing to histories of racist violence (from which millions of Black Americans fled during the Great Migration) and racist housing policies in American cities that turned ghetto neighborhoods into tinderboxes for the urban uprisings the Commission was called on to explain and, ultimately, prevent in the future.

In addition to highlighting the role that systemic racism played in the problems between the police and Black Americans at the time, the report also drew attention to a culture of racism among police departments.

All in all, the report (along with similar state and local reports of the time) had a dramatic impact on policing. Today, America’s largest cities are home to the most well-funded, well-trained, and professionalized law enforcement departments in our nation’s history. State and local law enforcement agencies receive historically unmatched support from the federal government and a vast network of researchers and academics that supports the development and implementation of policing innovations in cities across the country.

While today’s law enforcement agencies are stronger than they have ever been, they are also, if we are to believe some leaders in law enforcement, the most fragile when it comes to responding to charges of racism. This supposed fragility is evidenced in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ assertion that the increased scrutiny of law enforcement (or, it seems, any scrutiny at all) is bad for officer morale as well as other calls to quiet (or quash) serious discussion of the ways that race and racism influence policing today.

Fifty years ago, incisive critiques of law enforcement led to monumental changes in policing. Fifty years later, it is clear that much work remains, including the need to acknowledge the historical role that policing has played in enforcing the racial order and reproducing racial inequality in the U.S. – not just in the South and not just decades ago.

Today, the potential for such discussions is limited by the fragility framework and color-blind criminological sound bites (e.g., the common refrain that there are more police contacts in Black neighborhoods because that is where the crime is) that demonstrate a resistance to discussing anything but implicit racism in policing.

Where will that leave us fifty years from now?


Nikki Jones is Associate Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Between Good and Ghetto: African American Girls and Inner-City Violence. 


Must-Read Issues for the National Women’s Studies Association Conference

This week, the National Women’s Studies Association is convening in Baltimore for its 40th annual conference. The theme for this year’s conference is “40 YEARS AFTER COMBAHEE: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives.” Whether or not you are attending #NWSA17, we invite you to read the following recent issues of DCQR and a virtual issue of FMH, all free for a limited time.

 

DCQR’s Black Feminist Thought Issue
Vol. 5 No. 3, Fall 2016

DCQR’s Black Girlhood Issue
Vol. 6 No. 3, Fall 2017

 

 

Departures in Critical Qualitative Research (formerly Qualitative Communication Research) publishes innovative, experimental, aesthetic, and provocative works on the theories, practices, and possibilities of critical qualitative research. Departures is a forum for scholars in diverse disciplines to converse on, contest, and creatively reimagine the form, purpose, and mission of their work. The journal seeks works charting scholarly and theoretical developments in critical qualitative research, exemplars of methodological innovation, and inventive demonstrations of research as an aesthetic intervention and mode of critique. To subscribe to and/or learn more about the journal, visit http://dcqr.ucpress.edu/.


Special Virtual Issue: Race and Women of Color Feminism in Media Histories

We are pleased to offer this selection of articles from Feminist Media Histories to celebrate the National Women’s Studies Association’s 40th anniversary conference, “40 Years after Combahee: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives.”  These articles represent some of the best new work on race and women of color feminism in media histories. Scholars in this special suite of articles examine a variety of media across a range of global contexts to demonstrate the central role that gender plays in media histories and cultures.

 


Not Beyond Racism: Teens Talk about Violence and the “Jacked Up” U.S. System

This guest post is published during the American Society of Criminology conference in Philadelphia, occurring November 15-18. #ASCPhilly

By Katherine Irwin, co-author of Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies 

Like many of us, I remember the Obama years fondly. At the beginning of his first term in office, phrases like “the post-racist” society and “America’s color-blindness” were bandied about in the media with a sense that some significant change in U.S. race relations was underway. I can even remember some of my colleagues who were writing about racism in the criminal justice system being somewhat perturbed that their work had instantly become passé after Obama was elected. Then came Trump, neo-racism, and neo-nationalism. Race and racism are squarely back on the table of discussion. It seems that we are not a post-racist society after all.

Given the quickly changing discourses about race and racism, my co-author Karen Umemoto and I thought it was time to illuminate important nuances of America’s racist history as they are felt and experienced by groups of teens who are often overlooked. In our book, Jacked Up and Unjust: Pacific Islander Teens Confront Violent Legacies, we allow girls and boys to tell us about racism, harsh criminal justice punishments, and the use of violence to enact vengeance. Teens in this study spoke of the U.S. as an inherently racist country – a place where the police, teachers, and school administrators were out to punish them and where they had few chances to thrive. The fact that most of the teens who acted violently in this study had at least one family member who had been incarcerated reinforced the idea that the “U.S. system” was much more likely to target than to help the teens in our study.

The story that the teens shared during the nine years that I spent researching violence in public high schools in Hawaii taught me some lessons about using retributive measures to solve deep seated problems in the U.S. As we know, America’s reliance on harsh criminal justice sanctions over the past few decades has made us the most incarcerating industrialized nation in the world. What I learned during this study with Pacific Islander teens is that the punitive turn in the U.S. has also left lasting legacy in the psyche of many young people. Not only did these teens feel the sting of poverty, racism, and political neglect, but they also came to avoid adults and adult institutions in fear of punishment.

There is also good news revealed in Jacked Up and Unjust. High school staff and community leaders provided extensive support services to youth during this study. Kids who started out their school careers as tough fighters, willing to “throw-down” at the slightest provocation, eventually became less violent and more engaged in school because of support services. The takeaway lesson from Jacked Up and Unjust is that young people who behave violently are not headed for a lifetime of pathology, hate, and brutality. Marshaling services and providing spaces for youth to feel connected, cared for, and listened to can change lives. This book instructs us all about how to provide such support for teens.

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Attend Katy’s author meets critic session on Friday, November 17, 2:00 to 3:20pm, Marriott, Room 502, 5th Floor as well as her other sessions too. And learn more about Katy and Karen’s work with teens in Hawaii.


Katherine Irwin is Professor of Sociology at the University of Hawai‘i, Manoa. She is the co-author of Jacked Up and Unjust with Karen Umemoto and co-autho of Beyond Bad Girls: Gender, Violence, and Hype with Meda Chesney-Lind.