2008 YWCA Racial Justice Summit

By Ben Patterson

      A two-day event this past fall brought together  some very influential people in the world of civil and judicial justice.  On October 16th and 17th at the
Sheraton Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin, a collection of public defenders, police officers, criminal prosecutors, and various non-profit organizers came together to
gain a better understanding of the racial injustices occurring in communities all over the country. They explored what efforts could be made to correct those
injustices at the 2008 YWCA Racial Justice Summit.
      The conference included numerous presenters who discussed  a slew of different issues but most came back to the common theme of racial disparity in the
criminal justice system.  On the first day of the conference, Marc Mauer delivered a presentation on “Analyzing and Responding to Racial Disparities in the
Criminal Justice System.”  Mauer received a bachelor’s degree from Stony Brook University and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Michigan.  
Mauer is an expert on race and criminal justice sentencing.
      Mauer’s presentation focused on the disparities that occur between races concerning drug offenses.  According to Mauer’s findings, African Americans are
disproportionately  convicted on crack cocaine charges compared to Whites being convicted on powder cocaine charges.  
Prison sentencing for crack versus powder cocaine charges is also amazingly disproportionate.  African Americans account for 81.8 percent of all crack cocaine
charges, while Whites only account for 8.8 percent of these same charges.  Whites account for a slightly larger portion of powder cocaine charges with 14.3
percent of all charges, with African Americans accounting for 27 percent of the charges in the United States.  Asian Americans were among the smallest
population of crack and powder cocaine charges, with less than 1 percent and 1.2 percent respectively.
      The greatest threat to equal justice, however, is not the percentage of different races charged with drug offenses.  The true injustice comes with
sentencing.  An individual convicted of possessing 52 grams of crack cocaine will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison, while an
individual convicted of possessing 340 grams of powder cocaine faces no mandatory minimum sentence.  The current criminal sentencing system favors
individuals possessing powder cocaine instead of crack cocaine.  The obvious injustice with this system is that African American’s are disproportionately being
imprisoned for far longer periods of time than their White counterparts.
      Professor Pam Oliver also made a presentation on the disparities occurring among races in the United States and what can be done to counteract this
problem.  Professor Oliver received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of North Carolina and is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin.  Oliver
pointed to a shift occurring in the 1970s wherein crime became a far greater political issue and thus sparked change in policies and policing practices.
      Over a period of three years, Oliver found that African Americans and Hispanics are most likely to be imprisoned for drug offense.  Whites, Asian Americans,
and American Indians are most likely to be imprisoned  mainly for  violent crimes.  During the same period of study, Asian Americans are found to be slightly
more likely to be imprisoned for violent crimes than are Whites.
      Oliver proposed that individuals working with and within the criminal justice system should “oppose the ‘drug war,’ oppose ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric, address”
root causes of crime, racial biases and prejudices,” to make effective gains on reducing or eliminating racial disparities in the justice system.
      The second day of the summit included some research and approaches on how to reduce racial disparities.  Amanda Petteruti delivered a presentation
titled, “Promising Practices in Reducing Racial Disparities in the Criminal Justice System.”  Petteruti , a policy analyst, conducts research on justice policy.  She
earned a master’s degree in education policy at the University of Maryland College and a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Bates College.
      Petteruti believes that reducing or eliminating racial disparities, “is really hard work … but if you find that it’s not hard, then there is a good chance that you’
re not doing it right.” Through her research, Petteruti found that there are some simple strategies that can be used by those in the criminal justice system to
combat racial injustices.  Petteruti believes that there should be an emphasis on diverting funds from the criminal justice system to investments in communities.
She also stressed eliminating mandatory sentences, keeping precise and recent data, investing in treatments as a part of rehabilitation, and encouraging
diversity within communities.
      Encouragement of diversity and understanding other cultures or ethnic groups was a significant focus of the summit.  The summit wound down with a
presentation by Professor Katherine Cramer Walsh.  Walsh received a Ph.D.  from University of Michigan and a bachelor’s degree from the University of
Wisconsin where she is currently a professor in the political science department.
      Walsh’s presentation focused on creating and understanding “racial dialogues.” Walsh defines these dialogues as “programs that are run by local
governments or non-profit organizations that recruit volunteers from the community…to try to get people to sit down in repeated sessions and talk about how …
they can improve race relations in their community.”
      These dialogues have proven beneficial to spreading diversity and understanding between races, but face the challenge of moving from a simple
discussion into action.  Individuals can be reluctant to partake in these discussions because they may see them as unproductive.  Walsh explained that,
“recruiting people of color to these discussions is difficult.”  She found that people of color feel as though they are forced to engage in discussions of race all too
often and are apprehensive to engage in another discussion unnecessarily.
Organizations, like the YWCA, however,  have had success with these dialogues because of their accessibility and public image in the community. Walsh
believes that these groups form because, “people want change on the individual level and the policy level as well ... But organizers of the program want to go
beyond that. They want people to come together and try to improve race relations.” On a policy level, Walsh’s work has found that successful racial dialogues
have the power to make changes in the form of laws on hate crimes and incorporation of racially focused task forces.  But change can occur on a smaller level
as well.
When people of different races engage in collective group activities, simple discussions often lead to bridging the gap on race relations.  “When people get to
work on something together, it really helps to establish longer term relationships,” Walsh explained.  For example, Walsh saw community gardening plots as a
very easy means for people of different races to engage collectively with one another and form bonds.
      Walsh believes that major improvements to race relations can be made through dialogue and discussion.  The human element of face-to-face dialogue
provides an excellent medium for understanding race relations and ways to counter racial injustices within communities, which, in essence, was the goal of the
summit as a whole.