Albany’s Latest Boondoggle: Racial Justice

By Michelle Chen Aug 18, 2009

The New York Post—that paragon of journalistic excellence—ran an editorial today blasting the latest piece of pork to come out of Albany. Under the headline “Your Tax Dollars At Waste,” the paper took aim at a State Senate earmark for a cause any self-respecting law-and-order legislator would reject: an organization devoted to studying how race influences society. The Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, housed at Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York, aims to foster research on racial disparities in criminal justice and other policy arenas. Its most ambitious, and common-sensical, aspect is its leadership. Diverging from the insular think tank world, the research on racial impacts will actually be directed by some of the most impacted people:

The Center is the first and only public policy, research, training, advocacy and academic center, housed in the largest university system in the United States, conceived, designed and developed by formerly incarcerated professionals. It was established as an inter-disciplinary forum for scholars, policy makers, legal practitioners, law enforcement, civil society leaders, clergy and previously incarcerated professionals seeking to influence and impact urban contemporary criminal, economic and social justice issues. The Center is dedicated to creating new paradigms for solving community development related criminal justice challenges in communities of color. It seeks to produce research that reveals the contradictions and confrontations within and among the various disciplines comprising the study of urban affairs and criminal justice and to develop new “community specific” models for academic inquiry and public policy.

Fusing theory and practice, the Center’s projects engage both the academy and advocates on the ground: initiatives like a campaign to remove employment barriers for the formerly incarcerated, and a leadership training institute for community members. Though the Center’s personnel may be novel (it is led by Divine Pryor, a criminal justice scholar who was formerly incarcerated), racial impact studies are gaining currency around the country. Several states have begun using demographic analysis to assess how social, employment and criminal justice policies shape communities of color. As Applied Research Center has pointed out in its own work, empirical research adds muscle to political struggles against institutional inequities. Shockingly, the Post isn’t too keen on the idea of confronting the racism embedded in the state’s legal structures:

The sheep-skinned ex-cons are interested in whether laws, including — no surprise — those dealing with criminal justice, "have [a] negative impact on racial minorities," a director at the center told The Post’s Carl Campanile. Funny: We’d have thought their experience would be better put to use studying the "negative impact" on minority communities brought about by, say, crime. But the center’s Web site highlights its interest in "creating a new justice paradigm from the perspective of those most impacted." (Victims don’t count?)

A Post news article quotes a telling reaction from a local State Senator:

Marty Golden (R-Brooklyn) blasted the study as a "waste of taxpayer dollars" that attempts to divide the state by race and ethnicity. “This is the United States of America. Whatever happened to ‘This is one New York’? This is going in a bad direction,” said Golden, who is also an ex-cop.

Golden likes his “One New York” just the way it is now: shutting out the various groups deemed unworthy of inclusion. That quiet exclusion has been held in place by policies that are dotted by political blindspots and colored by antipathy for the disenfranchised. And it’s those barriers that the NuLeadership Center threatens to challenge. The article didn’t highlight the background of the state senator who helped secure the grant, Brooklyn Democrat Eric Adams, who is also an ex-cop. A 22-year veteran of the NYPD, he helped found 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement. He has also pioneered influential community programs, including conflict resolution workshops and public safety seminars for local families. But maybe that’s precisely the kind of “bad direction” Marty Golden fears. The lede of the Post editorial says it all:

Here’s a new one: The state Senate has earmarked $10,000 to finance a study by ex-cons to determine whether state laws are racist. Gee, wonder what they’ll find?

Nothing bothers politicians more than forcing them to recognize what they knew but were unwilling to admit. Who would’ve thought that a bunch of ex-cons in Brooklyn would get into so much trouble for trying to state the obvious? Image: New York Post Clarification: The editorial did not mention Adams’s former career, but the news article did.