#LetsTalk: Racial Injustice in Policing & Prisons

Written by: Aaditi Lele

On February 22, 2022, Millions of Conversations partnered with the Grand Challenge Initiative on Racial Justice & the Third Reconstruction (RJ3), and the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center at Vanderbilt University to bring you the third installment in the Racial Justice Teachouts series.

This hybrid episode held jointly at the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center and with our online audience, brought together a trio of community organizers and experts to break down the state of racial injustice in policing and prisons in Nashville, colorblind policies, and what solutions lay ahead.

Here’s what we learned.

First, an Introduction to our Panelists

We heard from panelists Rahim Buford, Jamel Campbell-Gooch, and Dr. Rosevelt Noble.

After being incarcerated in 27 different prisons, Rahim founded Unheard Voices Outreach, a non-profit that works on policy issues to decarcerate Tennessee and help people with reentry.

Jamel is from Nashville going back 10 family generations. He is a police and prison abolitionist and community organizer with Black Nashville Assembly.

Our moderator was Dr. Rosevelt Noble, the Vanderbilt University Assistant Dean of Residential Colleges, Director of the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center, Faculty Head of Stambaugh House, and Senior Lecturer in Sociology.

Unpacking “Colorblindness” in Policing & Prisons Today

Racial colorblindness refers to an attitude which implies that one’s race does not affect their opportunities or experiences in a society.

And yet, people of color are still disproportionately affected by policing and make up a much larger of the incarcerated population.

Per a US News study, incarceration in America is far from colorblind.

And it’s not just incarceration that’s affected by these attitudes, a University of Illinois study found that colorblind attitudes are especially apparent within the police force.

“People who hold colorblind racial attitudes tend to think that racism is no longer a meaningful factor in people’s lives and that everyone has equal access to jobs and other resources across all walks of life,” said Cris Hughes, director of the research project.

Conversations around colorblindness haven’t just extended to discussions about policing and prisons, though. Parents and families around the country are grappling with whether to raise their children on the principle of “colorblindness,” and whether that means erasure and ignorance of systemic racism.

In Nashville, organizers are working to combat colorblindness and rebuild more just systems.

The Present & Future of Policing & Incarceration in Nashville

Each of our panelists began organizing for racial justice and reform in Nashville after their own experiences with the prison system.

“In Tennessee, there are young Black men treated like animals within prisons; experiencing racism, death, and the drug overdose epidemic. The desire to be fully free is what continues to push and drive me,” explained Buford.

Per Campbell-Gooch, “I grew up in a zipcode with the highest rate of incarceration. The only way out of this situation is through community organizing, not through individual politicians, business owners, etc.”

Both Buford and Campbell-Gooch have tried to find ways to reform systems of policing and prisons in Nashville— such as serving on the Nashville Community Oversight Board or starting organizing campaigns.

“My experience on the Nashville Community Oversight Board is what led to my abolitionist work. No body or institution should have absolute power over the people the way the Mayor’s office and police chief do,” Campbell-Gooch said.

Through their work, they’ve both found that reform isn’t just a matter of change to police or prisons, it spans a much larger legislative shift that they’re hoping to see.

“One in five incarcerated folks can’t even vote,” Buford explained, with Campbell-Gooch adding that “over-policing happens even before the police, it happens in legislature. By disenfranchising almost half a million people, they don’t have a voice in policy changes. Those defining the crimes are the ones creating the situation for criminals to come into existence.”

For Campbell-Gooch, a prevailing solution is reforming our budgets and legislative spending. “We need to focus on how the city is spending their dollars. In over 10 years, Nashville has invested over $1 billion in police but under $50 million in housing. So it’s no surprise that we’re in a housing crisis as it’s not prioritized,” he said.

How can I have Conversations about Racial Injustice?

One of our audience members closed out this Racial Justice Teachout with a key question–
What can we do to build just systems that replace our current structures?

As Gooch explained, it’s key that all of us find an organization to walk with along the journey to racial justice. “Hold each other accountable, donate your time and money if possible. We deserve the opportunity to experiment with what comes after.”

We know it can be challenging to have conversations about politicized issues, like policing and incarceration. That’s why we created a system of tools you can use to help bridge the gap. Our Listening Guide is our research-informed guidebook on how (and why) to have difficult conversations.

Finding common ground with members of our community who are vested in making change and coming together around those shared challenges is a cornerstone of progress.

Additional Resources

Learn more about the Grand Challenge Initiative and RJ3R.

Learn about Dr. Rosevelt Noble’s project, ‘Lost in the Ivy’, a multimedia documentation of the history and experience of Black students, faculty, and staff at Vanderbilt University. 

Visit Unheard Voices Outreach and read Rahim Buford’s story. Engage with Jamel Campbell- Gooch’s work at Black Nashville Assembly here.

Learn more about solutions to racial disparities in policies with this piece in the Harvard Gazette, and how to tackle the crisis, per the World Economic Forum, with this video.

To continue to stay engaged with our work at Millions of Conversations, subscribe to our newsletter and give us a follow on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, or Twitter

Our next Racial Justice Teachout will cover Voter Rights and Voter Suppression on March 25, 2022: register to attend.

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