For new Yale center, the fight for racial justice begins locally

The leaders of Yale’s new Law and Racial Justice Center discuss the systems that perpetuate injustices in the U.S. and how to tackle this pernicious challenge.
James Forman, Jr. and Kayla Vinson

Prof. James Forman Jr. and Kayla Vinson ’11 (Photos by Dan Renzetti)

In 2021, Yale established a center based at Yale Law School to focus on racial injustice, perhaps the most pernicious and deep-rooted problem facing the United States.

The Law and Racial Justice Center, now taking shape, will be a hub for related teaching, interdisciplinary research, and policy work. Fundamental to the mission of the center, which will be housed off campus in New Haven, will be engagement with partners outside the university, in its home city, and across the state of Connecticut. Working in collaboration, they will identify programs, interventions, and solutions that can be put into practice, with an emphasis on transforming public safety and creating new opportunities for marginalized communities.

In a recent interview with Yale News, the center’s faculty director, James Forman Jr., and its inaugural executive director, Kayla Vinson ’11, spoke about the systems that perpetuate racial injustice in the United States, how the burden of indignities, large and small, borne by individuals also harm families and society, and how the Law and Racial Justice Center will begin to tackle these challenges.

Forman is the J. Skelly Wright Professor of Law and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.” He teaches criminal law and a seminar called “Inside Out: Issues in Criminal Justice,” in which Yale law students study alongside men and women incarcerated in state and federal prisons. Vinson is an educator and attorney who returned to New Haven to help run the center after serving as staff attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit.

Professor Forman, you’ve said that it was during your time as a public defender in the 1990s that you came to see that it was in the criminal justice system where much of the unfinished work of the civil rights era could be found. Why was that? And how had that come to be?

James Forman, Jr.: When I was in law school, I went to work for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund during both summers, which was really the pinnacle if you wanted to make a difference as a civil rights lawyer. And back then they had a set of issue areas, which included voting rights, education, employment, housing, and the death penalty. I was assigned to the death penalty group as a summer job. And when you do death penalty work, you quickly see all of the obvious connections to America's history and legacy of racial injustice and racial subordination.

James Forman, Jr.

But when I finished and went to work as a law clerk, working on the regular criminal court cases, I began to see that all of the issues that I had seen in the death penalty unit were present there as well. You still had poverty mattering more than guilt or innocence. You still had poor people being denied access to quality lawyering. You still had racism rife throughout the system, from decisions about who gets prosecuted to whether juries convict to how steep is the sentence… You basically saw poor people shuttled through a system that they did not understand and was not trying to explain itself to them. And you saw Black people especially disenfranchised and subordinated throughout that process.

I began to ask myself, why is the death penalty the issue as opposed to the criminal justice system, as we called it then (although more and more people now use the term criminal legal system to point out how little justice there is in that system)? And I’m not saying that to be critical of any organization. The point I’m making is that even an organization that is as thoughtful and rigorous and impactful as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund didn’t, even by the early ‘90s, really understand and name the unfairness in the racism in the criminal justice system as a civil rights issue at all, let alone the defining civil rights issue of our time.

Kayla, you’ve been confronting racial justice issues as an educator and teacher. What made you want to do this work?

Kayla Vinson: In some ways it was just inevitable for me. My family is very close-knit, and on my mother’s side the cornerstone of the family was my great grandfather, Jesse Owens, who was born in 1912 and lived until 2017, and lived in rural North Carolina. Growing up with him and the elders in my family, there was no way I wasn’t going to be aware of the ways that racial domination and racial subordination have really shaped life for so many people in the United States, whether they are Black or not.

Kayla Vinson

I was in the first generation of my family to begin school in integrated settings. And in some ways, I think that helped me to understand at a young age that there was a lot going on that I needed to figure out. For instance, school was a place where I was told that people “end up where they deserve” or “where they belong.” But that was not what I was seeing happening to me, to my family members, to my friends. So I became really interested in these narratives: What are the myths that we tell ourselves that allow us to be comfortable with things that should really should make us uncomfortable?

My interests really lie at the intersection of education and the criminal legal system and thinking about the way that we use schools to sort and to justify inequality, even though we claim that schools are actually just there and students reveal where they belong.

What are some ways that this happens?

Vinson: Schools are creating outcomes, they're not just manifesting them. As a student I saw how that impacted friends. I had a good friend in high school who was involved in the justice system. He was determined to get a high school diploma — he would be the first in his family to graduate from high school. But during our senior year, because he spent some time in a juvenile detention center, the school waited until right before graduation to tell him that even though he had earned all his credits, done all the work, he had simply had too many absences. So he was not going to get his high school diploma. To me, for adults to think that that was an OK outcome for a 17-year-old Black boy who really had done everything he could to get his high school diploma, I just didn’t understand. And I wanted to understand, how did we get here? How do we become this sort of society?

Later, as a public school teacher in Brooklyn, I taught students attending my alternative high school. They didn't have to be there; many of them had actually dropped out of middle school but were deciding to come back to school. And there were so many days when I would have a Black male student who had been absent the previous day, and I would say, “Hey, we missed you, where were you?” And he would say, “You know, I got up and I took the subway. But as I was trying to leave, the NYPD stopped me again and they told me that if I wanted to leave the train station, I had to let them search my body and my book bag.”

And I really couldn't be mad when some days my students decided that their dignity was more important than their education. They’d turn around, get back on the train and go back home because they didn't want to be subjected to that. So I was again facing the same question I had been trying to figure out as a kid: Why were adults letting this happen? Later they’ll turn around and tell those very same Black boys and girls, that if they don't get a high school diploma, that everything else that happens in their life — all the other disadvantages that they face — are their fault. But I could see very clearly all the blocks that adults were putting in their way, that systems and structures were putting in the way.

A lot of attention is often focused on outrageous spectacles of racism, and those things definitely deserve our attention. But much of the devastation from racial subordination happens in the mundane: my friend who was denied his high school diploma, my students who were stopped and frisked. And what I came to understand is that these aren’t examples of things going wrong. The processes and decisions that produce these outcomes are constitutive parts of many social institutions.

Both of you have discussed how the long-term costs of these systemic injustices aren’t just borne by the individuals. They have costs on their families, their neighborhoods, their entire community.

Forman: That’s something that people don't focus on enough. We tend to focus on the time that somebody spends in prison, especially those who are wrongfully convicted. Kayla talked about the dignity violations that happened to her students when they were just trying to go to school in the morning — these incidents are not small by any means, but they're invisible in the larger narrative. And even when we talk about them, we talk about them as numbers — for instance, the number of NYPD stop-and-frisks that went on under the Bloomberg administration. But behind every single one of those numbers is a person. There’s a young man who got up in the morning, maybe in an apartment that didn't have adequate heat. Maybe he looked in the cupboard and didn't have enough to eat. And still, with all that, he put on his backpack and left the house and went downstairs, walked out of his house, and got into the subway. This is somebody who is a hero, who is fighting so hard for his education that he's willing to overcome obstacles that children of privilege don't ever have to face.

And still, instead of being treated like a scholar or like a hero, instead of being treated like a young person who is our future, he or she is treated as a criminal. He is told by society “you are a threat. You are nothing more than our worst collective fear.” And that kind of message delivered time and time again — it has an impact. We try to raise our kids to resist it and to tell them not to accept it. But the reason why parents spend so much time giving positive messages to their children is because we all know as adults that the messages matter. They add up.

Students in a classroom

Professor Forman, in your book you describe numerous stories of people whose lives became upended by these systems and the downstream effects that this had on their families and on the larger society.

Forman: One of those stories was about a client of mine who had overcome obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to get a job. She got hired and was on probationary status when she was subjected to a vehicle stop-and-frisk program — similar to the subway situation that Kayla described but for cars. Police found a small amount of marijuana in the glove compartment — an amount of marijuana that is now legal but wasn't legal at the time. It was also an amount of marijuana that is in cars all over the wealthy parts of Washington, D.C., but nobody's getting pulled [over]. But she was subjected to this because of where she lived, because she was poor, because she was Black.

In that case the police gave her a break. They didn't arrest her, but gave her a ticket and told her to show up in court a month later. She showed up and the prosecutor gave her a break because they considered this small scale. They didn’t even charge her. So it looks like the system has been lenient, that it's been merciful, right? The problem is, it still shows up that she was stopped and she received a citation. And so when she wants to get off probationary status at her job to become a permanent employee and she had to get a certificate of a clear record, she can't get one. And as soon as her employer sees it, they fire her. And then she's in my office sobbing, showing me her certificates of achievement, her employee of the month, showing me her awards. And I call her supervisor, who says, “Look, I am so sorry, I want to keep her.”

And so there you have again a situation where this system — which is so enormous, with tentacles that run everywhere — traps somebody in a way that would never even be visible. it doesn't make the news. It’s not noteworthy. But it is. Because she had a child who she was trying to raise. So now you start to see the generational impacts.

People often talk about the importance of getting to the root causes of societal problems, such as drugs, but these kinds of punitive systems often have the opposite effect. So we don’t really get there. Do you think society even wants to get there?

Vinson: I think it’s right to ask whether, collectively, we have decided to even try to fix those problems. In a lot of ways the system as it exists depends on people being trapped in poverty, people being trapped in very challenging circumstances. So it depends on what societal problem we're talking about. If we're talking about drugs, for example, I think we have to ask ourselves, are drugs actually the problem? You know, I've never been around more drugs than I was as an undergrad in Yale College. And absolutely no one was afraid of being caught, of being arrested, of being caged. There are people who suffer from drug addiction. That’s a real societal problem, but that's not a problem of crime, right? That's a health problem. And we should treat it as a health problem.

Those of us concerned about racial justice should be trying to answer a different question than how do we reduce crime. Because thinking about it as reducing crime encourages us to default to “criminals” and individual action which can quickly lead to containment, enclosure, punishment, and retribution as solutions. If we want to get at root causes, I think the question we should ask is, why haven’t we committed to using resources in ways that ensure that everyone has access to human flourishing? Because that question encourages us to think about community, institutions, distribution, and redistribution. That is both a more generative place from which to problem-solve and also a question that reflects the history of race and class subordination in the United States.

How do you envision the Law and Racial Justice Center tackling these complex, deeply rooted problems, whether it’s locally or at scale? Where do you begin?

Forman: Over the last few years, I have given talks around the country. And no matter where I go, the first question that anybody has in the audience is, “Well, what can I do about it?” That’s always interesting to me, because often the last 10 minutes of my talk was devoted to answering that exact question! The first few times I wanted to say, “Well, I just spent 10 minutes talking about that.” But it happens so often that I realized, well, something else is going on beyond people not listening. And what I think is going on is that even when people hear discussions of different approaches or solutions, they're still often at a loss for what they as individuals can do to bring that into being. They feel kind of powerless.

As your question indicates, no person… forget about a “person” — no law, no individual policy, no individual piece of legislation no matter how transformative, is going to, by itself, solve or even come close to solving issues of racial subordination and racial hierarchy and racial injustice. So where to begin? I think that the most effective place for everybody to start is close to home, close to where they live. And when I say “home” and “live,” I'm not just talking about where your physical dwelling is. I’m also talking about “close to home” in terms of your networks, in terms of your church, in terms of your employer, in terms of your skillset and your expertise. So in my mind, a very important orientation for the Racial Justice Center is that it is going to be a place that is going to start and ground a lot of its work locally.

What does “local” mean? Well, local means within New Haven, it means within Connecticut. It means people from the Yale campus, including faculty and students, but also staff, who are often a forgotten part of these conversations. My hope is to create a space where people can come together and begin to identify some programs, some interventions, some solutions, some approaches that they want to collectively work on and then try to put into practice.

One example is the Access to Law School Program at Yale, which is a program that is aimed at helping New Haven residents — first-generation students, working-class students, and students of color from New Haven, Greater New Haven, or from Connecticut more broadly — who have dreams of becoming lawyers and want to make a difference in the legal system. We have 20 in the first class, 12 in the second class… And I imagine over time we'll have a cohort of lawyers — many of them, I hope, who will be community-engaged and who will make a difference in the legal system right here in New Haven, right here in Connecticut, and in the communities where they're from.

That's just one example, but the reason that I highlight it is that it has some of these pieces that I described: It's local, it's here in New Haven, and it's built on the expertise of this university. What does this university know how to do? It knows how to educate people. My goal is to bring some of that knowledge and that experience into places that don’t normally get access to it. It brings all aspects of the Yale community together. And it does something that hopefully over time will affect not just the individuals who directly benefit but will have network effects, and will impact their loved ones — in the same way the negative impacts we talked about, the same way that being stopped on an unfair stop-and-frisk affects more than just you. So, too, does getting access to a law degree and becoming a lawyer.

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