Symposium: Viewing American institutions as 'dwelling places' can address human and civil rights issues

By Jason Searle
U-M Law

The message of the Michigan Journal of Race and Law’s recent symposium was simple: Social injustice hides in plain sight and is doing immeasurable damage, damage that disproportionately affects minorities and the poor—so do something about it. But the path forward, said participants, is complex. Centralized around the theme, “A More Human Dwelling Place: Reimagining the Racialized Architecture of America,” panels and speakers brought to light how human and civil rights travesties are fostered by America’s various institutional structures, from prisons to schools.

Michelle Jones, doctoral student in American Studies at New York University and Research Fellow at the Charles Warren Center for American Studies at Harvard University, delivered the keynote address. Jones is completing an analysis of the nearly 800 laws in the state of Indiana, surveying the collateral consequences of criminal convictions. Her remarks went to the heart of the symposium’s message—prejudice and bias are leading to civil rights abuses and even dehumanization. Though her comments did paint a somewhat grim picture of United States’ structures and institutions, Jones maintained that justice can be achieved by creating access to opportunity for those on the fringes of society. “Obtaining employment and housing are the two most difficult issues for the formerly incarcerated.” She held hope that with persistence and creativity, institutional barriers can be overcome to help provide opportunity—and also stressed the need to build relationships to counter the social consequences of criminal convictions. “These are based in everyday interactions and are not legal, but often carry within them profound discrimination and exclusion for formerly incarcerated people,” Jones said. “Only through building relationships can this be countered.”

The panel following Jones delved into how the very way we construct public spaces can work to alleviate or worsen problems of crime and police violence. Bryan C. Lee Jr., founder and director of Colloqate Design, noted that perceptions can lead to community development “that becomes more about development and aesthetics than about community and social revitalization.” He also noted the importance of increasing the representation of Blacks in the architecture profession, which now sits at just under 2 percent.

The symposium highlighted other racialized structures in America, including physical and digital borders. Panelists said today’s border surveillance practices, driven by soft and hard biometrics, disparately target ethnic and racial minorities because the algorithms upon which they are built rely on assumptions tied to race and ethnicity. Soft biometrics include race, sex, and tattoos, and hard biometrics are based on digital representation, such as an internet image or video, palm prints, DNA, and gait analysis. While these methods claim to be based on pure science, Margaret Hu, of Washington and Lee University School of Law, advised we take an attitude of careful thought and rigorous scrutiny. “We need to ensure that we know how the government is classifying different soft and hard biometrics, and how this may result in arbitrarily disparate impacts.”

Other panels touched on issues surrounding a most disturbing dwelling place—the solitary confinement cell, which is about the size of a parking spot. Dolores Canales, co-founder of California Families Against Solitary Confinement and a formerly incarcerated individual, discussed how the stress of solitary confinement extends beyond the prisoner to his or her family and loved ones. While calling for an end to the practice, she also emphasized the importance of family support for preserving the humanity of those in solitary confinement—a sentiment echoed by the final panel of former inmates. The panel included Marcus Bullock, CEO of Flikshop; Topeka Sam, founder of The Ladies of Hope Ministries; and Sherill Roland, artist and creator of The Jumpsuit Project. Each shared personal stories about being incarcerated and the struggles of reentry into society. And each found the importance of community support crucial to successful reintegration. Bullock is now seeking to use his company help provide current inmates with the same sense of community and love. His company has created an app to facilitate letter correspondence between inmates and anyone who feels the drive to provide them with meaningful human interaction. “The men who were in those cells, they became my brothers. They had stories behind why they were there. They are just people, not criminals or inmates or prisoners.”


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