The sound quality was poor, but the voice on the other end of the line was unmistakable: Mumia Abu-Jamal, a death row inmate, author and cultural icon, was phoning in from Greene State Correctional Institution in Waynesburg, Pa., to speak about the harsh disconnect prisoners face from society.
The phone call kicked off “Imprisonment of a Race,” an all-day conference aimed at examining mass incarceration and racial tensions in the justice system, which was cosponsored by the Center for African American Studies and took place on Friday.
“Imagine, 30 years on death row, not knowing when you are going to die,” said Brandon Bell ’11, who developed the idea for the conference and was initially inspired to raise awareness about prison systems after learning about Abu-Jamal’s struggles. “Hearing his voice, listening to his voice was just really powerful,” Bell said.
Though the event was originally conceived as a small panel discussion on political prisoners, it evolved into a full-scale conference with multiple panels, a film screening and a keynote lecture focusing on the American prison-industrial complex and its effects on race relations and social justice.
The keynote talk was designed as a conversation featuring religion professor Cornel West GS ’80 and civil rights lawyer and Ohio State University professor Michelle Alexander.
The foundation of the discussion was Alexander’s 2010 book “The New Jim Crow,” which contends that mass incarceration has led to a new racial caste system in America perpetuated by the principle of colorblindness.
Alexander spoke on how a backlash to the civil rights movement manifested itself in the “Get Tough” movement, the “War on Drugs” and the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy” to appeal to anti-African American sentiment in white voters.
These measures led to a disproportionate number of people of color being locked up, she said. Without a means of reestablishing their stake in society, they were forced into “permanent second-class status.”
According to one statistic Alexander cited, a black child born today has a smaller chance of being born to both parents than a black child born during slavery had.
“Felony has become the new N-word,” Alexander said. “We need to stand in solidarity with those who have been stereotyped, stigmatized ... We are going to stand up for them and allow their voices to be heard.”
West also criticized the black political leadership for being unwilling to address this prison-industrial complex and the needs of poor communities.
“If we hit the upper white middle-class kids [with this problem], we’d be having a conference like this every day,” West said.
West then discussed how the “veneer of colorblindness” in the “Age of Obama” has ironically “trivialized black suffering and led to blindness about racial casting.”
A major social movement may be needed to upset this system, Alexander said.
“We do need to shift from this rhetoric around blindness to one of real care,” she said. “What’s needed now is a lot of consciousness raising and public education ... to awaken those who are committed to racial justice in the U.S.”
Panels discussing the historical contexts for this mass incarceration from the 1970s to the present day included professors from Yale, Temple, Columbia and Indiana universities and Williams College.
The conference was extensively recognized on social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and the reaction was positive, organizers said.
“One of the things that we at the CAAS want to do is bring together different kinds of voices to take on issues that are both abstract and concrete and to show the relationship between them,” English and African-American Studies professor Daphne Brooks noted. “The range of scholars that were dealing with such relevant issues was really something.”
Several attendees said they found the conference to be particularly poignant.
“I thought it was a powerful day, speaking a lot of truths that are often hidden, some of the crimes of this country which are often thought of as historic crimes, but are still currently relevant,” said Sunsara Taylor, who works with victims of police brutality and traveled from New York City to attend the event.
Mary Adeogun ’13, who also attended, was impressed by the turnout of those involved in grassroots movements. “It was great to see that people are stepping up to handle this problem in the community, that this is more than an intellectual debate.”
“One thing that particularly resonated was the whole entire concept of being part of a system that is not even dedicated to justice anymore, that law enforcement is just about keeping the current order,” attendee ChiChi Ude ’12 said.
Organizers noted that forming a bridge between academia and activism was one of the critical focuses of the conference.
“A lot of people know these issues exist, but they feel that they’re not in a position to make that difference,” Bell said. “We need to harness people’s emotions, that feeling of indebtedness to society.”
About 700 people from the University and outside community registered for the event. Organizers said an inestimable number of viewers, potentially in the low hundreds, watched the simulcast online.
Visitors also attended from universities such as Rowan and Rutgers, as well as from social justice and educational groups like the NCAAP and the Philadelphia Freedom Schools.