July 17, 2023 — National social justice advocates James Bell and Michael Harris shed light on the issue of structural racism in institutions and its impact on youth during the Zealous Advocacy Conference at the University of Houston Law Center this June. Bell and Harris joined academics, child advocates and juvenile defense attorneys for the two-day training seminar focused on the theme of “Transforming our Systems by Understanding the Intersection Between Systemic Racism and our Youth.”
Ellen Marrus, director of the Center for Children, Law & Policy and founding board member for Generation to Generation stated, “We have hosted the Zealous Advocacy Conference for more than 20 years, providing training and tools to juvenile justice advocates. This year, I was honored to have James Bell and Michael Harris, two influential advocates in my own career, as part our outstanding roster of presentations. Both James and Michael have spent most of their careers focusing on the impact of systemic racism on youth of color and have had a major impact on changing the face of juvenile justice.”
During the first day of the conference, Bell, the Founding President of the W. Haywood Burns Institute, delivered a presentation titled “Structural Racism and Children in Conflict with the Law.” Bell highlighted three key sections in his talk: the roots of racialized social control, the deconstruction of the justice apparatus, and the need to reimagine and reconstruct the way young people and their families are served.
Bell traced the roots of institutional racism in the United States back to the marginalization of indigenous people in the 1600s and highlighted various discriminatory practices throughout history, such as eugenics, sterilization, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and The Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
He noted that “when fear is planted in the body politic and exploited with racial overtones, the machinery of justice is the tool grabbed most quickly from civil society’s toolbox.”
Questioning whether institutions can be transformed, Bell said, “Today’s justice apparatus — probation, law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts — have been given the power and resources to maintain the racial hierarchy,” said Bell. “These institutions were never meant to change the basic structure.”
Bell advocated for reshaping bureaucratic structures “with reckless and radical imagination in the pursuit of structural love” and cited successful initiatives that aimed to reform probation departments and eliminate prejudicial practices such as preemptive car stops.
According to Bell, the way forward is to “invest in families and communities” and foster “a civil society as a champion” for inclusivity and belonging.
On the second day of the conference, Harris, Senior Director at the National Center for Youth Law presented on “Structural Racism and the School to Prison Pipeline.”
Harris emphasized that “a crucial feature of structural racism is to blame the exploited or repressed groups.”
He explained that structural racism is the “historical, cultural, institutional and interpersonal forces that routinely take advantage while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color.”
Harris discussed how structural racism permeates institutions, such as the criminal justice system. He linked its origins to practices such as convict leasing and the transformation of slave patrols into modern-day police forces.
It is “no surprise that police see Black males as suspicious and aggressive, nor that they suffer the most violence and unarmed killings from police,” said Harris.
Harris argued that implicit bias fueled these biased perceptions and that “structural racism feeds implicit bias.”
Harris said that implicit bias is the subconscious rapid association of two things, such as peanut butter with jelly. “It is universal. Every human being has implicit bias.”
The presentation also delved into the school-to-prison pipeline. Harris cited a study from Texas that revealed a significant likelihood for suspended students to subsequently experience arrest and incarceration.
“Youth of color are seen as having greater culpability, expected recidivism and harsher punishment,” said Harris. “Because structural racism is so powerful debiasing is never going to work.”
To mitigate the impact of implicit bias on decision-making, Harris advised lawyers to be vigilant when “prioritizing cases, counseling clients and evaluating evidence.”
The event was co-sponsored by The Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center, The Earl Carl Institute for Legal and Social Policy at TSU School of Law, Generation to Generation and Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center.
For more on The Center for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center visit law.uh.edu/center4clp.
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