Two years ago, I was invited to testify before a senate committee at the State House on “Fine Time,” the practice of Massachusetts Trial Court judges sending people to jail for owing outstanding monies to courts. It was an illegal practice intersecting two glaring racial disparities that supposedly progressive states like Massachusetts had long ago remedied: African Americans are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than whites and median household net worth is $8 (not a typo) when compared to whites' $247,500.
Yet on two issues where black residents were impacted more than any other racial group, there I sat, a white male from North Andover who’d driven 200 miles from New York, waiting to testify before a Senate Post Oversight and Audit Committee comprised of seven white men. While they asked questions, fiddled on their iPhones, received messages from aides and took bathroom breaks, a merry-go-round of all-white agency heads, deputy commissioners, judges, and defense attorneys took the podium to testify as experts.
I remember cringing with each passing witness, wondering to myself as the day dragged on: Is there really not a single person of color here to represent any of the state's public safety agencies?
The answer then, as today, is illustrated by the following list: Head of the Department of Corrections: white; Head of the Executive Office of Public Safety: white; Head of Probation: white; Head of the Parole Board: white; Head of the Supreme Judicial Court: white; Head of the Appeals Court: white; Head of the Superior Court: white; Head of the Trial Court: white; All 11 district attorneys: white; Head of the Committee for Public Counsel Services: white; Head of the State Police: white; All seven members of the Senate Post Audit and Oversight Committee: white.
The problem is not that all of these people are white, it should be noted, since this is how we white people tend to interpret calls for racial representation. The problem is that because we are white we aren't arrested and sent to jail eight times more often, we don't live in neighborhoods ravaged by 67% recidivism rates, we aren't going to lose our loved ones when teen gun homicides double, nor are we going to be harassed when constant calls for more police on the streets result in our daily mistreatment.
Because we lack direct experience with these crises of life and liberty, we lack the proper sense of urgency to remedy them when we are put in positions of leadership. This is why we can be found calling for the third new prosecutorial unit in as many decades to battle gun violence, even though the first two, the gang unit and the gun unit, did very little to stop gun violence. It's how we are standing by as innovative reentry programs are decimated for lack of funding while corrections officers take home 29% pay raises. It's how the most progressive among us, who have spent our entire careers in communities of color, stand up in rooms full of people and tell 18-24-year-old black men in the audience, in so many words, that they can't be given apartments to rent or cars to drive because their brains don't work properly (clip starts at -34:33).
In a recent column highlighting widespread racial hostility towards black judges in courthouses throughout the Commonwealth, Adrian Walker recalled an incident where the chief justice overseeing the Trial Court, Paula Carey, dismissed the results of a survey in 2013 that revealed the extent of the problem. Because she had never witnessed or experienced the racial animus detailed within, she called for another — which five years later reported the same thing.
During a recent debate at Umass Boston, Ayanna Pressley, who is a candidate for Congress in the only Massachusetts district where people of color constitute a majority (MA-7), explained why calls for racial representation are about more than “identity politics” (the catch-phrase white people reflexively invoke against racial equity):
“[racial representation] informs the issues that are spotlighted and emphasized, and it leads to more innovative and enduring solutions.”
This crucial nexus, between representation, innovation, and timely redress, is something white people continue to ignore at the peril of communities of color. When white people are in charge we don't fully fund and implement the right solutions, nor effectively prevent gun violence and recidivism from devastating neighborhoods of color. We insist, over and over, that the solution is to keep dumping $300m a year into a police department that is failing to clear 96% of shootings, has the worst racial disparity in homicide clearance rates in the entire country, and is awarding hundreds of its officers $200-400k salaries anyway. All the while, 20 years of data show us how to stop gun violence overnight with a tiny fraction of those funds if we really want to — but we can't be trusted to do it.
During a May 3rd Suffolk County District Attorney candidates forum at Suffolk Law School, Meghan Irons reported still more statistics revealing why the nexus between representation and outcomes is so urgently important: in a county roughly 56% white, the Suffolk County D.A.’s office employs a staff of attorneys that is 87% white and that prosecutes people of color 73% of the time.
In Adrian Walker’s column, still more stats: in the court that handles the state's most serious felonies, the Superior Court Department — which sentences people of color 74% of the time on mandatory minimum drug charges — just two of 82 justices are black.
At some point, given this glaring lack of racial representation and the horrifically biased outcomes it engenders, you would think that white people, and especially white progressives, would begin to recognize that our lack of understanding and personal experience with issues that disproportionately harm people of color is putting their lives in danger. But alas, we keep trying to get in front.
In the upcoming primary elections on September 4th — which in blue Massachusetts are de facto general elections — a 66-year-old member of the state’s 100% white congressional delegation, Michael Capuano, is arguing Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would want him to represent the state's only majority district of color.
When asked if racial representation matters, he recently replied:
“I just don’t think there are that many people who will vote for me because I’m a white male or vote against me because I’m a white male.”