By Dr. Manning Marable, Director of the Africana Criminal Justice Project

Africana Studies has fostered innovative approaches to research and education on African-American and black diaspora experiences, especially in the analysis of community processes, social problems, and social change. Africana Studies is also distinguished by its forthright commitment to the pursuit of social justice. Though not often recognized for these contributions, a long line of scholars, public intellectuals, and leaders working in this tradition have contributed to our body of knowledge on crime, punishment, and resistance to racialized criminal injustice. This work forms a foundation for Africana Studies in criminology and criminal justice, and resource base for research, education, and organizing initiatives.

The Africana Criminal Justice Project was established to further develop and stimulate engagement with this intellectual tradition, identify its implications for an “Africana Theory of Justice,” and support initiatives seeking to address a response to the contemporary crisis of racialized criminal injustice, especially through the promotion of black civic capacity and leadership in communities impacted by mass criminalization and incarceration. These objectives inform the research, education, and organizing initiatives which comprise the Africana Criminal Justice Project.

There are two main conceptual thrusts to the research and education initiatives of the Africana Criminal Justice Project:

Living History

The Africana Criminal Justice Project incorporates an approach to black scholarship that I describe as the pursuit of “living history.” We all “live history” every day. But history is more than the construction of collective experiences, or the knowledge drawn from catalogued and stored artifacts from the past. History is also the architecture of a people’s memory, framed by our shared rituals, traditions, and notions of common sense. It can be a ragged bundle of hopes, especially for those who have been relegated beyond society’s brutal boundaries. Behind the idea of “living history” is the core belief that powerful narratives we construct about the past have the potential capacity to reshape contemporary civic outcomes.

The “living historian” is obligated to become a civic actor, as innovative knowledge collected and drawn from the past shapes important legislative initiatives and enriches public school curricula. The goal is not just to educate and inform, but to transform the objective material and cultural conditions and subordinate status of marginalized groups, through informed civic engagement, and by strengthening civil society. In effect, living history attempts to reconstruct America’s memory about itself, and our collective past.

“Living black history” seeks to create critical intellectual projects which utilize interdisciplinary methodologies and tools of new media, oral history, field research, and traditional archival research to construct a truly “thick description” of significant personalities, events and social movements that were central to the construction of both black American and urban society.

Towards a Black Theory of Justice

That Justice is a blind goddess
Is a thing to which we black are wise

Her bandage hides two festering sores
That once perhaps were eyes
- Langston Hughes

The African-American struggle in the United States has been defined most fundamentally by its constant quest for freedom. To enslaved African Americans, “freedom” was quite literally that – the removal of shackles and physical bondage. For African Americans living under the oppressive regime of Jim Crow, “freedom” was equated with the dismantling of racial segregation. “Justice”, by contrast, was a far more illusive concept, to define as well as to achieve within societies defined by rigid racial hierarchies.

“Freedom” is a condition; “justice” is a process within a particular social order. As sociologists Allison Davis, Burleigh Gardner, and Mary Gardner wrote in 1941, the southern “Negro is, from the very beginning, in a position subordinate to both the police and the courts… There are no Negro officers, judges, lawyers, or jurymen. The only role a Negro can take is that of defendant or witness, except in a few types of civil cases. Furthermore, the Negro has no part in making laws which the court system enforces. As a defendant, he faces the white man’s court…The law is white.” More than a half century later, the objective conditions facing people of African descent in the U.S. criminal justice system had not fundamentally changed in most respects. Today, about one half of America’s 2.1 million prisoners are black. Today, over 1.5 million African American males have been disfranchised due to a felony conviction, approximately 13 percent of all black male adults. Black youth make up 44 percent of those detained in juvenile jails, 46 percent of all those tried in adult criminal courts, and 58 percent of all juveniles currently warehoused in adult prisons.

These devastating statistics indicate that the normal, day-to-day processes of the criminal justice system in American have evolved into structures of “race-making”, or “racialization.” Justice as a civil process has become almost completely divorced from social fairness or human equality as principles for guiding the construction of civic life.

Answering the question of “what is the meaning of justice” then for people who have been relegated to the margins of the society demands a comprehensive inquiry into the mind of black America. The “Imagining Justice” book project I have initiated begins by examining the print culture of black America as it has examined or defined the concept of justice. This involves also a review and analysis of black protest documents and manifestoes, newspapers, articles, journals and other publications. It prominently includes the correspondence and writings by black prisoners, and African Americans employed in the criminal justice system. This research will also include African American prescriptions for what steps would be necessary to create and to sustain a civic culture and criminal justice system that was truly just to all citizens regardless of race, gender and class considerations. What I hope to achieve at the end of this historical analysis is the basic framework for a black theory of justice, drawn from the collective expressions of black people over the past four centuries.

Center for Contemporary Black History | Columbia University