Addressing Inequities

A&S faculty make vital contributions to the national conversation on fairness and inclusion.
social justice feature

Racial inequality continues to haunt American society, 155 years after the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery in 1865. These racial disparities are evident in many fields, limiting access to quality education, healthcare, and professional career opportunities. 

In this issue of Fall 2020 issue of Arts&Sciences magazine, College faculty members are making important contributions to the national conversation about social justice in fields as diverse as sociology, criminology, sports, and the humanities. It was announced in August that the University is elevating the field of Black studies by providing additional investments and funding to match a Mellon Foundation grant awarded to A&S faculty member Jafari Allen for support in establishing the new Center for Global Black Studies. In addition, many faculty members in the College are now participating in the University’s new Native American and Global Indigenous Studies program. 

“We believe that the principles of fairness, inclusion, and social justice need to be embedded in our research and teaching, our community, and our world,” said Dean Leonidas Bachas. “As UM President Julio Frenk has said, ‘Universities have a crucial role to play in modeling racial justice.’”

Alex Piquero, professor and chair of the Department of Sociology, is in the forefront of national discussions about disparities in the criminal justice system. “Our department focuses on the interwoven areas of criminology, race/ethnicity, and medical sociology,” he said. “Medical issues related to COVID-19 are magnified for people of color, domestic violence is rising, and the most distressed neighborhoods in our community are not getting the resources they need.”

Piquero’s wide-ranging publications in criminal justice journals, which focus on topics such as police use of force and the impact of immigration and the COVID pandemic on patterns of crime, have made him the leading criminology scholar for nearly a quarter of a century.

Piquero, who is also the Arts and Sciences Distinguished Scholar, believes in the importance of evidence-based crime prevention and public policy strategies. “Many people believe that immigrants cause more crime,” he said. “My work showed that was not the case. In fact, first-generation immigrants, as well as undocumented immigrants, actually commit fewer crimes than people born in the U.S.”

In serving on the Task Force on Safe Communities in Dallas, Piquero discussed the importance of nonpolice solutions to maintaining law and order. “Police are not trained to deal with issues like mental health and homelessness, although such issues constitute a large number of their calls,” he said. “Why don’t we have an agency to handle those issues, and let the police focus on crime? A majority of police chiefs have argued for this for years.”

Piquero added that the states and the federal government must do more to reintegrate felons into society. “We need them to succeed rather than have them return to jail or prison,” he said.

When Nick Petersen was an undergraduate psychology student in California, a prison tour sparked a deep interest in racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. “I wondered why government systems designed to promote justice actually increased inequalities,” said Petersen, assistant professor of sociology and law.

Since then, Petersen has found that factors that may seem race-neutral, such as pretrial detention, can contribute to the disproportionately high number of incarcerated Blacks. Without access to jobs, family members, or witnesses, many plead guilty so they can get back to work or take care of their children, he said. But they now have a criminal record, raising the consequences should they be arrested again.

“In minor, nonviolent offenses, judges should consider whether a defendant is actually a threat,” Petersen said. “If not, let the defendant go home. That could be one of the turning points where judges could help correct those disparities.”

Arts and Literature
Donette Francis believes more should be done to support Black artists, filmmakers, and musicians who hail from Miami and/or call this uniquely international Southern city home.

“A defining feature of the Black artistic movement in Miami is an ecosystem and ethic to create networks and opportunities for each other,” said Francis, associate professor of English and American Studies. She cites the examples of filmmakers Barry Jenkins and Faren Humes and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who strive to engage residents of Miami’s historically Black neighborhoods in their projects.

“There is a great deal of power in storytelling about our communities, and we need to amplify those voices,” said Francis. “Miami’s artists offer a window into thinking about the complexities of race and ethnicity in this country.”

Francis believes the University of Miami can support this process by convening individuals with different perspectives on race, ethnicity, and social justice. Two years ago, Francis organized a symposium with prominent Black intellectuals who grew up in Miami and currently teach at top universities such as Princeton, Brown, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, UCLA, Carnegie Mellon, and the UMass Amherst. Their multigenerational essays about the promises and pitfalls of growing up in Miami are published in UM’s flagship open-access Caribbean Studies journal, Anthurium.   

“We need to continue to engage in a fair and inclusive dialogue with the community,” Francis said. “There is real value in these conversations.”

Marvin P. Dawkins, professor of sociology, has studied racial and gender disparities in college and professional sports for more than 30 years. Back in 2000, when Tiger Woods was the only Black golfer on the PGA (Professional Golfers Association) Tour, Dawkins co-authored a book, “African American Golfers during the Jim Crow Era,” about the sport’s history. 

“Golf was the last major sport to remove racial barriers,” said Dawkins, who also helped the United States Golf Association (USGA) and the Professional Golfers Association (PGA) create an exhibit on African American golf now on display in the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine.  “My work stimulated discussions about racism, and helped the PGA launch the First Tee youth program.”

More recently, Dawkins has been looking at the impact of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against women in college sports. “Black women are recruited primarily in track and field and basketball,” said Dawkins, who is the University’s faculty athletics representative to the Atlantic Coast Conference and NCAA. “That is because mostly Black high schools don’t have the resources to support sports like soccer, lacrosse, and rowing. As a result, Title IX-mandated policies actually work to the disadvantage of Blacks.”

In addition to teaching and research, Dawkins serves on the University’s multidisciplinary Standing Committee on Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion and as a member of the Faculty Senate’s Equity and Inclusion Committee. “Together,” he said, “we are creating a truly diverse university that operates on the principles of equity and inclusion for students, faculty, and staff.” 

Advancing Indigenous Inquiry
UM’s new multidisciplinary Native American and Global Indigenous Studies program, funded by a U-LINK grant, aims to elevate research and teaching in these fields. “We want to bring more voices and perspectives to our campus, while leveraging the many resources already here,” said program co-chair Tracy Devine Guzmán, associate professor of modern languages and literatures. “This is a basic issue of social justice.”

UM faculty members in many disciplines conduct research on indigenous issues in collaboration with indigenous peoples across the hemisphere and the globe. Noted co-chair William J. Pestle, Ph.D., associate professor of anthropology and director of the Latin American Studies Program, “The U-LINK funding offers an incredible opportunity to make indigenous studies a more meaningful realm of scholarly inquiry and social engagement for the University.”