Skip to main content

Whenever I’m asked to describe myself, I have a litany of phrases cached in my mental storage.

I’m a student. I’m a Duke Basketball fan. I’m a DukeEngage participant. And many more, depending on the ebb and flow of whatever social dalliance I find myself (stuck) in. 

But when I’m the listener, talking to anyone muse about their own pursuits, I tend to latch on to their most prominent narrative and discard the rest.

As a result, my social network is populated by athletes, hobbyists, and aficionados. He’s the guy who runs track! She’s the one who does ballet.  For me, assigning a category to someone is a convenient way to recognize a familiar face. 

At the same, my tendency to socially categorize replicates a greater societal reductionism at work.

Edith Scher is a children’s author, a New York Times columnist, and a fashionista that could out-dress Diane von Fürstenberg. But we all knew her as the imposing 9th grade English teacher at my high school, turned former English teacher later when she retired. 

Plainfield, New Jersey is a vibrant township with a vibrant gay community, a lively arts district, and many active local businesses. But it’s still “the ghetto” according to people from my town.

Maybe our political leaders are a bit more perceptive. It’s unlikely, however, considering the same people believe we should just build a wall to solve immigration issues, create more jobs to fix an ailing economy, and…nuke hurricanes?

The generalizations we make are often a product of limited information, confirmation bias, chronic oversimplification, and humorless stereotypes. Ironic, considering the vast information we have at our disposal. But complex people and problems are hard to understand, and the more schematics we add, the more time and effort we have to spend wrangling with the weeds. 

So we’re picky with who and what it is that we devote our energy towards. Maybe it’s our insurance plans, our children, or our passions. But if we’re occupied with these things, there is very little room to comprehend everything and everyone else. 

What do you know about the incarcerated population and justice-involved individuals? 

If you had asked me a year ago, before DukeEngage Durham started, I would have told you not much. I would have generalized and said these people were mostly likely men. Adults. That they must have done something wrong. It’d be a normative response given by someone with limited knowledge about the matter. 

But if you’d asked me now, I’d give you a different answer. I’d say women are being incarcerated at a rate twice that of men, and more likely to be held in jail even without a conviction; that women, due to gender imparity and income disparity struggle more than men to satisfy their probation requirements, post bail, and obtain reentry services. I’d say that problems affecting the criminal justice system are mirrored in the juvenile justice system: racial disparities (where black girls are adultified and girls of color are more likely to be detained), punitive conditions (where juveniles are placed in facilities unconducive to their age or wellbeing), and overcriminalization (where status offenses and technical violations are punished to the fullest extent of the law). I’d say people are policed, arrested, assaulted, convicted and incarcerated based on their skin color, gender, and/or sexual orientation

I’d say our court, jail, and prison systems are at max capacity because a State actor thought it should be that way, because innocent people were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and because it is profitable

In short, I’d say criminal justice in America isn’t so simple after all. 

No one should be a criminal because of their identity, but more than that, no one should be identified solely by their crime. As my work with the Durham Criminal Justice Resource Center and local reentry council has challenged me: what if I stopped calling people “ex-convicts” or “former prisoners”? What if they were treated just as community members instead? What if we remembered that anyone anywhere could be justice-involved? 

What if we looked at the criminal justice system and associated policing, not for what they are, but for the systemic and institutionalized inequities that they persist? What if we stopped essentializing our own morality as de facto law? 

When we resist the fallacy of reductionism, we are able to question the norms we have come to accept and thus change them. But as I’ve said this type of transformation requires we spend time and effort. My last question is, can we transform our justice system, all the way from law enforcement to reentry? 

I think we can, because the idea of justice is something that concerns us all. 


It has been suggested by American leadership that we nuke hurricanes. That statement has since been redacted.
Credit: Lazaro Gamio/Axios Media