Research Portfolio | Political Science
Advancing racial and restorative justice
Understanding the past is a source for social innovation in our own time
“Filling in history and finding analogies to our own times may give people a greater understanding of why black Americans see events as driven by race, and oftentimes white Americans do not. It is a shared historical burden."
— Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science
The Justice Department’s March 2015 report on racist policing in Ferguson, Missouri was but the latest episode in a series highlighting the unsettled and unsettling issue of racial justice in the U.S. From Trayvon Martin to Michael Brown to Eric Garner to Tamir Rice, headlines have seized public attention, and sparked public protests. “Hands up, don’t shoot,” “I can’t breathe,” and “Black Lives Matter” are more than catchphrases for a growing chorus of Americans concerned not only with current inequities, but with their origins and possible remedies.
Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor, and Head of Political Science at MIT, researches historical injustices in democracies, and how societies confront histories of racial and ethnic injustice. Her current work documents racial violence in the American south during the period of 1930-1954, a time when Jim Crow rule permitted and even encouraged persecution and murder of black Americans by both citizens and legal authorities, and allowed little recourse to justice.
MIT SHASS Communications spoke with Nobles recently about the ongoing aftermath of the shooting deaths in Ferguson, New York, and Cleveland, and what her research suggests about the current efforts to advance civil rights in America, including possibilities for restorative justice.
Q. You have written that U.S. civil rights advocates have, until recently, avoided focusing on issues of criminal justice out of concern that doing so "would diminish the political and moral force of demands for full inclusion." Can you tell us about the circumstances that motivated that concern, historically.
A. Following the Civil War, and during Jim Crow, part of the claim against granting blacks citizenship was that we were somehow morally deficient. We might have rights by birth, but, the claim went, we could not be treated as full citizens; being born in the U.S. wasn’t enough, we were said to be undeserving. So, in the struggle to enjoy our full rights of citizenship, including the right to vote, we had to present the case in an exceedingly upright manner. We wanted the focus to be solely on the legitimacy of our demands, and didn’t want someone pointing at any supposed deficiencies as a way of undercutting these demands.
For instance, in 1954, the NAACP chose Rosa Parks to be a spokesperson for desegregation, rather than another woman who had worked a long time for the NAACP but had a child out of wedlock. It was an issue that could have been used against us, and advocates needed a representative with impeccable moral bearing.
So while civil rights advocates did defend people mistreated by the police, they kept it quiet. The emphasis was on voting rights and desegregation of schools, because dealing with the issue of criminality was seen as a way of giving ammunition to opponents of black rights.
But, of course, demands for political rights should be indifferent to notions of presumed criminality or innocence, and the establishment of whether someone has committed a crime should be subject to due process. We can’t advocate for fairness in criminal justice while holding one hand behind our back; we can’t argue fully for civil rights and not take seriously criminal injustice, and the way blacks are treated by the criminal justice system. The mistreatment of blacks and Latinos is itself a civil rights issue. At this point in the 21st century, we can no longer afford to ignore this because too many lives continue to be destroyed by the criminal justice system....
Filling in history and finding analogies to our own times may give people a greater understanding of why black Americans see events as driven by race, and oftentimes white Americans do not. It is a shared historical burden. Whatever our background, a fair and viable justice system is one of the bedrocks of American democracy. So, I dare to hope that knowing more about our past, and understanding it, will help us make better decisions moving forward, as a people.
Interview by SHASS Communications
Editor, Designer: Emily Hiestand
Writer: Leda Zimmerman
Photocredit: Stuart Darsch
Published April 3, 2015
Melissa Nobles, Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science
Melissa Nobles website
Books and Publications | Research
MIT SHASS | Department of Political Science
Taking Full Account of the Past, MIT News, May 2013
3 Questions: Melissa Nobles on the U.S. Census, MIT News, April 2010
Response to “Ferguson Won’t Change Anything. What Will?”
Boston Review, January 2015
“Face Up to the Violence of Jim Crow”
New York Times, January 2014
Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Program
"Whatever our background, a fair and viable justice system is one of the bedrocks of American democracy."
"There is trauma if a family member is killed by a citizen, and that person goes unpunished. The family sees injustice for which there is no remedy. For families where someone is killed by police, that leads to distrust of institutions."