Research

 
 

Overview

 

I study the relationship between anti-Blackness and the criminal-legal institutions such as policing and imprisonment, while also examining the work done by scholars, activists, and policy makers to sever this relationship.

As an interdisciplinary sociologist of the law, I use theoretical resources from sociology, criminology/criminal justice, Black studies, and critical theory to understand the relationship between anti-Blackness and the law. Further, I use a variety of methods from both the social sciences and humanities — from inductive context analysis to close reading to quantitative data analysis.

past work

My first major research project worked to identify if and when anti-Blackness existed in criminal law and legal processes. Specifically, I asked whether, and to what extent, individuals judged to be more stereotypically Black received longer prison sentences in Oregon. The unexpected findings and limitations of this study led me to ask not if anti-Blackness exists in the criminal legal system, but why and how it persists over time. Related to this, I began to ask why even the most well-planned efforts to address anti-Blackness in the criminal legal system often fail. It is questions like these that provided the groundwork for my current research.

current work

The purpose of my current research project is:

  • to understand the structural relationship between the law and anti-Blackness. By using a structural perspective, I focus not on the decision making of individual legal actors, but on how and why anti-Blackness comes to be embedded within legal institutions, policies, and practices. Oppositely, I ask how these institutions, policies, and practices work to reconstruct Blackness as a structural position.

  • to theorize an end to anti-Blackness as it manifests in the criminal legal system. That is, I ask what would be required to fully eliminate anti-Blackness from the structure of the law. To do this, I examine the efficacy of carceral abolition, which is arguably the most radical theoretical framework for addressing anti-Blackness in the law that currently exists in the fields of criminology and socio-legal studies.

I ask these questions within a localized, historic context by analyzing the growth of community policing in the Los Angeles Police Department in the early 1990s. To do this, I examine the archival documents of the Webster Commission. The commission was formed to investigate the L.A.P.D.’s response to the 1992 L.A. uprising and to make recommendations to prevent future uprisings. The Commission’s final report emphasized most heavily that the department develop a mode of proactive, community-based policing in Black neighborhoods.

Through my analysis, I learn that the Commission a) saw Black communities as dysfunctional, b) believed this dysfunction to be the primary cause of the uprising, c) believed future uprisings could be prevented by reducing this dysfunction, and d) recommended community policing as a way of reducing this dysfunction. These findings run counter to many other studies of anti-Blackness in the law in that the growth of community policing as a carceral technology was not meant to punish Black individuals, but to rehabilitate them to civil society. Put differently, I learned that policymakers did not solely act with malicious intent toward Black Angelenos, but rather, a benevolent and paternalistic anti-Blackness that sought to mobilize police officers as one resource to rehabilitate Black communities judged to be dysfunctional and disintegrated. Thus, we see that the Commission was not only influenced by anti-Black logics, but that they went on the reconstruct the structural position of Blackness as synonymous with dysfunction.

Based on these findings, especially as they are interpreted through humanistic theories of Blackness and slavery, I argue that anti-Blackness in the law cannot be dealt with solely by reforming or abolishing legal institutions, policies, and practices. Rather, I conclude that the very structure of society must be abolished. Given the relatively abstract nature of this conclusion, I use the L.A. context to theorize the end of anti-Blackness.

future work

While rehabilitative programs and policies are often overlooked as a form of carceral control, my current research suggests that rehabilitative ideals played a role in the development of carceral technologies in L.A. Further, my analysis shows that these ideals were rooted in tacit and paternalistic anti-Blackness in the sense that Black communities, rather than the broader anti-Black society were the target of policy changes.

In my next research project I will work to more deeply understand the relationship between anti-Blackness and rehabilitative logics by analyzing archival documents related to the history of rehabilitative programming throughout the history of California prisons. By examining these rich collections of documents (such as the papers of California Governor Earl Warren and the notable prison reformer John E. Hoyle), I will work to understand how policy makers’ beliefs about Blackness influence the growth of rehabilitative programming.


Publications

peer-reviewed articles

Beyond Bad Apples, Toward Black Life: A Re-Reading of The Implicit Bias Research

  • Forthcoming / online first, Theoretical Criminology

  • Abstract: Increasingly, the death of Black individuals at the hands of the US legal system is interpreted in relation to the social science research on implicit bias. Having flourished in the past decade, this oft-cited framework for recognizing and eliminating anti-Blackness not only overwhelms the socio-legal and criminological scholarship, but also pervades political discourse and popular culture. Using as a site of study my own empirical research on implicit bias and Oregon prison sentences, I discuss problems related to the study of implicit bias and legal outcomes in the social sciences. Further, I examine common understandings of implicit bias research and the troubling application of these knowledges to legal policies and practices. In interrupting the current fascination with and use of implicit bias research, I turn toward “abolitionist pedagogy” in my interpretation of empirical evidence.

Complicating Race: Afrocentric Facial Feature Bias and Prison Sentencing in Oregon

  • 2017, Race and Justice

  • Abstract: Much research on race and sentencing utilizes broad racial categories to estimate the effect of race on sentencing outcomes; however, more nuanced conceptualizations of race have begun to appear in the literature. Specifically, a small but growing body of literature has assessed the role of discrimination based on Black stereotypicality of facial features, or Afrocentric facial feature bias, on sentencing outcomes for convicted males. By using Department of Corrections data from Black females and males incarcerated in Oregon, paired with experimentally derived facial feature ratings, this study extends past research by conducting both sex and race analyses in a new locale. These analyses are theoretically contextualized in feature-trait stereotyping and the focal concerns perspective—two previously unrelated literatures. The regression of sentence length on Afrocentric facial features, other extralegal factors, and legally relevant factors suggests that Afrocentric facial features do not explain sentence length for females. Afrocentricity predicts sentence length for males in the univariate and extralegal models, but significance is diminished with the inclusion of legally relevant variables. In interactional models, the sentence lengths of Black females and males do not vary in relation to one another either before or after the inclusion of legal factors. These findings are discussed in light of sentencing mechanisms in the state of Oregon, possible stereotype bias at earlier stages in the court process, and the racialized nature of offense histories and seriousness ratings.

other publications

Punishment’s Paradox: The Violent Contradiction of The Penal State

  • 2019, Radical Philosophy Review

  • Book review of Judge and Punish: The Penal State on Trial by Geoffroy de Lagasnerie

Does Feminist Theory Matter?

  • 2015, chapter in Sisters in Crime Revisited: Bringing Gender Into Criminology, with Emily J. Salisbury and Jody Sundt

 

my research TOOL Box

The methods that I use in my research are driven by the questions that I pose. That is, I do not ask what questions I can answer with a particular method or methodology, but what approaches will best help me answer my questions. Because I do not want to be limited in the questions that I can ask, I have worked to gain a broad range of research skills across different methodologies.

I have listed here the various methods and software that I have used in my research (*) or have developed the competency to use in future projects.

Skills and Methods

Close reading*

Content analysis

Deconstructive content analysis*

Experimentation

Focus groups

Inductive content analysis

Mixing methods

Quantitative data analysis: OLS regression*

In-depth interviewing

Software

ArcGIS*

SPSS*

Stata*