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March 18, 2009

U of L and the fight for justice

I made one of the most important professional decisions of my life in graduate school, when I decided to commit “discipline suicide.”

All of my degrees are in political science — political theory and comparative politics, to be exact. Despite my grounding in these traditional “highbrow” and “respectable” concentrations, when preparing to take a job I opted to make my bones in the renegade field of black studies.

My reasoning was simple: Black studies came out of a different tradition than political science, English, philosophy or any of the other traditional academic disciplines. Black studies is the province of street fighters. It is the product of professors, students, community leaders and everyday people coming together to demand that academia pay attention to the fact that black people have indeed contributed to the forward flow of history.

The discipline has long been guided by the ethic, “academic excellence and social responsibility.” I liked that. Still do. My approach was always poles apart from most graduate students and professors. I didn’t want a neat line between my work and my life. I’ve always wanted to change the world in one way or another. I haven’t done that yet, but black studies still seems like a good platform from which to try.

In 1996, I joined the University of Louisville’s Pan-African Studies (PAS) Department, one of the oldest black studies units in the country. PAS has a long history of producing scholars who bond with the greater Louisville community in ways many of our colleagues do not. The latest endeavor coming out of PAS that will make a community impact is the Center for the Study of Crime and Justice in Black Communities (CSCJBC).

Many people lament the crisis-level struggles of black folk on countless fronts. Whether one looks at poverty, incarceration, educational achievement, infant mortality or homicide, the statistics are bleak. As my PAS colleague J. Blaine Hudson has asked, “What do you do when a crisis becomes a condition?” By offering research projects, position papers, community-based lectures, symposia and public policy suggestions, CSCJBC hopes to offer some options.

CSCJBC has a research plan that looks at various topics, including crime trends in black communities; education; poverty; employment/unemployment and crime; disproportionate sentencing; federal and state law changes and their impact; popular culture and crime; mental health and the justice system; youth, crime and the juvenile justice system; gender and crime; prison privatization and its effects; and societal reintegration and recidivism.

Obviously, our work has been partially prompted by our concern about continued violence in the local black community and beyond. However, we want to go deeper. We want to explore reasons behind the violence and other problems, as well as offer correctives. So, while CSCJBC’s name correctly speaks to our interest in crime, it is about so much more.

Bottom line: Isn’t it time these issues were seriously examined by the best among us rather than the misleading hustles of pimps, con-artists and fools? I think CSCJBC has a good team. Growing up in the projects of Atlanta has given me the opportunity to see both sides of the issue. Joining me as CSCJBC’s associate director is my longtime friend, local criminal defense attorney and Louisville native Brian Edwards. Brian is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Kentucky’s law school. Since 2007, he has also served as an assistant professor in Pan-African Studies.

Brian and I are dedicated to making CSCJBC an organic, targeted and committed long-term endeavor. If you care about the issues mentioned above, we want and need your input. Please join us at our first 90-minute “Community Talkback” on Tuesday, April 14 at 6 p.m. This session will be held at Expressions of You Coffee House and Gallery (1800 W. Muhammad Ali Blvd.). This talkback is exclusively for us to listen. We want interested citizens to let us know what you think CSCJBC should pay attention to and do. We respect your opinions and want as many of them as possible. Brian and I hope to see you on April 14.

Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools.

Dr. Ricky L. Jones is the author of “What’s Wrong With Obamamania?” His column is published the third week of each month. Visit him at rickyljones.com.