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University News

Veritas Forum panel discusses pursuit of racial justice in the prison system

Forum seeks to create dialogue between ‘Christian worldview’ and other perspectives

Staff Writer
Monday, October 12, 2020

Dehlia Umunna clicks play. The voice of a Black disabled mother whose 19-year-old son was just denied bail echoes, slowly at first, then her cries intensify. She screams his name over and over again.





In the background, almost inaudible against the loud wails, her son shouts back, assuring his mother, “I’ll be back soon.” But his mother’s cries don’t stop.

Jordan was one of Umunna’s clients. Umunna is a clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School and the faculty deputy director of the law school’s Criminal Justice Institute, where she oversees third-year law students in criminal and juvenile proceedings in the Massachusetts Courts.

Umunna played this clip at an event titled “Racial Justice: Why?”,  which was hosted virtually on Oct. 8 by the Veritas Forums at Northwestern University, Harvard Law School and New York University, along with co-host Veritas Forum teams at Brown and the University of California, Berkeley. 

Umunna’s client was imprisoned for three months because his mother couldn’t afford the “very high bail” set by the government. When Umunna asked several people after the hearing if they heard the mother crying, most said that they hadn’t. “That was really troubling. … I realized that that scene had become so normal in our courtrooms, that people had tuned out.” Umunna said she raised this anecdote to demonstrate the need to “just care” about people.

Northwestern Professor of Philosophy and Director of the Northwestern Prison Education Program Jennifer Lackey spoke about one of her students from the Prison Education Program, who was brought to the police station for a lineup at 15. He was separated from his father and interrogated alone by five white police officers, after which he confessed to murdering an elderly woman. “And here he is, in his thirties, still in prison,” Lackey said about the man, who inspired her research project about coerced testimony and false confessions.

Lackey joined Umunna for a panel discussion moderated by Rev. Dr. Tony Lin, vice president of institutional advancement and research at New York Theological Seminary, who posed questions about the role of universities in engaging with racial issues in the United States. 

“We strive to put the Christian worldview in conversation and open dialogue with other worldviews,” Veritas team at Brown co-leader Shirley Dong said in an interview with The Herald before the event. “We knew we wanted to do something with this topic … because of how racial justice was much more highlighted this summer.”

Veritas Forum is a Christian nonprofit that holds discussions at universities around the country to put “the historic Christian faith in dialogue with other beliefs and … pursue Truth together,” according to its website.

“It’s still a daily struggle as a Black person in this country,” Umunna said. “You wake up every morning, you take a look, you’re like ‘Yep I’m still Black.’ You have to make decisions based on that.” Umunna said she has experienced microaggressions as a Black woman. In court, she hears “you must be the Court interpreter” and “the social workers sit over here.”

Umunna said that the majority of her clients are Black men, and she practices “restoring their humanity” by simply treating them as humans. “It requires saying ‘Good Morning Mr. Jones’, for example, where everybody up to that point has called you the n-word or called you a defendant or called you all sorts of names besides your name,” Umunna said. She focuses on individual rehumanization. “I think I get very depressed and less optimistic when I think about it systemically” she added.

Lackey, on the other hand, emphasizes the rehumanizing power of education. America has made a “pernicious investment” in over-criminalization and over-policing, instead of investing in facilities to help the mentally ill or prevent substance abuse, Lackey said. But, there is hope in “empirical work that shows that prison education environments break down a lot of the racial tension that exists in prisons.”

Lackey said her experience with her work is an “ongoing dance” of remaining fully present for the people in her life who are most traumatized and not falling apart herself. She has found though that she is a better teacher and researcher because of her work in the prison system. 

Umunna calls her work “the best of both worlds” because of her opportunity to make a difference in the courtroom as well as the classroom. She said Faith has been her “guiding light” in her pursuit of justice, and then read out a verse from the Bible. 

Lackey said the “calling of justice can be no less strong in the secular world. … It can be a calling that we have as members of a moral community, for instance.” 

“It’s very interesting when a Christian has a conversation with a non-Christian, just to see where they agree and where they disagree,” Dong said. “But then also how they talk really civilly. I feel like that’s the thing with the Veritas Forum when they bring speakers together, they still have a civil conversation even though they may disagree on a lot.”

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