Cornel West sees the "beautiful" in the incarcerated.
“You go to these prisons and you see all of these beautiful chocolate people — and some of them deserved to be punished, some of them are rapists and murderers — but others are serving 20 years for soft drugs,” he said. “If there was a mass incarceration going on on the vanilla side of town, you’d be hearing about it. We know that. That’s a given.”
On Saturday, West spoke at the invitation of the Goldring Reentry Initiative at an event called “Breaking Down Walls: Mass Incarceration Meets the Academy.”
Currently a professor at Princeton, West is a prominent philosopher and academic who has frequently appeared on the Colbert Report, CNN and C-Span. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in three years, earned his doctorate from Princeton University and is now a sometimes controversial public intellectual who often speaks about race issues.
West spoke animatedly to the audience about what it means to be “part of a terrorized, traumatized and stigmatized race.”
He described the vast inequality of the prison system and the phenomenon of mass incarceration in today’s society. “What we are saying when we talk about mass incarceration is that there isn’t enough love for our brothers, be they black, white, red or yellow — because, after all, justice is what love looks like in public,” he said.
The Goldring Reentry Initiative, or GRI, is a program within Penn’s School of Social Policy & Practice that helps formerly incarcerated people transition back into society. Cate Collins, director of the GRI, explained that the goal of the event “was to present academic research in a way that was accessible and meaningful to those impacted by mass incarceration.”
With multiple seminars and panels held throughout the day, the event was set up as a collaborative effort between academics and professionals who have worked in the criminal justice system and those who have been incarcerated in the same system.
West’s keynote specifically addressed the “various intersections of mass incarceration, the disproportionate number of poor people of color under criminal justice supervision and ways the audience can address these issues,” Collins said in an email.
Out of all the speakers, West focused especially on the views and opinions of the audience — well over half of his address was devoted entirely to a question and answer section. For more than 45 minutes, West listened to stories from people who had personally struggled with the criminal justice system and answered questions about what they could do to change current practices.
West concluded his address by pointing out the mutual dependencies of society. “How do you tell the people of Wall Street that their future is inextricably woven with that of Juan and Juanita on the poor side of town?” he said.
Several hundred people showed up to the event, held in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, to listen to discussions of experts and academics focusing on the criminal justice system and personal stories of people who have been incarcerated.
“It gave people impacted by incarceration an opportunity to collaborate, develop resources, share success stories and cultivate an awareness of systemic interpretations of and responses to mass incarceration,” associate director of the GRI Nancy Franke said .
Collins said that the feedback from the audience about the event was “overwhelmingly positive” and the GRI “certainly realized their goals for this event.”
“The resulting dialogue was exactly what we hoped to create,” she said.