Last year, Penn celebrated when the Philadelphia Eagles became the Super Bowl LII champions. This year, as the country again turns to watch the top NFL teams contend for a championship, attention on Colin Kaepernick’s protests against racist police practices has been renewed.
While the Super Bowl may be the only time some pay attention to these issues, police brutality and structural racism are not distant phenomena for many on and near Penn’s campus. The Super Bowl this year and Kaepernick’s movement should be a wake-up call to the Penn community. These issues may seem distant and abstract to a lot of Penn students; however, structural and institutional racism in the police force and the criminal justice system are a daily reality for many people of color, including Penn students, faculty, and staff, as well as the wider-Philadelphia community.
Penn is a historically white institution that still has a long way to go in reducing its own institutional racism and promoting diversity and inclusion across racial and class lines. This means that Penn itself has played a role in supporting a racist system. Many members of the Penn community are insulated from these realities by their own race and class.
An institution can’t be equated to the people who make it up. It’s important to recognize that many people of color at Penn likely know all too well about the dangers posed by racist police practices. Penn as an institution, on the other hand, has contributed to these practices.
In an attempt to reduce crime on campus in the 1990s, Penn intentionally gentrified areas of West Philadelphia and increased police presence on and around campus. The crime rate went down, along with the national crime rate in the early twenty-first century, but it came at the cost of the lives and well-being of the majority-black populace in University City.
In Philadelphia, the past year has seen an increase in public consciousness around fundamental flaws in the criminal justice system.
Last year, the Eagles’ presence in the Super Bowl brought heightened attention to the plight of Meek Mill, a Philadelphia-born rapper who came to represent the need for criminal justice reform. Mill’s jailing following a parole violation was used to bring attention to the mass incarceration crisis in the United States, which disproportionately affects black men. Last April, two black men had the police called on them due to racial profiling by a Starbucks employee. After the incident gained national attention, the prosecutor’s office decided not to charge them with a crime.
In Nov. 2017, Larry Krasner, a former public defender and criminal defense lawyer specializing in civil rights, was elected Philadelphia District Attorney on a platform that emphasized criminal justice reform. In his first months in office, Krasner fired 31 prosecutors, effectively decriminalized marijuana possession, and reformed city bail policy to stop disenfranchising poor defendants. While these measures demonstrate a significant step toward justice for the Philadelphia community, there is still a lot of work to be done.
In the criminal justice system, people of color are profiled and disadvantaged every step of the way — from policing, to jury selection, to sentencing. Philadelphia is far from immune to these issues — in 2011, the Philadelphia police department settled a lawsuit contending that its “stop-and-frisk policy” used racial profiling. A recent analysis led the Pennsylvania ACLU to report that in the first half of 2018, “Black men are still stopped more often than any other group, and the racial disparities in stops are ‘statistically significant’ and ‘are not explainable by non-racial factors.’”
Here at Penn, there are some who are taking action. Alexus Bazen began kneeling during the national anthem at Penn football games in 2016 and wrote a column for the DP explaining that she knelt to protest against injustices against people of color. BARS, a student group at Penn, aims to promote criminal justice reform in the city.
These issues are present at Penn and in the greater Philadelphia community. Even if they don’t disenfranchise everyone in our community, everyone in our community has a responsibility to listen to the stories of those victimized by racism and support action to reform policing and the criminal justice system.
Editorials represent the majority view of members of The Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. Editorial Board, which meets regularly to discuss issues relevant to Penn's campus. Participants in these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on related topics.