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Credit: Alice Heyeh

Eight minutes and 46 seconds. That’s all it took for George Floyd to be brutally killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. As the video became viral, so did the protests and cries for change. Yet, to fully understand the protests, we must look deeper into the underlying systemic racism that America is built upon. Historically, in almost all aspects of American life, racial practices continue to exist and thrive in all sectors of society. However, the most prevalent racialized system may be the criminal justice system. 

When you consider the fact that much of the criminal justice system was established during the Jim Crow era, it gives you a pretty good understanding that its main goal is to do one thing — to preserve the “racial” Jim Crow order. As Penn students, it is incredibly important that we understand what this means because we live in a city that leads the country in one of the highest jail populations on a per capita basis and has one of the highest mass incarceration rates in America. It’s easy to be ignorant within the confinements of Penn, and it’s easy to dismiss these statistics by saying that big cities tend to correlate with higher prison incarceration rates. We need to wake up to the racial injustices that this perpetuates. Black people are eight times as likely to be incarcerated than white people while Hispanic people are five times more likely. Our criminal justice system has become a breeding ground for excessive punishment rather than rehabilitation. 

According to the ACLU, the practice of stop-and-frisk in Philadelphia is deemed unconstitutional and racially biased with 70% of its racial distribution being Black. Philadelphia’s police department has a long history of stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of innocent people, with African Americans  accounting for 69% of the stops in a city where they are 48% of the population. Because of this, Black and Latino drivers are 16 times more likely to be locked up pending trial for being unable to afford bail for low-level offenses. Black drivers are also 30% more likely to be pulled over than white drivers without being told why they were pulled over in the first place. These excessive, unnecessary arrests from Philadelphia’s police has led to a large population of Black and Hispanic incarcerated citizens.

Even after serving their sentences, the workforce makes it almost impossible for these ex-offenders to reintegrate into society successfully. Both current federal and state laws make ex-offenders ineligible from jobs in healthcare, correctional facilities, and school systems. These same laws also hinder formerly incarcerated citizens from living in federally subsidized housing and accessing education assistance through certain federal loans and grants. Black workers also struggle to overcome the preconceived stereotypes of being “ dishonest and unreliable” from employers. Statistically, the unemployment time period is about 30% longer than of white men

Both formal and informal exclusion of citizenship — the act of stripping away citizenship rights to a certain group of people — creates barriers that lead ex-offenders to lose the ability to pursue employment opportunities and access social safety nets. By creating such laws, the government turns a blind eye to the formerly incarcerated, stripping them of the rights they should be entitled to as citizens of the United States and leaving them to fend for themselves. With the odds stacked against them, it is no wonder that the workforce creates negative feedback loops, forcing many ex-offenders to resort back to the activities that placed them in prison in the first place just to survive. 

Why should we care? As students lucky enough to attend a prestigious university as Penn, we have the power and resources to make the city government listen to us. Start voicing your concerns to local legislators about the cash bail system that imprisons Philadelphians for their inability to post bail before any determination of guilt, vote in both local and federal elections, support reentry programs that help empower the formerly incarcerated, take ABCS classes that focus on incarceration, volunteer your time to local nonprofit organizations that advocate for prison reform through Penn’s Netter Center. No matter what the plan of action may be, we have a critical responsibility to improve and protect our city.

Using the Penn bubble as an excuse to remain silent correlates to privilege and cowardice. Posting black squares and reposting Instagram stories are meaningless without actions behind it. Penn students, let’s start creating a different narrative, a different legacy. If we dedicate even a fraction of the effort we put into our obsession with recruiting to advocacy in Philadelphia, our community would look a lot different. The time is now. We must do better. We must be better. 

CHRISTINE KIM is a rising Wharton sophomore from San Jose, California majoring in Management and Business Analytics. Her email address is kimck@wharton.upenn.edu.

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