Angela Davis to Headline the Woodson Institute’s Spring Symposium

“The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice”

By Anne Bromley (Anthropology '80, M.F.A., Poetry '85)
This is an image of Angela Davis

Angela Davis

An estimated 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetimes, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic males and 5.9 percent of white males, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

“The criminal justice system represents a new racial cleavage in America,” said Deborah McDowell, director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. “In stark contrast to the watershed political gains blacks made in the decades since the zenith of the Civil Rights Movement, prison has become a normal part of life for one in three black men in their 20s.”

While African Americans constitute 12.4 percent of the population, they make up almost half of all prison inmates. Many attribute their disproportionate numbers to changes in criminal justice policies, such as mandatory sentencing for drug-related crimes, and the ongoing problems of poverty and racial bias.

The Woodson Institute will present a multidisciplinary symposium, free and open to the public, on “The Problem of Punishment: Race, Inequality and Justice,” featuring activist and scholar Angela Davis, April 16 and 17.

U.Va. faculty, including Vesla Weaver in politics, Eric Lott in English and Marlon Ross in English and at the Woodson Institute—along with more than a dozen schools from other institutions and graduate fellows from the Woodson Institute—will round out the slate of participants.

On the first day of the symposium, two panels will focus specifically on causes of the growth of what Davis calls the “prison industrial complex.”

The opening panel discussion will consider the theoretical and historical foundations of shifting policy choices and rising imprisonment. The second will feature new research on the impact of felon disenfranchisement on communities of color, as well as the effects of incarceration on job opportunities and their stratification by race.

Davis will give the keynote address following Thursday’s second session.

On April 17, attention will shift to research that evaluates the consequences and implications of the rise in imprisonment.

The symposium will conclude with a roundtable discussion featuring policy experts, practitioners and academics, who will make suggestions addressing related issues and to the question, “Where do we go from here?” 

Davis' participation in the conference is part of a weeklong residency at the Woodson Institute, beginning April 13, during which time she will visit several classes.

In 1970, Davis was put on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted List” because a shotgun registered in her name was used in the kidnapping and slaying of a judge. At first she fled, but was apprehended in New York and went to jail.

Young people all over the world rallied against her arrest and confinement during the 18 months before her trial, and protest songs were written and performed for her. She was acquitted of all charges in the incident.

Davis is now a historian and philosopher who has also conducted extensive research on issues related to race, gender and imprisonment. Her most recent books are “Abolition Democracy” and “Are Prisons Obsolete?”

She is often associated with the Black Panthers and with the black power politics of the period. She was active with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee before joining the Black Panthers. She joined the Communist Party when Martin Luther King Jr.was assassinated in 1968 and ran for U.S. vice president on the Communist Party ticket in 1980 and 1984, but has since left the party. Today she considers herself a democratic socialist.

She has been an activist and writer promoting women's rights and racial justice while pursuing an academic career as a philosopher and teacher at the University of California-Santa Cruz. She is professor emeritus of history of consciousness, an interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, and of feminist studies.

The author of eight books, Davis has lectured throughout the United States as well as in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and South America.

A consistent theme of her work has been the range of social problems associated with incarceration and the generalized criminalization of those communities that are most affected by poverty and racial discrimination.

Davis is especially concerned with what she sees as a tendency to devote more resources and attention to the prison system than to educational institutions. She now urges her audiences to consider the possibility of a future without prisons as a 21st-century movement.

The other participants in the conference are: Michelle Alexander, Ohio State University, law; Khalilah L. Brown-Dean, Yale University, political science and African-American studies; Mary Ellen Curtin, George Washington University, history; Ruth Wilson Gilmore, University of Southern California, geography and American studies & ethnicity; Joy James, Williams College, cultural studies; Glenn Loury, Brown University, economics; Marc Mauer, The Sentencing Project, Washington D. C.; Lisa Miller, Rutgers University, political science; Michael Owens, Emory University, political science; Jonathan Simon, University of California-Berkley, law; Heather Thompson, University of North Carolina-Charlotte, history.

More from Bureau of Justice Statistics:

  • 2,293,157 prisoners were held in federal or state prisons or in local jails
  • At the end of 2007, there were 3,138 black male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 black males in the United States, compared to 1,259 Hispanic male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 Hispanic males and 481 white male sentenced prisoners per 100,000 white males.
  • At the end of  2007, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole.
  • Based on current rates of first incarceration, an estimated 32 percent of black males will enter state or federal prison during their lifetime, compared to 17 percent of Hispanic males and 6 percent of white males.
  • Large racial disparities exist in the criminal justice system, with black males incarcerated at a rate more than 6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males.