13 Scholars Shedding Light on the Roots of Racial Injustice

June 4, 2020

Through research, writing, films, and commentaries, Graduate Center scholars expose how entrenched approaches to mass incarceration, law enforcement, schooling, and public space negatively affect communities of color.

The killing of George Floyd was one more painful example of how the U.S. criminal justice system jeopardizes the lives of Black people. Anger and anguish over his death and our country's institutionalized racism have driven protesters into the streets.

But the issues at the root of the protests have long been top of mind for Graduate Center faculty, students, and alumni. Through their research, writing, films, and commentaries they illuminate how entrenched approaches to mass incarceration, law enforcement, schooling, and public space negatively affect communities of color.

We invite you to explore their work and their stories.


Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore (Earth and Environmental Sciences) is a renowned scholar who has long advocated for abolishing prisons. She explains her research and reasoning in a New York Times Magazine feature. "Instead of asking whether anyone should be locked up or go free, why don't we think about why we solve problems by repeating the kind of behavior that brought us the problem in the first place?" she says.

Marlene Nava Ramos

Gilmore has been a source of inspiration for Ph.D. candidate Marlene Nava Ramos (Earth and Environmental Sciences). Rather than “criminalizing poverty,” Ramos wants New York City to eliminate its notorious Rikers Island prison complex and all of its jails

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Ph.D. candidate Victor St. John (Criminal Justice) worked at juvenile detention centers and even Rikers Island jail complex for years. Ultimately, he dedicated himself to research and recently published a study on how race and ethnicity impacted a person’s chances of being re-arrested in the 1980s.


“Growing up in Syracuse, it was hard to ignore the consequences of mass incarceration and aggressive policing on my community,” says Jan Haldipur (Ph.D. ’15, Sociology). He turned his dissertation on the consequences of stop-and-frisk policing on a community in the South Bronx into an award-winning book.  


Ronald F. Day (Ph.D. ’19, Criminal Justice) started college while in prison. He is now a vice president at the Fortune Society, where he supports the formerly incarcerated. For his dissertation, he examined “Ban the Box,” the nationwide effort to bar employers from asking job applicants if they have a criminal record.

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Nandini Sikand (Ph.D. ’10, Anthropology), an associate professor at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, was intrigued by an opportunity to teach and learn alongside prisoners at a local jail. Her curiosity grew into a feature-length documentary film depicting the lives of the women in the jail and exposing hard truths about America’s prison system, for which she received a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship.

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Brandon del Pozo (Ph.D. ’20, Philosophy) spent 23 years as a police officer and wrote his dissertation on what it means to police a democracy. He examines how to get policing “right” so that it can live up to the country’s democratic ideals

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When the U.S. Justice Department declined to bring criminal civil rights charges in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, professors Candace McCoy (Criminal Justice) and Phillip A. Goff (GC/John Jay, Criminal Justice) shared their perspectives from the NYPD inspector General’s office and social psychology to discuss the implications of the Garner case for people of color and policing.

In her acclaimed book, Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, Professor Carla Shedd (Sociology, Urban Education) explores how Chicago schools shape the lives of disadvantaged Black and brown students. She spoke about her book and the consequences of schools that operate like prisons.

Even our built environment, from surveillance cameras to gated communities, perpetuates racism, argues Professor Setha Low (Psychology, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Anthropology), who has edited a new book, Spaces of Security: Ethnographies of Securityscapes, Surveillance, and Control.

Before academia, Professor James M. Jasper (Sociology) worked in the anti-apartheid and other social justice movements. In his latest book, he looks at the Politics of Reputation or the character of social movements, with implications for Black Lives Matter.

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And there is hope for today's protesters. A study by alumnus Jeremy Sawyer (Ph.D. '17, Psychology) showed that the Black Lives Matter movement may have led to a decline in racial bias against African Americans.