Why we need to fight for equal rights at NYU

In US of A, we like to believe we have the equal right to pursue higher education no matter what community we come from. Think again. We have been allowing higher education elites to exploit flawed data in order to choose which communities can and cannot access higher education.

Here’s a simple problem set.

If I am poor, LGBTQI, immigrant, black or brown, am I more likely to be targeted by police?
If I belong to a community targeted by police, am I more likely to be arrested?
If I cannot afford a good lawyer, am I more likely to be convicted?
When the Common Application (a college application service used by NYU) demands to know if I have been convicted of a crime, do they find out if I am likely to succeed in college or just if I was chosen to be disciplined in the past?

One last one ‘cause we went through those so fast…

If I make one misstep, will I ever get a chance to live a productive life?

What’s your insight? Colleges ask for references, grades, essays, and personal statements to cull out the bright, the motivated, the exceptional, the next great leaders. When we ask about criminal justice history in this country, what are we asking? Not about GPA or academic prowess. Not about ambition or drive. Not often enough about respect or morality. We find out if you’ve been marginalized.

Let’s reassess how we punish in this country

When I visit rehabs or correspond with incarcerated people, I do not see what our system sees: that a person who commits a crime is a different type of human that does not ever deserve a chance at a decent life. I do not see how the appropriation of resources, stability and liberty is not enough discipline. I watch people (mostly black, brown, poor, or LGBTQI) picking up the pieces and moving on, only to be tripped by a society of apathy and exclusion. I start to see these people as victims.

Education lowers recidivism and saves more money than it costs. Common knowledge. But what happens when we do not want to save money? When the economy of a district is tied up in the prison industrial complex? Us against them. We will send little kids to prison and keep beds full; we will deny parole to the elderly, rather than close a facility down. We make up arbitrary distinctions like “violent” and “nonviolent” that further trivialize humanity, redemption and fairness.

This conduct contradicts the expectations of a developed country. We treat humans like animals for economic stability. In New York City, we ship them to an island. If the treatment that incarcerated folks suffer in Rikers Island is any indicator, these tactics only create a system where people in command become barbaric.

Formerly incarcerated people are some of the most resourceful, ambitious people you will ever meet. They struggle through shame, ostracism, desolation and discrimination and are still fighting. When they have the chance, they seem to move mountains.

What about NYU?

This brings me to my university. New York University. A university that markets itself as historically “open to all.” A university “in and of the city.” A city that embraced racial profiling. A city whose blood boiled when stop-and-frisk was deemed unconstitutional in 2014. Blacks make up 25% of the city’s population, less than 5% of the university student body, and over 50% of the city’s jail population.

Could NYU be the school to pick up that torch again for diversity and inclusion rather than perpetuate prejudice?

New York University could take a stand and refuse to be complicit in the prison industrial complex that chooses incarceration over education. They have the facts. The voices of faculty, students and community members have reverberated around the institution for three years, demanding that the university no longer include the checkbox about criminal history on their applications. NYU shuffles their feet and mumbles that they will look at that section last, but studies show that two-thirds of applicants get turned off from even applying after they have to check the box.

My university could take a stand. But they actually invest in private prisons.

Incarcerate or Educate?

Some have said to me that we should not give educational opportunities to people who have committed crimes, that we should not incentivize people to go to jail. If people in this country feel they need to go to jail to get an education, we have a real problem of drastically defective or deficient opportunities for marginalized communities.

Well, actually, we have this problem, too.

Just as many Americans have criminal records as have 4-year college degrees. 70 million Americans. There is overlap, but for many, it’s either one or the other. We could turn the tables on mass incarceration if we change our M.O. from discrimination to education.

It’s about public safety, moral economics, fiscal responsibility, and justice. These are your country’s communities. These are your tax dollars. This is your moral duty. We need to stand up for the right of every human to the pursuit of education without discrimination.

“If you don’t think people can change, you ought to be in a different line of work,” says Barmak Nassirian, Associate Executive Director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. He calls judgement based on criminal history “active discrimination” and not making our campuses safer. “Educating people and putting them on the right path is a social responsibility.”
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