Time to Dismantle Structural Racism

By Mark Rice

Mark Rice, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, chairs the Post-Release Issues Workgroup ofWISDOM, a faith-based organization in Wisconsin that is working to end mass incarceration. He also works as an organizer for EXPO (EX-Prisoners Organizing), a group of formerly-incarcerated people who drive WISDOMs justice reform campaign. In addition, he serves as a board member of Project RETURN, which helps men and women leaving prison make a positive and permanent return to our community. WISDOM is a member ofGamaliel, a Chicago-based network of nonpartisan faith-based organizations.

Update 12/12/16: ‘’According to a groundbreaking Health Impact Assessment that will be available at www.sentback.org on Dec. 13, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC) incarcerated nearly 3,000 people on probation, parole or extended supervision in 2015 who were not convicted of crimes. The DOC sent these people back to prison solely for violating rules of supervision. It is time for Wisconsin policymakers to stop this unjust practice.

Wisconsin administrators sent EXPO of Milwaukee leader Ventae Parrow back to prison without conviction on three separate occasions. Parrow said, Its frustrating when youre out here working a job, going to college, having a place to lay your head and helping your family out and then whenever they feel like it they snatch the rug from under your feet and they place you in prison even though you have not committed any crime.
The DOC forced Louis Taylor to spend months in the Milwaukee Secure Detention Facility (MSDF) for several unsubstantiated allegations that his ex-girlfriend made after they broke up. Taylors experience with the revocation process in Wisconsin prompted him to say, Black lives will never matter in Wisconsin.’‘

We will not solve the problem of racial discrimination with further racial discrimination. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Christian Schneider recently took the mystifying position that the proper response to one form of racial discrimination in hiring should be to replace it with another form of racial discrimination in hiring.

Schneider argues that companies and government agencies should not ban the box on job applications that inquires about conviction and arrest history, because some studies suggest that this policy unintentionally increases racial discrimination in employment, especially against black men who have not been convicted of crimes. Disturbingly, in areas that have removed the box, employers appear to be discriminating against black men based on the assumption that they have conviction records.

Schneider ignores the fact that discriminating against people with conviction and arrest records is another form of racial discrimination. This type of discrimination has a highly disparate impact on African Americans because they are much more likely to be arrested and convicted of crimes. Several ban the box evaluations, including one of the studies that Schneider highlights, demonstrate that this policy helps to decrease this type of discrimination. We must continue to fight to eliminate racial discrimination against people with and without records by banning the box and by preventing employers from racially profiling people.

Instead of calling for a return of the box on job applications, we should be focusing on dismantling the structural racism that is the root cause of increases in a different kind of discrimination in areas that ban the box.

While we continue to reduce barriers to employment for formerly incarcerated people, we must also ensure that government agencies more effectively enforce laws that prohibit discrimination based on race. Doing this will ensure that ban the box policies will not have the unintended consequence of increasing racial discrimination against people who have not been convicted of crimes.

Banning the box did not cause racism in hiring. Companies and government agencies in the United States have been discriminating against people of color for centuries. Race discrimination by names is nothing new. The studies mentioned by Schneider expose the deeper, more permanent issues associated with race discrimination. Disqualifying black sounding names has long been recognized. For example, in 2003, researchers affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research found that job applicants with African American sounding names received callbacks from employers at much lower rates than applicants with white sounding names. Ban the box initiatives did not create this problem. The first ban the box campaign did not start until 2004.

Why the Box Must Be Banned in Wisconsin

The box on job applications where employers inquire about an applicant’s conviction and arrest history is a significant barrier to employment for the more than 70 million people in the U.S. who have records. Discrimination based on conviction and arrest history serves as a surrogate for race-based discrimination because African Americans are convicted of crimes and arrested at highly disproportionate rates.

Numerous studies demonstrate that previously imprisoned individuals who obtain employment return to prison for new crimes at lower rates, but less than 40% of formerly incarcerated people are employed one year after release.

Many employers are reluctant to hire people with records, and most employers still include the box on the initial application. Devah Pager, a Harvard sociologist, completed a study that suggests that employers tend to call back applicants with past convictions at much lower rates, particularly if they are black.

Less than half of black men in Milwaukee have jobs. Pager’s research suggests that discrimination against black men with past convictions can make it nearly impossible for many of them to obtain family-supporting jobs, especially in the suburbs where many of the better jobs are located.

Unfortunately, the ban the box policies in Milwaukee do not cover the majority of jobs because they only apply to local public sector jobs. In Milwaukee County, less than 10% of workers are employed in the public sector. Enacting a statewide ban the box policy that extends to private employers would help to strengthen Wisconsin’s most disadvantaged communities.

Wisconsin has one of the most racially unjust penal systems in the United States. Wisconsin incarcerates black men at a higher rate than any other state except Oklahoma. In Milwaukee County, one out of every two black men in their 30s has spent time in state prisons.

Reducing employment obstacles for formerly incarcerated people can make communities safer, strengthen families, decrease child poverty, and strengthen local economies.

The Benefits of Banning the Box

Evaluations of ban the box policies in several places show that these initiatives can benefit our society in numerous ways. Daniel Shoag and Stan Veuger found that banning the box increased employment in high-crime neighborhoods by as much as 4%. Black men particularly benefited from the policy change. They argue that Ban the Box legislation appears to have been successful if judged on the basis of its proclaimed proximate objective: making it easier for individuals with criminal records to find and retain employment.

After the City and County of Durham, North Carolina banned the box in 2011, the proportion of people with records hired there increased every year. Moreover, none of the people with records hired in Durham have engaged in illegal conduct at workplaces.

The City of Minneapolis experienced similar results after it banned the box in 2006. A study that evaluated the effects of banning the box in Hawaii suggests that the policy helped to reduce recidivism rates.

Furthermore, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found that employees with records outperformed others in the workplace and were no more likely to be terminated for misconduct. This study provides further evidence of why the box should be removed from applications.

EXPO (EX-Prisoners Organizing)

EXPO is a group of formerly incarcerated men and women who are working to end mass incarceration in Wisconsin. EXPO is a project of WISDOM, an organization that links faith communities in Wisconsin to work for justice. EXPO aims to influence conversations about penal policy and people who have experienced incarceration. We also aim to restore people with records to full participation in the life of our communities. EXPO wants everyone to view people with arrest and conviction histories as human beings, members of families, and assets to communities. We fight to end all forms of structural discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. All EXPO members have the opportunity to attend one-day, two-day, and weeklong leadership development programs conducted by WISDOM and the Gamaliel network. Over 120 people have participated in our training programs.

EXPO is needed in Wisconsin for several reasons. Wisconsin incarcerates African American men at a higher rate than any other state except Oklahoma. Wisconsin spends more on corrections than on the University of Wisconsin system. Although Wisconsin and Minnesota have similar crime rates and similar populations, Wisconsin imprisons people at twice the rate of Minnesota and spends more than twice as much on corrections. The opportunity costs of mass incarceration in Wisconsin are huge. The huge amount of money we waste on unnecessarily incarcerating people should instead be spent on programs that help formerly incarcerated people obtain jobs and housing as well as public education, public transportation, health care, and other needed services.

The stories of many EXPO leaders show that people with records cannot only change, but can become key leaders of social movements and organizations. EXPO members have led organizing efforts around issues like ban the box, sentencing reform, crimeless revocations, treatment alternatives to incarceration, solitary confinement, and transitional jobs. We work to transform Wisconsins unjust penal system and raise awareness of problems facing formerly incarcerated people by

  • participating in WISDOMs public actions and policy workgroups,

  • giving presentations at community organizations,

  • writing opinion pieces,

  • meeting with legislators,

  • testifying at public hearings, and

  • appearing on radio and television shows.

The efforts of EXPO leaders have had an impact on state and federal policies. Our work prompted policymakers in Wisconsin to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons, expand the states Treatment Alternatives and Diversion (TAD) program, and expand a transitional jobs program that helps people overcome barriers to employment and find jobs.

EXPO and the National Ban the Box Campaign

EXPO played a significant role in garnering support for a recent national campaign that aimed to get President Obama to issue an executive order to ban the box for federal jobs and federal contractors. EXPO members decided to join this campaign during our weeklong leadership development program in June of 2015.

EXPO leaders initially reached out to state and local elected officials throughout Wisconsin and asked them to call on President Obama to ban the box. We played a key role in garnering support from the Milwaukee County Executive, several Milwaukee County supervisors, and numerous state representatives. A group of EXPO members set up a meeting at the State Capitol with dozens of state legislators and their staff members. During this meeting, several EXPO leaders shared powerful testimonies of how discrimination based on conviction and arrest history negatively impacted our lives. We explained that removing the box from federal job applications would eliminate a huge barrier to employment for us. EXPO members set up a similar meeting with the former Chairwoman of the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors.

In July, three EXPO leaders joined formerly incarcerated leaders from across the nation to participate in a ban the box rally in front of the White House. After the rally, we met with some of President Obamas policy advisors. In addition, EXPO educated, organized, and mobilized communities across Wisconsin.

On September 8, 2015, a group of EXPO leaders confronted AECOM as part of a national day of action to ban the box and implement fair hiring practices as a nationwide practice. We joined organizations in 17 cities across 11 states to advocate for ban the box in response to a letter of opposition that the Professional Services Council, the Aerospace Industries Association, Information Technology Industry Council, and National Defense Industries Association published on August 3. This letter requested the President not to issue any executive orders impacting federal contractors in the foreseeable future. AECOM, which has a local federal contract to provide construction and engineering services for the Port Washington Generating Station in Milwaukee, is a giant multinational corporation with about 95,000 employees. AECOM is a member of the Federal Contractor Associations and the Professional Services Council.

On September 8, 2015, we attempted to deliver a letter to the AECOM office that asked the company to engage in dialogue about ban the box and encourage their parent company to join the call for a national executive order. However, a security officer stopped us in the parking lot and would not let us enter the building. We mailed the letter instead.

This action generated a lot of media coverage for our campaign. I joined a show on Wisconsin Public Radio to discuss our organizing efforts and a few other EXPO leaders appeared on Milwaukee Public Radio. A few journalists published articles about the action as well.

In November, President Obama banned the box for federal jobs. Unfortunately, he did not extend this ban to federal contractors. This campaign demonstrates the potential political power of the more than 70 million people in the U.S. who have conviction or arrest records.


Banning the box is one significant step in the right direction. It is essential for us to remember that including the box on applications is a form of racial discrimination because of the disparate impact it has on people of color. This policy removes a huge barrier to employment for people with records. However, EXPO and WISDOM believe we must take a comprehensive approach to justice system reform and dismantling structural racism. In addition to our work to end mass incarceration, which focuses on reforming a wide range of policies, WISDOM promotes immigrant rights, economic justice, racial justice, health care availability, availability of affordable housing, and public transportation.

The solution to racial discrimination is not further racial discrimination. We must continue to fight to eliminate structural racism by banning the box and by ensuring that government agencies more effectively enforce laws that prohibit discrimination based on race.

Want to help? check out Thirsting for justice!



2016: On April 25, the national Annie E. Casey Foundation published an extraordinary study, titled A Shared Sentence: The Devastating Toll of Parental Incarceration. You can find it here: A Shared Sentence. It is well worth the time to read. One very interesting finding is that, if incarceration rates hadnt increased during a 24-year period, the U.S. poverty rate would have fallen by 20 percent, rather than remaining relatively steady. The study makes three general recommendations:

		We need to invest in supports for children during and after the time their parents are incarcerated;

		We need to make a major effort to ensure that people being released from jail and prison can get jobs;

		We need to strengthen communities, especially those most effected by mass incarceration.

EXPO member and organizer Mark Rice gives keynote address at UW Oshkosh. His topic: Formerly-Incarcerated People Can Change.

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Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Tyler Schuster.  Page last modified on December 12, 2016

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