Stakeholder voices

A Q&A with Sandra Susan Smith

Elisabeth JacobsNovember 20, 2020



Sandra Susan Smith is a member of the WorkRise Leadership Board. Smith is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice and faculty director of the Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management at the Harvard Kennedy School. She is also the Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute. Her areas of interest include urban poverty and joblessness, social capital and social networks, and, more recently, the front end of criminal case processing, with a focus on the short- and long-term consequences of pretrial detention and diversion. This latter interest was a direct result of membership in the Executive Session on Community Corrections at the Harvard Kennedy School. In each, racial inequality and its root causes are core areas of concern.

Smith’s publications include Lone Pursuit: Distrust and Defensive Individualism among the Black Poor, The Criminal Justice System as a Labor Market Institution, coedited with Jonathan Simon; and the forthcoming The Cultural Logics of Job-Matching Assistance. She has published research in numerous scholarly journals, including the American Journal of Sociology, the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, the Sociological Quarterly, the DuBois Review, Ethnic and Racial Studies, and Work and Occupations. Smith has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and at the Russell Sage Foundation. Smith holds an MA and PhD in sociology from the University of Chicago.

In this conversation with Elisabeth Jacobs, WorkRise’s acting executive director, Smith shares her perspectives on our ongoing national reckoning with systemic racism and inequality, how we must change our economy and society to value every life, and the need to transform the US labor market and other institutions that limit opportunities for Black Americans and their families.

Elisabeth Jacobs: I thought we could start with your reflections on the impact of the current crisis on Black workers and families, who have been the subject of your research for many years.

Sandra Susan Smith: The pandemic has laid bare the extent and nature of our inequities, including those rooted in race and ethnicity. The pandemic has managed to magnify gaps because of its disproportionate effects on Black, Latinx, and Native American populations across this country.

There has been little regard for the value of life, especially those who are Black, Latinx, and Native American, many of whom are working in jobs we deem essential. How can you feel well integrated in a society that seems to not care for the value that you bring to the broader society, a society that allows you to risk your own life, for little to nothing? This moment has laid bare who we value and who we don’t, and how far companies are willing to go to reap profits they’ve been accruing over the past couple decades at a massive scale.

EJ: Where do you think we go from here? It sounds like in some ways the starting place is a values conversation over and above the policy choices.

SSS: We must begin by acknowledging the inherent value of every person, that every person’s life is worth fighting for. With regard to care for those who are working on the front lines, our acts often have been solely symbolic in nature. But these acts mean little if we do not back them up with the kinds of resources and supports that will protect the very people we say we care so much about.

There’s at least a significant minority of Americans who think a strong economy is worth the lives that would be lost to achieve it, that we cannot and should not alter our lives in any significant way and for any reason, including a pandemic, if doing so slows the economy for any length of time. How do you get Americans who see the world so differently to embrace a common set of values, including the value of lives, broadly defined, over property and profit? That’s one of the many existential questions we have before us.

We are at an inflection point. Will we treat essential workers as if they are truly essential during ordinary and extraordinary times? Without collective mobilization to achieve more humane working conditions, compensation, and protections, I doubt it.

EJ: You wrote in The Guardian about the Black Lives Matter movement, the national reckoning with racism, and persistent structural discrimination. Can you say more about the argument you were making in this essay?

SSS: I’m not very optimistic about the possibilities for real and sustained change, especially with regards to criminal legal reform. Although many have been convinced we are in a moment of transformational possibilities, I disagree. Too often, such moments devolve into discussions about reforms that don’t make much difference.

This summer, participation in marches for racial justice was high because the coronavirus essentially quieted our lives. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t socialize. The typical distractions of daily life were removed. All we had was the media, which replayed over and over again this horrendous event, George Floyd’s murder. It gave people an opportunity to reflect, to think about what they were willing to commit to in that moment.

But this is a long fight. Would that commitment remain once our lives returned to normal? Would the distractions of daily life pull people away from this movement for racial justice? Would summer’s movement participants remain through the fall, into the winter and spring of next year, and through summer once again? Because that’s what’s required. We need long-term commitment as we push for the kinds of policies that will achieve real change. It’s hard for most of us to sustain that level of commitment and attention. Most don’t, and most won’t.

We must begin by acknowledging the inherent value of every person, that every person’s life is worth fighting for. With regard to care for those who are working on the front lines, our acts often have been solely symbolic in nature. But these acts mean little if we do not back them up with the kinds of resources and supports that will protect the very people we say we care so much about.

EJ: You’ve done work on social capital and on trust in the labor market. Your more recent work connects the labor market with criminal justice institutions. I’m curious if you can relate your work on social capital to the current moment.

SSS: I’m taken with how disconnected people view institutions and how they see themselves in relation to those institutions. The dominant perspective continues to be that people have certain value systems that make it difficult to pull themselves up and succeed like others before them. There’s much less attention to how institutions, through their practices, policies, and procedures, actually perpetuate inequalities as well, making them ever more durable over time.

For instance, punishment is not just limited to the criminal legal realm. For the poor, and especially for low-income people of color, punishment is a defining feature in the realms of education, the welfare state, housing, health care, and so on. And in each of these realms, punishment (along with exclusion and exploitation) make it very difficult for low-income people of color to reach their potential and feel like true members of the broader society.

As an example, we see extraordinarily high rates of expulsion and suspension for Black and Latinx boys and girls for behaviors that are normal for their developmental stages in life. When Black and Latinx children are young, we start with various forms of punishment that alienate and oppress, and we continue this way over their life course. Unfortunately, people who are treated this way don’t understand their experiences as a reflection of systemic racism. Instead, they internalize their experiences and take it as evidence of their own deviance and undeservingness, rather than evidence of a system designed to benefit some at the cost of others. This misrecognition contributes to making positive change difficult to achieve.

Many have fully embraced the idea that systemic racism exists within the criminal legal system. Few also see how it’s simultaneously playing out in other institutions. We need to be mindful that barriers to full citizenship are the result of multiple institutions of racial domination and class exploitation working in tandem. Until we do that, there are limits to how far we can go to overturn such a system and help people reach their full potential.

EJ: You said the labor market is one of many systems deeply disenfranchising for Black communities and communities of color. Where are those points in which the labor market essentially reproduces existing power structures?

SSS: When people have contact with the criminal legal system, many are effectively excluded from access to whole swaths of the labor market. This happens because of state and federal restrictions on access to government employment and government-regulated private industry. It also happens because employers fear they will be liable if justice-involved employees act criminally on the job, and they distrust applicants who have been certified as untrustworthy by the penal system. The problem is that low-income men of color—especially Black men—are far more likely to have criminal legal contact. In this way, the criminal legal system acts as a labor market institution, significantly shaping the flows of young Black and Latinx men in and out of the labor market.

In collaboration with the criminal legal system, the labor market does not just exclude the most vulnerable from worthwhile opportunities. It also extracts labor from these same people. And, again, this primarily affects low-income Black and Latinx people, those with no political power to push for real change. In collaboration with the criminal legal system, the labor market is helping to reproduce racial and class inequities rooted in structures of disadvantage.

EJ: Are there situations where a terrible job can actually be that first rung of the ladder in the labor market? Or is the ladder fundamentally so broken for a particular type of worker that there is no upward mobility and can’t be?

SSS: For those who toil in the low-wage labor market, the odds of achieving upward mobility decline with each passing decade. Jobs in the low-wage labor market typically do not offer opportunities for mobility. Essentially, the rungs on the ladder have been removed or moved so far apart that, without a great deal of assistance or the ability to fly, people can’t move from one rung to the next. Worse still, when those jobs are combined with few, if any, supports, such as health insurance, rental assistance, or supplemental income, then they can actually trap people in poverty.

EJ: Why are we still so stuck, particularly when it comes to actually creating meaningful opportunities for mobility for people who are ready to do the work but still not actually going anywhere?

SSS: Imagine living in a community where the trash is not picked up; the police don’t respond, and when they do, they respond in ways that suggest you are the criminal; where the buses don’t run on time, making you late to your appointments; where the welfare state does as much to harm you as it does to support you. Those are conditions that are much more likely to produce people who cannot live up to their own potential and who might want more for themselves but don’t have the capacity to do so.

What do we do to create conditions that allow people to thrive? Right now, we nibble around the edges of reforms that might make a real difference but still expect outcomes to change. We become frustrated when significant improvements aren’t achieved and then blame the people in those communities for not doing better. I would argue that we haven’t done enough. And for the most vulnerable among us, we never do enough. For the past 45 years, ours has been a winner-take-all society, which has given rise to extraordinary income and wealth inequality. Until we have the political will to design policies for a fair and just distribution of society’s valued resources, we should expect to remain stuck for decades to come.