Race and incarceration rates: Student researcher explores solutions

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Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, focused her research on the ways in which nonprofits are contributing to policy reform in the criminal justice system.

African Americans made up 40 percent of incarcerated individuals in the United States in 2012, despite being only 13 percent of the American population, according to the United States Census Bureau. Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013, wanted to know what could be done to change that statistic.

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

Danielle Pingue, Class of 2013 (Photo by Denise Applewhite)

For her senior thesis project, Pingue analyzed three nonprofit organizations engaged in incarceration reform. She found that, while these programs were promising, additional policy changes and judicial reforms are needed to shrink the racial disparity in incarceration rates.

“One thing scholars agree on is that mass imprisonment has produced a host of undesirable consequences, particularly for African Americans,” Pingue said, “including the loss of the right to vote and barriers to employment, purchasing a car, and access to quality health care. These disadvantages can affect entire African American communities, including non-offenders.” To find out what nonprofits are doing to address the issue, Pingue conducted in-depth interviews and reviewed policy briefs and other documents. Pingue focused on three organizations — the Sentencing Project, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project.

These groups advocate for reforms such as reduced drug-related sentences, rehabilitation rather than prison for nonviolent offenders, placement services for ex-felons re-entering society, and job training for economically disadvantaged youth. Additional reforms include ending biased police practices such as racial profiling.

Pingue found that nonprofits have had a positive effect on government incarceration policies. For example, lobbying by the Sentencing Project and the NAACP LDF contributed to a reduction in federal drug-related sentences through the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010.

She found room for improvement, however. “One of the more surprising findings of my research was that the reform that nonprofits are pursuing — mostly litigation or lobbying — may not represent what a large bulk of the affected population feels needs to be done,” Pingue said. She concluded that nonprofits need to do more to connect with affected communities.

Imani Perry, professor of African American studies, advised Pingue on the project. “The problem of racialized mass incarceration devastates communities, families and individual lives,” Perry said. “I’m very impressed by Danielle’s research into the range of policy recommendations and lobbying efforts of nonprofit organizations working on how to address this problem.”

During her undergraduate education, Pingue interned at Princeton’s Center for African American Studies and concentrated her studies in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs with a certificate in African American studies.

Pingue, who was born in Jamaica and moved with her parents to Worcester, Mass., when she was 10, will enter Harvard Law School in the fall. After law school she hopes to enter politics, perhaps as a representative working with disadvantaged communities. “My long-term goal is to go back to Jamaica and work on social policy and developmental issues, bringing the work that I’ve learned in the United States back to my birthplace,” she said.

–By Catherine Zandonella

The Life of an Ethiopian saint

Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros. Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros.

Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, reads from a book about Walatta Petros.

The Ethiopian saint Walatta Petros scolded her fellow females for wasting time on manicures instead of praying. She argued forcefully with the male leaders of her country. And she helped drive Portuguese missionaries from Ethiopia in the 17th century, preserving one of the earliest forms of Christianity, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Today, Wendy Laura Belcher, assistant professor of African literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Center for African American Studies, is bringing to life the story of this Ethiopian Orthodox saint through the study of a 340-year-old parchment manuscript. The centuries-old tome resides in a monastery near Lake Tana, the site of some of Ethiopia’s most important religious libraries, where it is read by Ethiopian monks and priests but little examined by Westerners. In studying the manuscript, Belcher, who herself lived in Ethiopia as a child, has revealed a world of rich African literature that few outside scholarly circles knew existed.

“Many people do not realize that Africa has a rich literature that stretches back for millennia,” Belcher said. “Walatta Petros’ story is one of the first biographies written about an African woman by an African author in an African language.”

Pages from a 19th-century copy of the book Gadla Walatta Petros (The Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros). On the left page, the saint receives her commission from Christ to start seven religious communities. (Images courtesy of Wendy Laura Belcher)

Pages from a 19th-century copy of the book Gadla Walatta Petros (The Life and Struggles of Walatta Petros). On the left page, the saint receives her commission from Christ to start seven religious communities. (Images courtesy of Wendy Laura Belcher)

The manuscript portrays the life of Walatta Petros (1594-1643), a wealthy woman who deserted her husband to travel the country and preach against conversion to Roman Catholicism. Jesuit priests had arrived from Europe in the early 1500s and were attempting to convince Ethiopians to give up their ancient form of Christianity, which they had adopted in the fourth century. The missionaries nearly succeeded, having swung the emperor to their side, but, partly due to the brave female saint mobilizing a large following of nonviolent resisters, the Jesuits were ousted in 1632.

“I came across a reference to Jesuits calling the royal women ‘diabolical’ and blaming them for the failure to convert Ethiopians,” Belcher said. “At first I thought this was just misogyny. But it turns out the Jesuits were right. I found the story of Walatta Petros and these courageous women to be irresistible.”

The survival of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church offers modern scholars a window into early forms of Christian worship, but Walatta Petros’ story also yields a glimpse of what life was like for Ethiopian women during this period. In 2011, Belcher spent a year in Ethiopia on a Fulbright fellowship researching ancient manuscripts illuminating the lives of Ethiopian royal women in Walatta Petros’ time.

“One of the really wonderful things about this book is that it is a story about women’s friendships,” Belcher said. “Women read to each other, they have fights with each other, they avoid their mothers-in-law — there are all sorts of wonderfully human moments in this text.”

Belcher is working with Selamawit Mecca, an expert on Ethiopian female saints and an assistant professor of Ethiopian literature at Addis Ababa University, to clarify the meaning of the text, parts of which are confusing due most likely to scribal errors. Another collaborator, Michael Kleiner, a leading scholar of the ancient Ethiopian language Gəˁəz and its literature, is translating the book from Gəˁəz into English.