In his autobiography, written near the end of his life, the great scholar and civil rights pioneer W.E.B. Du Bois looked back on his first major work, a groundbreaking sociological study called The Philadelphia Negro, and wrote:
I was going to study the facts, any and all facts, concerning the American Negro and his plight, and by measurement and comparison and research, work up to any valid generalizations which I could. I entered this primarily with the utilitarian object of reform and uplift; but nevertheless, I wanted to do the work with scientific accuracy.
It is hard to miss in this reflection Du Bois’s fierce devotion to the rigors of empirical analysis and his faith in data as a first step toward positive social change. So many of his observations have proved prescient – most famously his bold prognostication that “the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line” – that it is easy to forget that before he was a visionary, he was first a scientist.
Sadly, the sustained upheaval Du Bois predicted at the dawn of the 20th century continues well into the 21st.
Lynchings, state-sanctioned oppression and systemic disenfranchisement have given way to new convulsions – racial profiling, mass incarceration and the deaths of too many Black citizens at the hands of police – that serve to accomplish the same end: to deny justice for people of color and perpetuate their status as second-class citizens.
Black Americans make up just 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet they are overrepresented all points of the justice system: arrest, conviction, in prisons and jail.[i] The toll of gun violence also falls overwhelmingly on people of color.
Black men make up six percent of the population but represent more than 50 percent of gun homicide victims[ii].
The damage wrought by an excessively punitive criminal legal system is profound, and the toll has been paid most dearly by people of color. Until we gain a firmer grasp on what lies behind these stubborn and pernicious disparities, we are doomed to see them repeated.
The Biden-Harris Administration has been working since day one to advance racial equity and speed the march of progress toward equal justice. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order establishing a whole-of-government initiative to address racial equity and support underserved communities.
He has directed federal agencies to take decisive action in the areas of health, housing, employment and education, and there are many ways we, at the Office of Justice Programs (OJP), will work to make good on this promise in the weeks and months ahead.
I am sobered by the opportunity – and obligation – before us at the OJP, one of three grant-making divisions of the U.S. Department of Justice, as we are poised to award more than $3.7 billion to help create communities that are more safe, more just and more equitable.
Science investments are critical to our charge, and as part of this commitment to research, we are funding a program named in honor of W.E.B. Du Bois that will support both established and rising scholars interested in improving our understanding of the link between race and justice.
The National Institute of Justice – the research, development and evaluation division of the Justice Department and a component of OJP – launched the W.E.B. Du Bois program more than two decades ago and has since sponsored an array of pivotal research on race and crime, exploring topics like implicit bias, the racial consequences of the War on Drugs, crime and victimization among Hispanic residents, and the impact of discrimination on youth violence.
We are reopening the program after a three-year hiatus. Grant applicants with innovative projects are invited to submit proposals here.
Our hope is to select proposals from both experienced researchers and early-career scientists that focus on public policy interventions designed to reduce racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.
The integrity of our justice system depends on our willingness to reckon with the glaring racial inequities that have, for far too long, undermined its legitimacy and impaired its effectiveness.
More than a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois showed us that reform can and should be rooted in science.
We are following the path that he blazed, supporting scientific exploration, and looking ahead to the day when equal justice before the law is no longer just an ideal but a reality.
Editor’s Note: Click here to submit grant applications.
Amy L. Solomon is the Acting Assistant Attorney General of the Office of Justice Programs, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice.