Sociologist Matthew Clair on Race and Class in Criminal Justice

It takes more than a movement to transform the system.

September 22, 2020

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Sociologist Matthew Clair on Race and Class in Criminal Justice

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Matthew Clair is an assistant professor of sociology at Stanford and the author of Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court, which explores how poor people and people of color often have worse outcomes in court when they try to exercise their legal rights. Clair’s research has contributed to policy reports addressing ways to reduce mass incarceration and has been widely published on subjects such as law and society, race and ethnicity, social inequality, and criminal justice. He currently leads the Bay Area Law School Project, a seven-year study that is following a diverse group of law school students from application to the start of their careers in order to create an understanding of why they attend law school; the ways in which law school influences their views on law, social order and social change; and how they themselves have an influence on law school curricula.

Profile Photo of Matthew ClairMatthew Clair (Photo: Harrison Truong)


STANFORD: How did you become involved in your current field of study?

Clair: In my scholarship, I strive to understand and correct race and class inequalities in American society. I entered graduate school in 2012. That year, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager. The following summer, I marched in several protests in Boston following Zimmerman’s acquittal in the murder trial. Trayvon’s death—along with the emergence of the Movement for Black Lives following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., in the summer of 2014—profoundly affected me and my academic trajectory. I saw how the legal system plays a central role in constraining the lives of Black people in the United States, and in sanctioning our deaths. As I conducted research interviews and ethnographic observations in courthouses in Boston, I gained a broader awareness of how massive the legal system’s imprint is in American society, and how the criminal law is central to questions of racial and class-based injustice.

In light of your research on racial justice and criminal justice, what are the factors that lead to the mass acceptance of movements for social justice, and, likewise, what are the most common barriers that prevent movements from gaining public support?

Organizers and activists are indispensable in bringing about social change and social justice. The protests in 2014 and 2015 brought much-needed attention to the problem of racist, state-sanctioned violence against poor Black people. Some research in political science and sociology has shown that the Movement for Black Lives has shifted the public’s attitudes toward recognizing some realities of racial injustice.

But public attitudinal shifts are not necessarily the most important outcome of protests and agitation in the streets. Another is drawing the attention—and even the fear—of government officials and people in positions of power. After Ferguson in 2015, we saw how persistent activism—accompanied by the fear of property damage—could result in policy change and reform. In hindsight, many of the Obama administration’s reforms were modest (e.g., consent decrees, implicit bias training among police, body cameras), but they likely would not have been possible without organizing and activism.

In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade and others, protesters today are demanding that we go beyond modest reforms. Many are demanding that police and prisons be abolished. Such demands for abolition are not new, but they have a greater resonance and urgency today than they did just five years ago. Abolishing police and prisons entails working toward a world where they are no longer the first institutions we turn to when dealing with social harms and social problems. Protesters are advocating for divesting from police and prisons and reinvesting resources in housing, health care, food security, and nonpunitive community alternatives for restoration and repair. Such basic resources would enable people to live with dignity and reduce the likelihood that they resort to harmful behaviors.

‘Much of the success of the civil rights movement in gaining white support was in its ability to reframe the “race problem” from a problem of Black people’s “pathological culture” to a problem of white racism.’

It is important to emphasize again that the idea of abolition is not new. For decades, scholars and activists have been articulating and organizing around theories and strategies for abolishing police and prisons. The work of Angela Y. Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Dylan Rodriguez has revealed how police and prisons have historical connections to slavery and continue to function today as tools of racial social control in marginalized communities of color. What is new, however, is that abolitionist ideas appear to be resonating in the current moment in a way that they had not previously, not even in 2014 and 2015.

This resonance is no doubt likely due to the fact that we are in an unprecedented moment of crisis. There’s an upswell of frustration, anxiety and outrage across racial groups and class groups. Over the past few months, our country has been consumed by the uncertainty and death from the pandemic and massive unemployment. Protesters in the streets are not simply responding to racist police violence but also they are protesting, critiquing, and demanding restitution from and change to broader social systems that have valued corporate profits over everyday people and that have exploited workers of color.

This is a combination of factors that we have never quite seen before, and so we will have to wait to see what comes of this moment. I’m hopeful that some transformative changes to our legal and economic systems might emerge from this moment, but I’m also very much aware of how difficult true, lasting and long-term transformation has been historically. This country is still very young and has a long way to go. 

Are there conditions known to create sudden tipping points before a movement is embraced by large segments of the population?

In my work with sociologists Michèle Lamont and Caitlin Daniel, we examined what factors appear to account for long-term changes in public perceptions of stigmatized groups in the U.S. over time. Activists, organizers and the media are key actors in developing and disseminating destigmatizing cultural constructions about groups. Destigmatizing cultural constructions are symbolic framings that remove blame from stigmatized groups or draw equivalences between stigmatized groups and dominant groups. Efforts to remove blame and draw equivalences have historically been critical in shifting public perceptions of stigmatized groups. For instance, much of the success of the civil rights movement in gaining white support was in its ability to reframe the “race problem” from a problem of Black people’s “pathological culture” to a problem of white racism. Black people were not to blame for their conditions; rather, anti-Black racism and white supremacy were to blame. Moreover, the civil rights movement was able to draw links between the fates of Black people and that of dominant white society.

But these destigmatizing cultural constructions have always been contested and repurposed. For instance, as much as drawing equivalences between Black people and white people helped to reduce overt forms of racism, it also has been used to justify efforts to delegitimate race-conscious policies—such as affirmative action or reparations—that are needed to bring about racial justice. Thus, the end goal of movements for racial and economic justice should not only be to gain broad public support. Public support can be a mechanism for bringing about social justice, but public support cannot be the only goal.

Moreover, broad public support for a movement does not determine a movement’s success. There are specific successes and policy changes that can arise from a movement even when it is not broadly supported by the public. The tea party movement, for instance, has never been broadly supported by the public, yet it has been exceedingly successful in shifting political power in states across the country and in our national politics.

Can you describe how the current social acceptance of racial justice and criminal justice movements compares with that of previous decades?

A majority of Americans—across racial groups—purport to support the Black Lives Matter movement. But this support for the movement as a whole does not necessarily translate into broad public support for specific proposals or tactics emanating from the movement. The Movement for Black Lives is a collection of several organizations and activists with a diverse set of agendas and approaches. Many people say they support reform of police in general, but not nearly as many support abolishing police.

Decades of research in the social sciences have shown that while many Americans support principles of equality and anti-racism, they are less likely to support specific policies to rectify racial injustice, especially when those policies require that people in power give up their power and shift resources to subordinated groups. This was true during the civil rights movement and it is true in today’s movement for racial justice. This is why we should be skeptical of using public support as a barometer of justice.

‘One surprising finding is that disadvantaged people often know more about the law and their legal rights than middle-class people, given the former’s routine involvement with the legal system.’

We should also be skeptical of corporations and other institutions that are coming out in support of the Movement for Black Lives. This support is mostly symbolic rather than material. Many corporations actively contribute to racial injustice in their hiring practices, exploitation of Black communities, and donations to police foundations and other punitive institutions. Symbolic support for racial justice is a nice start, but it must be accompanied by material investments in the well-being of marginalized communities of color.

Has progress in racial justice and criminal justice been linear?

Not always. The struggle for racial justice in this country has been contested, as I described earlier. We can look to data on employment or incarceration to see that progress has not always been linear. For instance, Black-white wage gaps have gotten worse in the past couple decades, as economic inequality between the top and the bottom has increased. Over the course of the 20th and into the 21st centuries, racial disparities in incarceration have also fluctuated in a nonlinear way. Data on officer-involved shootings are far from perfect, but it is likely that, as police have increased in size and scope in the U.S. over the last several decades, police killings have increased. Today, more than 1,000 people are killed by the police every year. 

What are the current barriers to larger acceptance of racial justice and criminal justice?

One of the main barriers to racial justice is an unwillingness to divest from whiteness and to give up its material benefits. Social scientists and activists have long known that true racial justice requires material investments in Black people, Black neighborhoods and Black institutions. Getting there in a country that values profits over people has always been the difficult part. In a 1968 interview in Esquire, James Baldwin said, “If the American Negro, the American black man, is going to become a free person in this country, the people of this country have to give up something.” The same is true today. To shift material resources to marginalized groups will require an all-of-the-above strategy: continuing to organize, vote, persuade, protest, strike and desegregate.

Can you describe the genesis of your new book, Privilege and Punishment: How Race and Class Matter in Criminal Court, as well as what you learned researching it and what you hope readers take away from it?

Much of what social scientists know about the criminal legal system centers on the perspectives of legal officials—such as judges and prosecutors—and emerges from administrative data gathered by police departments, courthouses and prisons. In my earlier graduate school research, I also centered the perspective of officials, interviewing them about their decision-making and how they viewed defendants. However, I wanted to know more about the people directly impacted by the courts, namely defendants and their communities. For my dissertation, which my book is based on, I examined defendants’ experiences. I interviewed and observed defendants as they made their way through the court process; interacted with their lawyers behind closed doors; strategized about their cases with family and friends; and dealt with other adversities in their lives, such as homelessness and substance use disorders. I intentionally selected defendants from a range of race and class backgrounds to take part in the study—from an investment consultant to nurses to construction workers. Beyond documenting the injustices faced by working-class people of color and the poor in the criminal courts, the book also documents how middle-class people fare in the rare instances when they face a criminal charge. One surprising finding is that disadvantaged people often know more about the law and their legal rights than middle-class people, given the former’s routine involvement with the legal system. Yet when working-class and poor people attempt to advocate for themselves, lawyers and judges often silence, coerce and punish them. Meanwhile, privileged people are rewarded for delegating authority to their lawyers and deferring to judges. And yet even privileged defendants—and even victims and survivors—rarely find justice in our courts, given the way courts silence defendants and coerce them to accept the court’s version of events. The book draws attention to these injustices and describes how we might fix them.

Deni Ellis Béchard is a senior writer at Stanford. Email him at dbechard@stanford.edu.

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