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Shades of Justice: Seeing, and Being Seen, Across the Continuum of Race and Understanding

Growing up in Long Island, the child of a Black mother and Puerto Rican father, Dr. TaLisa J. Carter wanted to be invisible.

“I was exposed to a lot of concentrated disadvantage growing up,” said Carter, now an assistant professor of Justice, Law & Criminology in the AU School of Public Affairs. “Both of my parents worked at a group home, the Wayside Home School for Girls. I went there after school, a super quiet kid who was always more interested in watching people than in people watching me. That exposed me to the reality that one decision can change a path.”

The plight of these girls made a lasting impact. Carter, a first-generation college student, was accepted to the University of Pennsylvania, where she eventually studied under noted criminology scholar Dr. Freda Adler. After graduation, Carter worked as a deputy corrections officer (CO) in a Savannah, GA jail. She supervised male and female residents with diverse classification statuses and got a crash course in the realities of the modern criminal justice system.

Carter soon moved on to graduate school at the University of Delaware, but this practitioner experience stuck. In her brief tenure as CO, she recognized serious systemic problems, suffered sexual harassment, and survived the good, the bad, and the ugly of that particular workplace culture. A book manuscript in development, called The Thin Brown Line, presents corrections officers and incarcerated people as victims of the same systemic discrimination.

“The system is racist, sexist, and homophobic,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what color uniform you wear, whether you’re pulling a check or you are paying for phone time, or whether you get a lunch break or if you get served chow. Anyone who interacts with this system is going to get that treatment.”

This unique perspective (Black criminology student-turned CO-turned criminology scholar) has launched an impressive research agenda and created a name for Carter in the field. She is one of handful five criminology scholars with CO experience; the others are white and male. These days, though affiliations with the Urban Institute, the Brookings Institute, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institute of Health push her into the spotlight, she still prefers observing, looking for answers to questions on the interactions of deviance, social organizations, and race.

Shades of Trust

Her recent publication with coauthor Chelsea Thomson (SPA ’21, MPP), “Snitch. Snake. Mole. Books.: Examining Responses to “Insider/Outsider” Researcher in Corrections” which appeared in the journal Qualitative Criminology on February 1, 2022, discussed how former practitioners navigate their dual insider/outsider identity when conducting research, particularly qualitative work, and how correctional employees respond.

“I’ve wanted to write this piece for a long time,” said Carter. “‘Snitch,’ ‘Snake,’ ‘Mole,’ and ‘Books’ are four names I was called when I was collecting my dissertation data [on race and system treatment of correctional officers in a Mid-Atlantic prison in 2017]. A snitch talks, a snake records, a mole is similar to a spy, and Books was a term of endearment given to me by the people I was studying.”

Carter observed new CO trainings, with some level of trainee interaction, and found that her former experience opened some doors with her subjects but not others. COs alternated between suspicion and trust of Carter, reflected in the range of names they called her and other exchanges.

“I found myself doing this really intricate dance to get around these challenges,” she explained. “Being an insider, you have a leg up. You know the jargon. You look like them. You share the same culture. You don’t have to peel information out of people because there is an understanding.”

For example, she continued, correctional officers are socialized in training to refer to incarcerated persons as ‘inmates.’ Both the media and the academy have moved to person-first language, but police this shift in a way that makes COs feel shame for using what they considered the appropriate term.

“Challenging the jargon creates a distance with language between the people you are trying to study, and their everyday lived experiences, and the theory in science and action,” said Carter. “I think that’s where academics and researchers can get it wrong.”

An outsider, she continued, must work harder and rely on gatekeepers to build trust and rapport. Meanwhile, institutions and individuals, with their own interests to protect, expect the researcher to frame their findings in a way that minimizes malicious intent, an expectation that must be balanced with their obligations to the field.

“Sometimes you’ve got to do a dance to pull off your life’s work, and you are no less of an ally just because you had to change your framing,” Carter said. “I think that is something that people on this insider-outsider continuum do better from day to day.”

The culture of correctional facilities, she continued, reflects their relatively obscure position within the larger justice process. Police officers work in the light, while the work of corrections happens in shadow. She gives the example of public executions of earlier centuries: in an early form of public accountability, a bloodthirsty mob of onlookers would turn on the executioner if the process became too torturous.

“When punishment became invisible, so did accountability, and so did the culture of those who did this work,” she said. 

Shades of Meaning

Carter’s multiracial background has positioned her to notice both spectrum-wide skin color and the various ways that different groups make meaning around it, a concept known as colorism. White people attribute their degree of paleness to sun exposure, for example, while light-skinned Black individuals consider it a static result of genetics. But how does the construct of skin shade apply to the field of criminology?

“This is a big hole in the criminology literature,” said Carter. “What are the motivations of those looking at a career in criminal justice, and does skin tone factor into that?”

The answer suggested itself in an American University classroom. Part of her pedagogical process, Carter explained, is to provoke learning through discomfort. In her Critical Issues in Justice course, the first assignment was a presentation, mapped onto the timeline of their lives, listing the factors, events, and impressions that have shaped students’ experience of the field.

“When I sat with these timelines, I realized something interesting about Black and brown students,” she said. “Light-skinned Black students said, ‘I want to be a police officer,’ and ‘I want to be a prosecutor.’ Dark-skinned students [aspired to be] defense attorneys, but would never be a cop.”

With this data in hand, she then asked them to debate issues such as racial profiling and police brutality, but to champion what she knows to be their counter belief. During these debates, and during emotional office hours when students came in to protest, Carter began to notice how differences in color, as opposed to race, determined their levels of discomfort with arguing against their beliefs. Affected students tended to be dark-skinned, rather than Black people as a whole.

Though colleagues warned her that the field was not ready to talk about colorism, Carter could not abandon the question. In early 2020, she began implementing her vision for a project called Shades of Justice. Carter created a visual guide for self-assessing skin shades based on 25 makeup swatches, possibly the first such application in an academic or statistical context. Then she organized and trained a team of AU students to undertake a massive data collection effort.

skin tone breakdown

These investigators, hired to represent a diverse spectrum of skin tones, surveyed and then interviewed U.S. graduate and undergraduate students majoring in fields related to criminology and criminal justice on their professional motivations. Interviewers were matched to subjects based on skin tone, race, and/or sex, whenever possible, to increase the level of comfort and rapport.

The first publication to emerge from Shades of Justice will be “One Hundred Tones, One Decision: Exploring Race, Skin Tone, and Motivations for Becoming a Criminal Justice Practitioner,” forthcoming in Qualitative Criminology. In this piece, Carter examines the differing motivations of prospective justice professionals by skin tone, using a framework called the self-determination continuum.

In line with Carter’s classroom experience, the piece finds that dark-skinned respondents are less likely to report extrinsic motivations driven by rewards and consequences; rather, they are intrinsically motivated by their need to right wrongs they have personally encountered or observed. Lighter-skinned respondents, meanwhile, were more likely to name interest, self-fulfillment, and/or enjoyment as motivators, which Carter refers to as a privilege.

“Darker-skinned people are more likely to experience direct trauma through the justice system,” she explained. “The darker you are, even within Black and brown populations, the more likely you are to be framed as deviant or noncompliant. You see it in education, in school suspensions. You see it in definitions of beauty.”

In addition, Carter found that the respondents who reported trauma, regardless of skin tone, were motivated by these specific experiences rather than money or other extrinsic motivators.

“Children of immigrants want to be immigration attorneys,” she said. “This is crucial knowledge for recruitment purposes within these fields.”

Analyzing these motivations can inform improvements to workplace culture and support recruitment and retention in the field, she continued. For example, the position of CO is ranked last in desirability among criminal justice jobs: what combination of training, tasks, and remuneration might make it more attractive to a diverse set of applicants? Further, a public defender, with a bulging docket of indigent cases, has a different standard of success than a prosecutor or private attorney, who is both less likely to be Black and more likely to be motivated by money.

“Institutions need to be able to quantify what people consider success in their careers,” Carter continued. “They must look strategically at the way it honors the people that make this decision, when they could have chosen to do 1000 other things. That is the way you turn a CO from a job into a career.”

Shades of Visibility

Carter sees this exploration of color as a way through the conflict and into a healthier national conversation over race and Black lives.

“People know about the race issue,” she said. “I think colorism is a more universal place to start. Justice, both here and internationally, is, like colorism, a universal issue. We have to acknowledge that our minoritized populations are heterogenous, and everyone is not the same.”

Carter, who taught Critical Race Theory in the Workplace in summer 2021, has found an interesting pattern in the BLM movement, from the height of its prominence in 2020 to fraught pushbacks over CRT in 2021. The movement is no less strong, she says. The difference is visibility.

“In the summer of 2020, we were visible. Bodies were visible. Trauma sticks different these days. Social media means different levels of exposure. You didn’t see George Floyd once: you saw him and heard his name multiple times.”

Once the visibility waned, she argued, and opponents saw an opportunity to make the case against what they framed as CRT, the emphasis changed, but only among those who understood it in the first place.

“I have the benefit, based on my journey through social classes, of a Facebook feed that is super diverse,” said Carter. “[The movement] hasn’t changed much for people who aren’t directly touched by the theory or have an understanding of it. They are just as visible and just as charged up. As you increase your understanding, you are more likely to feel silenced by the conversation around CRT. You can’t feel silenced if you never spoke that language.”

Dr. Carter sees another book in the Shades of Justice project, as well as studies on students’ positive and negative perceptions of the system and elements of attraction based on skin tone. You can follow her on Twitter at @talisajcarter, track the Shades of Justice project, and learn more about her wider research agenda.