Baz Dreisinger, 40, grew up in a Modern Orthodox home in the Bronx, the fourth of five girls whose grandparents survived the Holocaust. She was attracted to hip-hop culture at a young age and has spent her career exploring issues surrounding race and prisons.
Her Ph.D. dissertation at Columbia University turned into her first book, Near Black: White-to-Black Passing in American Culture. Now a tenured professor at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice who describes herself as a secular Jew, she teaches literature, film, Caribbean studies and African-American studies. In 2011, she founded the New York State Prison-to-College Pipeline (P2CP), a program designed to funnel incarcerated and previously incarcerated men into the CUNY system. She recently traveled to nine countries to rethink America’s modern prison complex, resulting in her latest book, Incarceration Nations: A Journey to Justice in Prisons Around the World.
In an interview edited for clarity and brevity, Dreisinger talks about prison reform and race issues in America today as well as how her family life influenced her career choices.
What about black culture and Caribbean culture in particular attracted you?
There was something in Caribbean culture very similar to Jewishness, a sense of mourning and great tragedy and loss—over slavery, attempted genocide, colonialism, post-colonial crisis—but at the same time there was a celebration of life and joy that was appealing to me. With Jamaican culture, in particular, that mourning gets translated into celebration in a way that I loved and wasn’t true about Jewish culture. I grew up with the Holocaust and the sense of loss and rage around it, so this was enlightening to me.
How did you get from the Caribbean world to the prison world?
As a student at Columbia University, I was writing journalism articles about hip-hop and race and I got letters from people in prison. I started visiting someone in prison I came to know through a story, and having conversations with those on the inside, and I became an educational volunteer in a prison in upstate New York. The first time I taught a class there, I thought, ‘There is something dramatically and insanely wrong here—these are some of the best and the brightest men, and we’re housing them away.’ These things did not sit right in my soul.
For your latest book, you visited many countries, including Rwanda to look at revenge and reconciliation after the genocide there, and to South Africa for its sorrow after apartheid. What did you learn?
I don’t think we give people enough credit. We assume they want revenge all the time, but healing does not come from revenge, it comes from restitution, conciliation. It’s about repairing harm and not punishing those who do harm per se—and those are two really different aims. It shows you what’s possible when you have a justice system that’s not only about hate and revenge.
How does the Black Lives Matter movement relate to your work in helping prisoners obtain higher education?
Our prison population is disproportionately black and brown. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, so when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter we’re also talking about—I sometimes use the hashtag #PrisonLivesMatter—because the two are so closely related.
Your P2CP program has served 75 people since 2011 and you’re talking about expanding the program. Why is it so important?
For one, the very practical argument is that if we want people to come back to our communities, education is a big part of that. On a deeper level, it’s a civil rights issue: Most of these people were the very people who were denied access to a higher education in the first place because of poverty, inequality, racism—all those structural elements that prevent them from getting the education they deserve.
Do you believe white privilege exists?
A lot of people still prefer to talk about individual racism, individual acts of discrimination, as opposed to a legacy of institutional racism—housing discrimination, job discrimination, discrimination against those with criminal histories—those are a lot more complicated, also more nefarious. Whether you consider yourself racist or not, if you have white skin privilege in this country, you are benefiting every day from a privilege that you may not have asked for but it’s a reality.
What should whites do about that privilege?
We need to recognize it, accept it and respect the frustration on the parts of others. This is something I recognize about myself daily, that a lot of the things I’ve managed to achieve in the world are due to the fact that I had advantages as a white person in this country: I had access to opportunities, doors opened to me as a result of that reality.
We have to remember that Jews were not always fully “white” in this country. There’s a wonderful book, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America, that outlines the ways Jews were absorbed into the white race—not just theoretically, but in terms of where they were allowed to live, the neighborhoods where they were permitted to buy property, the jobs they were given access to. And we need to recognize that that wasn’t just a matter of us “picking ourselves up by our bootstraps,” but rather giving the Jews the opportunity to have the advantages.
Should we feel guilty?
It’s not a matter of blame. You have to understand it so you understand people’s attitudes toward you and so that it inspires you to work harder so you end the legacy of discrimination and white skin privilege.
What do your parents think of your work?
My mother’s a teacher/social worker/educator and my father’s a psychologist; he did a lot of work with the prison system. Growing up, we would talk about what is justice, what does it mean; we had serious discussions about redemption and reconciliation. I thought about it and learned Talmud and had debates and arguments. And most of all, the High Holidays were deeply influential in my thinking around forgiveness and revenge and what it means to come clean and what it means to say sorry, to commit wrongdoing and to be someone who makes amends for that.
Amy Klein is a freelance writer based in Manhattan.