Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background and upbringing?
My grandfather was a famous man who was very busy. He was traveling a lot. It was just very normal to me. For a long time, I really didn’t totally understand who he was.. the values were ingrained in me more so than the fame.
Growing up under him, it was more about.. just being a man of the people. My mother likes to say my grandfather was ‘classless.’ And when she says that, it’s because he was comfortable around people of any class, you know, people were people.
I was very privileged to grow up under my grandfather and have a lot of those kinds of values ingrained in me. And especially that sense of an urge for social justice. I think that’s something that he really, you know, instilled in me and instilled in my mother, to the extent that she naturally instilled that in me as well. Growing up with him was wonderful, he was the guy who you saw on TV.
That was the same person. He was just himself all the time. You know, he was a lot of fun. He loved playing jokes. He loved laughs. He loved pranking people, and he was very affectionate. He loved his hugs and kisses and, you know, yeah. He really cherished the personal time that he could have and spend with everyone.
That was something that was really important to him.
My mother Khaliah is someone who’s always been heavily involved in philanthropic endeavors and is a fashion designer as well and then my father Spencer is an attorney in Center City, Philadelphia. He’s handled a lot of things – civil rights cases, in front of the Supreme Court, but also a lot of intellectual property.
[We lived] in Philadelphia, when I was younger in Center City and as I got older, we moved out to the suburbs. I would say, you know, something that was really impactful was the variety of cultures I was able to experience.
My mother was raised with an Islamic background [and] my father is Jewish. And those are two things that most people would say just don’t go together. Right? You see a lot of the conflict today, kind of centered between those two religions, but growing up between those two worlds, all I saw were similarities. You know? In terms of the cultural values, in terms of even the way the Hebrew and Arabic language sound, right? And the way it’s written, the cultural values, the beliefs, I find that they’re cousins.
And I just feel that, growing up, I was very blessed to be able to freely experience a lot of different things and a lot of different cultures, and in doing so, just noticed how similar people are across the world, right?
Everybody wants the same thing. People want to be happy. They want to be safe. They want to have a roof over their head and to be able to put food in their stomachs and provide for their children. You know what I mean?
Those are shared common values, and that’s something that was made very apparent to me, kind of being caught between what was believed to be, you know, these two drastic different…sides.
What are you currently up to at Harvard University?
I’m a Division One athlete at Harvard. I run track and field. I’m a decathlete. But when my grandfather used to call on the phone, the first thing he’d asked about wasn’t sports or anything like that, he wondered how my grades were doing. Education was so fundamentally important to him as someone who really felt that he never got the formal education he desired.. you know, he never had that opportunity and that was something that was always really important to him. So I got into Harvard, as an athlete and, you know, I had strong grades in high school. And I’m studying both African American Studies and Government, currently writing a thesis on [the] mass incarceration [of American POC].
My thesis advisor is professor Cornel West. who’s been a big mentor to me. I’ve taken about four courses with him so far, he’s a very close person [to me] you know.. just been having a lot of courses and meetings with him, he’s always been a huge influence on me, educating me a ton.
And after I graduate undergrad – I’m going into my senior year now – I intend to go to Law School, is my current plan.
Can you tell us a little bit about your thesis?
Sure. So we’re kind of only in the beginning phases of the thesis. So some parts of it are still being solidified in terms of what I’m focusing on. I have a lot of ideas. So it’s kind of like, we need to just pick one right now, how I’m seeing it is kind of taking a “front end/back end approach”. Whereas the “front end” is what puts people in jail and the “back end” is what happens when you get out. I’m not going to be focusing as much on what happens in jail. And on the front end, you know, the two areas I was really focusing on is the legal edge of it – how the laws were built, Supreme Court cases that have had a major influence and that created the system ultimately; and then also policing obviously is a huge factor in the system of mass incarceration. Overpolicing certain communities, but also the impact that police have themselves on crime, is something that I intend to study.
Just pumping money into police forces doesn’t really drop crime rates. Instead what we actually have seen, a lot of people are talking about this with the Minneapolis police and how they disbanded their police and they’re kind of bringing it back in this community led concept. A lot of people didn’t really know what that meant. It’s happened one time before, to my knowledge in Camden, New Jersey in 2013. They took the same stance as Minneapolis and they disbanded the police, and they brought back a community system and the police chief said, “we need our officers to feel that they’re part of a Peace Corps, not a Special Forces unit” and that these communities need “guardians, not warriors.”
And, just quickly pulling up some of the data I did on the side of what happened in Camden, New Jersey. You just see a drastic decrease in crime from 2013 onward. Like I’m talking, in 2013, around 75 murders in Camden, New Jersey and now I believe that number is like 22 consistently, right. The murder rate is about a third of what it used to be. Robberies, there were 730 robberies in 2013. 2018 – 355. 2019 – 304. So it’s less than 50% of what it was. Total crime has dropped 41% since 2010. So in seeing that, I think we need to look at how the role of police actually plays into genuine crime rates, because we’ve tried to solve crime rates by throwing people in jail, but putting more people in jail, there was no correlation between that and fixing crime problems in America. Instead we just incarcerate people – and what I’m focusing on on the “back end”, and why incarceration is called the new Jim Crow, is that once you’re released from jail, we can legally strip you of plenty of your rights. So many rights that in a way, which Michelle Alexander would argue, you are now at a level similar to Jim Crow discrimination. You’re subject to legal housing discrimination, legal stripping of your voting rights. Right? There are plenty of other factors.
I think it’s really important to understand, one – How do we decrease the incarcerated? And then two, now focusing on the back end – What happens to people when they get out and just how sizable is that impact? I intend to look at the impact of voting rights, a lot, and housing discrimination, and look at how this has really devastated communities. I think this is, you know, one of the major indictments on this country that needs to be addressed. It needs to be discussed daily. I would argue, mass incarceration in my eyes is just the evolution of Jim Crow. A lot of people try to act like we ended something ever, but I don’t believe that, you know – Slavery “ends”, but then we go to an era of lynching, sharecropping, Jim Crow was born. We end Jim Crow with civil rights legislation and mass incarceration very quickly, right after it, is being built. Right? We just translate from one system to another. Slowly making it less racially apparent. It’s still completely racially based, but now we just don’t say it anymore. It’s just, you know, you lock up people who “committed a crime”, but we still built those laws in a way to unfairly punish a specific subset of the population. It’s racial.
And a case that I’m particularly focusing on, it doesn’t get mentioned enough, it isn’t taught enough, is the Supreme court case of McCleskey vs. Kemp. Okay, this was a case [in 1987], Warren McCleskey was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, I believe, in the state of Georgia. And basically a large study was conducted, the most comprehensive statistical analysis ever was conducted on the death penalty in the state of Georgia. Finding, pretty much conclusively that the death penalty was administered based on race. Right? If you were black, you were, I believe three times more likely to get the death penalty than if you were white, and if you’re black and had a white victim, I believe the rate was something like 11 times more likely to get the death penalty than if you’re white with a black victim. And they present all this information to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court accepts the statistical evidence and says, even if we accept all this statistical evidence, some level of racial bias, some level of discrimination is not only permissible, but expected in the courts and in sentencing. The Supreme Court at that moment legalized, effectively, discrimination and disparity in sentencing. And they put up a huge blockade to any further challenges on the issue. I think this is one of the worst Supreme court decisions ever. This is as bad as a Korematsu or many other cases. I think Brian Stevenson put it as, this is the Dred Scott of our time, and it’s really not taught much. And I believe Justice William Brennan in his dissent, ‘cause he voted against the decision, said; ‘this decision was based on a fear of too much justice.’ The court was worried that if we accept this challenge to the death sentence, we’re going to have to look into the racial disparities that exist all over the criminal justice system. So they said, ‘we’re just going to shut it all down now. So we don’t have to handle it later.’ It’s the Supreme Court decision, it’s the law of the land and legalized racism basically. I think it’s very noticeable that we don’t teach that. I think it’s very noticeable that it wasn’t until this year, I believe, that in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they taught about the Tulsa Massacre and the race riots. And in their own state, in their own city, they weren’t teaching it, I believe until this year it wasn’t mandatory.
What is your perspective on the current George Floyd & BLM protests?
There is no true dialogue about race in this country. It’s only mentioned occasionally. And if so, people tend to shy away from it because it’s uncomfortable. But I think something that needs to happen in this nation is that people need to become comfortable with what’s uncomfortable because right now the discomfort is the truth, right? If your discomfort stems from truth and reality and an honest telling of history and a desire to make this country better, then you need to get comfortable with that discomfort.
Obviously my junior year didn’t come to the end the way I wanted it to. You know, having to come home far before the semester ended having to take classes online. And as that’s progressing into summer it’s certainly a worry that I have, considering that my father is a two-time cancer survivor. I’ve got immunocompromised people in this house and that’s something that I really worry about every single day. I lost my internship opportunities that I had planned for the summer. I was supposed to intern with the Supreme Court. I was supposed to spend time with Brian Stevenson at the Equal Justice Initiative and all that’s gone, but at the very least, I just hope that what’s going on right now with the protesting brings about actual, genuine change in this country.
I completely support the protesting. I have a lot of love for everybody who’s out there protesting and using their voice to demand change in this country. But what I really want to make sure is that George Floyd doesn’t go down as another name and we have another George Floyd to follow up. You know, it worries me to some extent that we need a death to have these conversations.Somebody shouldn’t have to die for us to engage with the reality of this nation that’s existed all the time. I completely support the reaction to his death. I completely support the fact that we were protesting because he was murdered. But I think what I’m saying is that this is an energy that needs to continue at all times. That’s how we enact genuine change. This is a wonderful beginning in which people are lifting their voices and acting and demanding this nation be reformed. And I just want to make sure and urge that we continue to keep that pressure because we don’t want someone’s death to be in vain. What happened was a tragedy, [and] I don’t want to see it happen again.
I think it’s certainly an interesting point given that these protests have been at a larger scale than anything we’ve seen recently. Despite the fact that similar situations have been occurring for years and have been recorded for years, you know, clearly something’s struck a chord very differently with the public this time. And I think, certainly there was some buildup considering the virus considering which communities were hit the hardest, considering the way the government responded. What I’m just focused on is that, White America stands up and uses their voice. African-Americans have always spoken about the realities of this nation. African-Americans have always used their voice to demand justice and demand change every step along the way. But ultimately right, people like to call this a “black problem” and I believe that’s a misscategorization cause to call it a “black problem” means that black people are the problem. Right? This is a problem of the oppressor. Not the oppressed, right? This is a problem of white supremacy. And at the core of it, white people need to feel comfortable addressing their own community.
Even if you’re not racist, you can’t just sit around and be silent. You have to use your voice. You have to act, and you have to use the privilege that you were born with in order to enact change. I’m not shaming anybody for being born with white privilege. It’s a fact of society as it’s currently constructed, but I will keep an eye on if you’re using it in order to make this world a better and fairer place, rather than just benefiting from the systems of oppression that hurt everybody else of color in this country. I am a big fan of James Baldwin and his letter to his nephew on the 100th anniversary of emancipation, it’s one of my favorite texts ever. I recommend anybody to read it, it’s very short. He says that ultimately, white people are trapped by this history of hatred and discrimination built on the fabricated identity of white supremacy. This lie that people are somehow greater because of the color of their skin and Baldwin says, we can’t be free until they are, right? Nobody can be free until white people ultimately free themselves from the chains of hatred discrimination & racism that bind them. I think that white America, they owe it to their nation. They owe it to their own communities and they owe it to themselves to free themselves from those chains.
I think that something that we are at least seeing to some extent is more of white America willing to speak up and use their voice. And I think that’s great, but we have to make sure that’s legitimate. You have to make sure that’s long-lasting. We have to make sure that’s tangible because that’s what ultimately needs to change in this nation. Black people have said for a long time what’s wrong, right? And it’s time for everybody, this entire nation to stand up and unite as a singular voice to say enough is enough.
“#DEFUNDTHEPOLICE” How do you feel about this call to action?
I think that with the police, there’s a balance to strike. The way the police are, currently, is unacceptable. When people say “defund”, I don’t think people are saying abolish the police. Right? I think people are saying that the police need to be drastically reformed and turned into something new. I think it’s valid to say defund the police as they are, this current state of police should be defunded, it shouldn’t exist. It should be defunded into having to rebirth itself as something new. Something that hopefully we see as a success in Minneapolis and we’ve seen as a success so far relative to the past in Camden, New Jersey – which was a result of drastic budget cuts in New Jersey, they drastically cut police funding in the budget and we saw a huge positive effect from that.
So when I say defund the police, it’s not to say there should be no policing in this nation. It’s to say that the police, as they currently are, need to be abolished and reborn as something new. Something you can fund, something new to some extent, but it needs to be very reborn into something better, something different than what it is, what is current should not continue to exist.
What are your plans post-graduation and goals as a whole?
I would say that I fully intend to dedicate my life to ending the system of mass incarceration that existed in this country. And something else that I would like to speak to too, is the death penalty. We feel we have the right to take someone’s life legally. We find that, I believe roughly, one out of ten people who were sentenced to death were innocent. If there was anything else in the world, in which we said, there’s a one-tenth, one out of ten times, you’re going to be wrongly killed. You wouldn’t have that, right? If you got on a plane and I said, one out of ten times, it’s going to go down and you’re going to die. Nobody would get on that plane. And imagine if let’s say Germany, right, following the Holocaust and their history of hatred against Jewish people. Were still to this day, systematically killing and incarcerating Jews. The world would be up in arms, right? It wouldn’t happen and rightfully so. There’s no way we should let that happen. And we don’t, and it doesn’t happen. But America – after 400 years of slavery, lynching, discrimination, incarceration, rape, abuse, you name it – we still do it. Think about that for a second. I think it’s really a fascinating comparison. There’s nowhere else in the world, or at least in countries that we like to compare ourselves to and feel are similar to us or are our allies, that would act remotely similar. Right? For us to be continuing to do this, it’s because we’re just so comfortable lying and hiding and concealing the truth.
I again want to salute African Americans in this country, who I feel have always done their part, always spoken up, always addressed the issue and always demanded justice. So when I address the rest of this country, I will say the first step is to listen. It’s impossible to understand the plight of being black in this country if you’re not black, right, that’s reasonable. And I don’t think anybody’s expecting you to understand fully, but what you can do is listen. What you can do is learn and be educated about the issue, understand that it’s wrong and fight it still. I think that listening is a key first step that needs to happen because the voices are being expressed, but just have for far too long in this country fallen on deaf ears.
And I think that I want to emphasize listening because, not only do I think it’s a natural first step in that regard, but to understand to not take up all the space, right? You have to be careful not to take up all the space of African Americans in this country, to speak and to protest. I believe that if you take a moment to listen, I think that will, in a lot of ways, also protect people’s space to speak and to fight and say what’s wrong. And from there, I think the next step is education. I think a lot of people in this country know what’s wrong, but they need to truly formally educate themselves about the history and about the realities of the system, how they were built, why they were built, the way they were, to truly know what’s going on.
And then step three is to take that into your own community. White people have a privilege of being able to address their community in a way that nobody else can. A lot of racists will not say anything to a black person’s face, but behind closed doors, they’re going to say a lot of racist stuff. They’re not going to hire a black person to a job. And they’re probably in favor of a handful of them getting put in prison. Right? If you see that, do something about it. Poke and prod, try and figure out where the racism is in your community and all around you and play your part in trying to dismantle it.
You can follow Jacob Ali-Wertheimer on Instagram: @JAliWerth
[this interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and impact.]