She's Taking Her History Lessons From the Ivory Tower to the Community - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Because there has to be an intellectual engine of the movement.

By Joy Nesbitt

“Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” — Malcolm X

Professor Elizabeth Hinton finds herself reenergized to achieve her goals each time she reads that quote. In 2017, Hinton, a professor at Yale, published From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America, in which she examined the implementation of federal law enforcement programs beginning in the mid-1960s, formulating a system of mass incarceration of Black American citizens. Hinton says her book inspired her to transfer her education from the campus to the community — to work directly with law enforcement, community groups and nonprofits.

Hinton, 36, grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, believing that she would be a lawyer, having been influenced by national debates on criminal justice surrounding the O.J. Simpson trial as well as the war on drugs. After working in politics for a summer, she soon realized that she couldn’t quite commit to the darker side of politics. After attending New York University, she soon found that history offered a balance between the law and the personal stories she cared for, as she dives in on the persistence of poverty and racial inequality in 20th century U.S. history. “The decision to research and teach is a kind of happy medium between my research interests,” she says. 

It wouldn’t make any sense to study [mass incarceration] without also leading the change.

Elizabeth Hinton

Hinton views her work as a reciprocal process. After beginning her graduate degree in history, she realized that “it wouldn’t make any sense to study [mass incarceration] without also leading the change.” She seeks to learn the most about people’s historical experiences and ideas in order to fuel true change within the criminal justice system. Since 2017, she has been working with the police department in Stockton, California, to host listening sessions and programming to improve the extreme poverty and crime rates within the city.

At this moment, however, she is mostly thinking about her legacy, as she has a 1-year-old daughter growing up in this tumultuous world. Hinton believes that in order to properly effect change in terms of racism and criminal justice reform, we must look at the mistakes in history and repair them through a restorative justice model. One that “brings victims and perpetrators together to think about how both the harms and the harmed can come together after an injustice has been committed.” Ultimately, she thinks that her work is more urgent than ever. “COVID has unmasked the deep contours of racial inequality, and we need to begin to commit resources to building a different kind of world.”

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