Sandra Susan Smith is the Daniel and Florence Guggenheim Professor of Criminal Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she is also the faculty director of the Criminal Justice Policy and Management program. Her areas of interest as a sociologist include urban poverty and joblessness. Before participating in the “What Would Society Look Like Without Police?” panel, which is part of the Zócalo/University of Toronto series The World We Want, she visited Zócalo’s virtual green room to talk about vegan Jamaican beef patties, the book that became her bible, and fall in New England after many years on the West Coast.
If you had one more hour in the day, what would you do with it?
I’d paint or draw. I like to sketch, and I like to paint, but rarely do I have the time to do it, or do I make the time to do it. If not that, then I would curl up with a book—a non-work-related book.
What was the most exciting thing about returning to New England, where you are from, after many years in California?
The fall foliage change. That was pretty incredible. There is a change in seasons even in the Bay Area, but here it’s so marked.
Feeling the air get crisper, seeing the leaves change, made me feel hopeful. I couldn’t wait for the holidays to come. And it’s supposed to snow tomorrow, 8 inches!
What was the first sociology class you took?
It was sociology of the family with Lynn Chancer, who was a professor at Barnard when I was at Columbia. I think this was the first semester of my junior year, right after I realized that sociology was a thing, and was probably the thing for me. I tried political science, psychology, anthropology—I was trying everything—and after doing some reading independently, I came across sociology.
What book changed your life?
The Truly Disadvantaged [by William Julius Wilson]. I’m from Hartford, Conn., and when I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Hartford was on the decline, experiencing deindustrialization and all sorts of other things. The opportunities that existed for folks who had lesser education just really started to erode. With the loss of jobs for a lot of the people who lived in my neighborhood and others like it, I saw an uptick in crime, including my own house, which was broken into by the neighbor. You saw an increased reliance on public assistance. Also crime, drug addiction, which affected a number of members of my family. Everything started to look like it was deteriorating. It was shocking, and on some level, to be honest with you, traumatizing. The suburbs seemed to be untouched by the declines that we were experiencing. For years, it felt like I couldn’t make sense of it. My father would also wonder about these changes. There were ways that the family talked about it a lot. And when I started to do that reading I told you about, one of the books I picked up was William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged. And it almost became like a bible to me. I finally had something to help me make sense of the changes that happened to not just my city, but all across the Northeast and Midwest. It was transformative.
What’s your condiment of choice?
Aioli. It’s not just mayo—it’s kind of beefed up, a little garlic, some other things in there.
In June you wrote a powerful op-ed advising that history “preaches caution” about the possibility of the Black Lives Matter protests to create real change. Six months later, how are you feeling?
Mostly I feel the same. I do feel like we’ve been here before. I do get why people were excited: We’ve never had so many people out protesting around these issues. But there are very special circumstances that seemed to create that moment, and when those circumstances change or decline, people go back to doing what they do. Even to the extent that there have been reforms in various cities big and small, most of these have only nibbled around the edges. They are, by and large, symbolic. I think we will end up being back here in a couple years’ time.
And just as another point, it’s not like there’s been a decline in the number of Black men and women who have been killed since Floyd. It feels like every other day, I wake up to more news of killing in one form or another.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
Earlier this week, I was telling an interviewer about my parents, who were immigrants from Jamaica. Neither one went beyond junior high before coming to this country, and after they got here, my father immediately—and my mother eventually—went to night school, and they worked their asses off to get that high school diploma.
I was in high school myself when my mother got her diploma. I would go to classes with her, test her on her vocabulary words. Just to see her walk, to have her own graduation. I’m very moved by it. Their commitment was inspiring to me, their persistence.
Do you have a favorite Jamaican food?
I have many. There’s a dish called rundown—it’s salted mackerel, cooked in a coconut sauce served with boiled green bananas and dumplings. But I’m now vegan, so I can’t really enjoy it. I need to figure out how to make a vegan version of it.
What vegan Jamaican foods do you cook?
I grew up on Jamaican beef patties, so I make them with lentils instead. That is yummy. Or you can use the Beyond Beef® as a replacement instead. That has been fun. And my parents even enjoyed it. And then there’s a rice and peas dish—which is really rice and red beans—and my mother would cook down the beans with either ham hock or cow’s feet, and those tend to be brined so it offers this saltiness. I can’t do that. But there are lots of ways to season beans to make them amazing.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I would not karaoke. It’s occurred to me somewhat recently that I should do it just to make myself do it, or to do it often to get over it. I think I would cry if I had to sing in front of a group of people badly. It probably is something that I will do in the future just to get over myself.
What is the debate around the criminal justice system right now that you wish we were having?
The conditions in jails and prisons. The discussion seems to begin and end with solitary confinement. But the conditions of confinement, especially in jails, are horrible. Often the facilities themselves are old, decrepit. There are all sorts of pests, rats, roaches, mildew. There are things big and small that make the experience torturous. You’re bored. You have no options for mobility. You have to sit in one place or move around in cells. The food—there’s too little of it, there’s no nutritional value; you wouldn’t want to feed it to an animal. And then there are a couple of other things, the unpredictability, including of whether you will be jumped or acted on violently by others. You’re in a system that doesn’t do a good job of informing you of the processes you’re going through. You’re told nothing about your case, no matter how much you ask. It’s a horrific experience.