Angela Davis challenges Whitman to Ban the Box

Abby Malzewski, News Reporter

Activist Angela Davis introduced the Ban the Box campaign to Whitman campus during her keynote speech on Feb. 19 that opened the 2020 Power & Privilege Symposium.

During Davis’ talk, she asked the audience if Whitman has a Ban the Box movement on campus. After a slight murmur suggesting a lack of knowledge about the campaign and its nonexistence on campus, an audience member yelled in response, “We do now!”

The Ban the Box campaign works towards taking away the box on college and job applications that asks about criminal records. A national civil rights group for previously incarcerated people called All of Us or None founded the movement in 2004. The campaign works to prevent potential discrimination against different types of applications.

According to the movement’s website, one in four adults in the United States have a conviction history. 

First-year philosophy and film studies double-major KeJuan Smith was the acting Co-executive Director of Operations for the Power & Privilege Symposium this year. He talked about why Davis may have mentioned the Ban the Box movement.

“She called the school out by saying: ‘You guys don’t have Ban the Box? What is this?’ So, I think in that way of bringing it up it raises questions,” Smith said. “I feel like her strategy and the way she kind of posed it was very interesting … I think she also was short on time, but she just made really broad topics into something for discussion that you can have later on.”

Although the Ban the Box campaign is not currently on Whitman campus, Davis sparked the audience’s attention by mentioning the movement and encouraging its presence.

Whitman’s Vice President for Enrollment and Communications Josh Jensen shared statistics about Whitman’s entrance application. According to Jensen, the Fall 2020 application did have the box, which asked, “Have you ever been adjudicated guilty or convicted of a misdemeanor or felony?”

Jensen reported that the Admission Office has not received any feedback, positive or negative, about this question.

Whitman currently uses the Common Application as its only application for admissions. From 2006-2019, the criminal history question was part of a portion of the Common Application that all schools share. So, schools did not have a choice on whether or not to ask the question. In Aug. 2019, the question was removed from the common section, and now schools can choose whether to include the question or not.

When this change occurred, Jensen claimed that Whitman polled similar institutions and determined that many peer colleges were planning to continue to ask the question. 

“At Whitman, we decided that we didn’t have enough information to fully understand the ramifications of a change,” Jensen said. “We need to balance our obligation to enroll students who will contribute positively to our campus culture and don’t present a safety risk, and our understanding that some who may answer ‘yes’ to this question may be deterred from applying, even though they would likely be admitted and have the potential to be excellent members of the Whitman community.”

Jensen shared his thoughts about the future of the box as it remains on Whitman’s application and how the college will continue to gauge the issue.

“The Common Application does make it clear that answering ‘yes’ does not prevent a student from being considered and admitted to the college, but it is impossible to know who didn’t apply because of any individual question on our application,” Jensen said. “There are strong arguments on both sides of this issue, and each year Whitman will continue to evaluate what makes the most sense for the college at the time.”

Smith shared his personal insight and spoke to the consequences of keeping the box.

“People make mistakes,” Smith said. “I’ll be making mistakes everyday, and I think it’s very important those mistakes shouldn’t stop you from learning.” 

The Ban the Box campaign not only applies to college applications but also to job and housing applications. When discussing his opinions on the Ban the Box movement, Smith mentioned the cyclical nature of its results. 

“Jobs are how you’re going to live your life,” Smith said. “That’s how you’re going to pay bills and that’s how you’re going to take care of your family. Without that, you’re going to have to find other ways to make money, which is probably going to end up leading you back to that same place that got you put in jail.”