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In Connecticut, an organizer takes heart from NFL protests

ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign pushed for ‘racial impact statements’ on proposed laws

Anderson Curtis has nothing but love for Colin Kaepernick, Eric Reid and the other NFL players who risk their good fortune to push for social change.

“I applaud them for their courage to take a stand,” said Curtis, a former high school linebacker and running back who is now a field organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut’s Smart Justice campaign.

Curtis said he is uplifted by players who kneel or raise their fists during the playing of the national anthem. He is also encouraged by players who donate money and time for good causes while pushing NFL owners to do the same. Curtis needs the support because his work in Connecticut, far from the NFL’s stadiums, is often lonely and frustrating and always incremental and tenuous.

The Smart Justice campaign advocates for criminal justice reform and other policies aimed at closing the wide gaps between African-Americans and nearly everyone else when it comes to many measures of well-being, including wealth, employment, education and incarceration rates.

In many ways, Curtis’ work is the in-the-streets manifestation of the players’ on-field protests. But like the players, his aims are often poorly understood. His challenge speaks to the difficulty of demolishing the edifice of racial advantage that has been under construction in this country from its very beginning.

The Smart Justice campaign savored a major win earlier this month when Connecticut became the first state to enact a law requiring an analysis of the racial impact of any proposed law if even a single legislator requests one. The new law built on a previous measure that required so-called racial impact statements if they were requested by a majority vote of a legislative committee.

Lawmakers routinely ask staff to look at how a new law might affect the state budget, or how a new project might affect the environment. Given the staggering level of racial inequality in our society, making sure new laws do not have unintended consequences for minority communities only makes sense.

We’ve seen how laws can have racially disparate impacts, particularly when it comes to the criminal justice system. One in 10 black men in his 30s is in jail or prison on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project, a leading advocate of criminal justice reform. Blacks are five times as likely as whites to be incarcerated in state prisons, a disparity that the Sentencing Project says is not fully explained by higher crime rates among African-Americans. Some laws, such as the huge differences in sentences for crack cocaine possession and the possession of powdered cocaine, hit African-Americans much harder than whites. As a result, a handful of states — including Iowa and Oregon, both of which have tiny black populations but sizable black prison populations — require racial impact statements for changes to criminal law.

But racial disparities extend far beyond the criminal justice system. They are almost everywhere: in college admissions, auto insurance rates, home ownership rates and mortgage rejections. That is why advocates hailed Connecticut’s law as a breakthrough.

Still, shining a light on racial disparities is one thing. Building political support to combat them is another matter altogether. Curtis is among a handful of activists pressing candidates in Connecticut’s current gubernatorial race to commit to vetoing any law shown to disproportionately hurt people of color.

Anderson Curtis, a field organizer for the ACLU’s Smart Justice campaign in Connecticut, appreciates the protests by NFL players because his work is often frustrating.

American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut

So far, no candidate has signed on. Democrat Ned Lamont, the front-runner, said he wants to approach the issue on a case-by-case basis. Republican Bob Stefanowski has resisted calls from the coalition to comment on the law.

The candidates’ caution is not entirely unreasonable. What if, say, toughening penalties for possession of illegal firearms is found to hurt blacks more than whites? Is that reason enough to veto a law that could keep black communities safer? How do you win political support in suburban and rural areas for a measure to take the pressure off auto insurance rates in the city?

It’s an uphill battle, yet Curtis is game. As a high school student, his passion was football. He went to Northeastern University in Boston before succumbing to a drug habit that left him in and out of jail for two decades. Now 55, he has been clean for 11 years, and his new passion is improving the lives of the struggling people around him.

“Making real change requires constant engagement. You have to let the politicians know you are not going away,” he said.

Racial disparities extend far beyond the criminal justice system. They are almost everywhere: in college admissions, auto insurance rates, home ownership rates and mortgage rejections.

You also have to constantly push for support and to keep allies on board, he said. To win over new supporters, he has to convince skeptics that helping marginalized people ultimately helps everyone.

The issues he works for are those frequently cited by protesting NFL players, as well as socially conscious players who choose not to protest.

Curtis has worked to end mass incarceration and to “ban the box,” which prevents employers from inquiring about applicants’ criminal records in the early phases of a job application. He also has worked to eliminate solitary confinement and to expand pretrial diversion programs.

He has experienced wins and losses. Connecticut has banned the box on job applications. And the state’s prison population has declined in recent years, in line with a national trend that has also seen the disparity between black and white incarceration rates decline. Still, the gap remains huge.

It is clearly a mixed record, but enough to keep Curtis motivated — and pushing gubernatorial candidates in his state to take a stand around racial impact statements.

“The people of Connecticut really need to hear their next governor say, ‘The buck stops here,’ ” Curtis said. “We need to know the government is not going to cause further harm or negative impact to our communities. We need to know that the governor is about people, not prisons.”

Michael A. Fletcher is a senior writer at The Undefeated. He is a native New Yorker and longtime Baltimorean who enjoys live music and theater.