April Swanson

Professor Salo

UP 260

05 November 2013

Critical Response #4: Thick Injustice in Champaign-Urbana

Thick injustice refers to the unjust “power relations” that are deeply embedded in the social structure of contemporary America. This injustice lies deep below the surface of the urban metropolis and is often difficult to see because it is rendered invisible in physical space, has historical roots, and has connections to local governance. Thick injustice is presented through these three mechanisms; however, these traits blur the existence of injustice as a serious issue facing the American metropolis.

To introduce these traits of thick injustice further, place for instance, causes injustice to thicken when it is concealed from the view of the elite. The privileged are therefore desensitized are largely unaware of this thick injustice built into society. This also occurs as a result of the commonly accepted but fabricated belief of personal preference when it comes to public residential choices. This view does not expose the factors that cause people to dwell in the areas of residence that they do and in a sense naturalizes unjust power relations between social classes. History is an interesting facet of modern thick injustice as well because although unjust legal doctrines discriminating against race and gender were eliminated mostly as a result of the civil rights movement, these historic acts of discrimination have molded current urban policies to have biased outcomes. Institutions also have a profound impact on the workings of thick injustice and its impermeability. The shifting institutional structure of America from a state centralized government to a decentralized system of smaller local governments working with private organizations may seem fairly democratic on the surface. One might think that this structure opens more opportunities for citizens to become involved in their local community. When one delves beneath the surface, however, it is difficult to assign responsibility for injustice and inequality among these smaller but more numerous actors, in turn creating an institution that is unresponsive to social issues.

In Champaign-Urbana, efforts have been made to uncover the thick injustice both on and off campus. After attending several Planners Network meetings, I became aware of one of the current main goals of the organization. The Planners Network, a student based organization, has been collaborating to fight against the Champaign County’s budget proposal to include 20 million dollars for expanding the existing county jail. The Planners Network, through bimonthly meetings of the organization, has been successful in disseminating information concerning this serious issue to students on campus interested in urban social justice. The biggest success is that through all the effort put forth by these social justice advocates, the County Board decided to halt the proposal entirely and have complied to allocate $200,000 for the funding of social programs.

The Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice (CUCPJ), is a local organization led by citizens of the Champaign-Urbana community has also been involved in the recent missions to mobilize the public to resist the current county budget proposal. The organization is firmly committed to allocating these funds to preventative measures instead of jail expansion and believes that these alternative measures will resist the injustice that mass incarceration creates.  This group and the Planners Network have been in accordance with local government by frequently attending Champaign County Board meetings in order to cease the jail expansion proposal. Both organizations note that this is a local instance of the nation-wide trend toward mass incarceration. They believe that it is important to take action because it is an institutionalized mechanism that targets the already blighted demographics of a larger society. These community activists have presented preventive solutions to this institution in lieu of the continuation of the prison pipeline that mainly affects low-income minorities. This is especially true of the current Champaign county jail facility in which 60% of prison inmates are African-American, although this demographic comprises only 12% of the population of Champaign (Dolinar, 2012). These organizations have been informants of other stark statistical realities concerning this issue. In the Planners Network meetings that I have attended, it has been presented that a large majority of the people in the Champaign jail are detained as a result of traffic violations. Although the jail enforces maximum security which has drained tax payer dollars in the county, the CUCPJ and the Planners Network has argued for minimum security facilities for those with minor, non-violent violations in order to conserve tax payer dollars for social services including but not limited to job training, youth education, and re-entry programs. Although the Planners Network and the CUCPJ have been successful in publicizing the county proposal that would have otherwise gone largely unnoticed by community members and students alike, the real goal of these organizations was to not only expose the injustice in mass incarceration but to reverse the trend and empower those who have already been swept up into the system and those who are riding precariously close.

Place is an important aspect of the thick injustice generated by mass incarceration as well. Champaign is a small town in East-Central Illinois and is primarily affiliated with the University of Illinois. The university campus, however, is vastly contrasted to the outskirts of the town and even more so with the rest of Champaign county. The campus is situated in the very center of the county’s boarders and is a concentrated hub of student facilities, tight-knit residences, commercial centers, and night life entertainment. The university campus is a place that has an ascribed social meaning that is determined by those who inhabit it: students. In a way, campus itself is a lived experience that hides the injustice in mass incarceration that occurs mainly outside of its boundaries. Students, who can be seen as the privileged demographic of the town, become desensitized to their surrounding community outside of campus. Place thickens injustice when it hides it away and causes unjust power relations to become obscure (Hayward & Swanstrom, 2011). The CUCPJ and the Planners Network are committed to bringing mass incarceration and it’s prevalence in the local community to the forefront of students concerns. Both organizations deem it important to be integrated in the community outside of campus and by attending County Board meetings, privileged students strengthen the voice of the less powerful.

The historical context of the issue makes this injustice thick as well. This is apparent in the structure of the legal and political institutions of local governance that has shaped current relations of power in the Champaign area. In decades past, minorities have been outright discriminated against through legal practices and although these injustices have been eliminated in law, they are still deeply embedded in contemporary society. In Champaign especially, there is a certain hierarchy prevalent that grants power to some and affliction to others. Historically, African-Americans were not allowed to attend the University of Illinois and today, they constitute a small minority of the student population. Very few African-American Champaign residents end up attending the university because the low-income population of the town consists of these citizens. Instead of receiving higher education, these low-income residents are targeted for their economic standing; increasingly their inability to pay off traffic violations that turn into larger infringements, causing many to become imprisoned. This has caused Champaign officials to propose the building of more jail cells for the county, a continuation of the injustices of mass incarceration. This proposal is not neutral in its effects because it has disproportionate effects on non-violent community members who cannot pay off their minor infractions. This illustrates the connection between historical amnesia and thick injustice of racial and class discrimination (Hayward & Swanstrom, 2011). The CUCPJ and the Planners Network work to dissolve the hierarchy that stands between the citizens of the Champaign area and the justice that is inherently deserved to them. Just because the local laws are not outright discriminatory does not undermine the power disparity highlighted by Champaign’s interests in mass incarceration. Although the current generation of students attending the university did not experience the Jim Crow era, efforts are being made to uncover the injustices that still lie below the surface.

Local groups comprised of student and community residences, including the Champaign-Urbana Citizens for Peace and Justice and the Planners Network have worked to exercise social justice at a local level. As nation-wide trends of mass incarceration continue to spiral out of control, the Champaign County has been no exception. Efforts made by both of these organizations to reverse this trend have caused the County Board to reconsider the social injustices caused by mass incarceration. These organizations have challenged a larger institution, the Champaign County Board, on the injustices ingrained in physical place which has been a result of governmental interest in mass incarceration and its connection to historical discrimination. Both community residents and students were able to become leaders in halting a massive continuation towards social inequality and were successful in uncovering thick injustice by determining responsibility and motivating collective action.


Works Cited

Hayward, Clarissa R. & Todd Swantrom. Justice and the American Metropolis. Minneapolis,

MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2011. Print.

Dolinar. CU Citizens for Peace & Justice, 10 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Nov. 2013.


Discussion Questions

  1. Is a collapse of the status quo and social disorder often the first step in reversing thick injustice?
  2. To what extent can we attribute thick injustice to personal preference? Although it is not the best approach in explaining injustice, how does the socialization play a role? I am thinking about University Housing and how Florida Avenue Residence became affiliated with the black student community and how the university chooses students to live in each residence?