Fresno panel discusses racism in justice system

The Fresno BeeMay 22, 2014 

A panel discussion Thursday night at Fresno City College encouraged dialogue between different ethnic and religious communities in hopes of challenging the underlying stereotypes that drive racism.

Organized by Faith in Community and No Name Fellowship, five panelists drew on their personal experiences during the discussion, which focused specifically on racism in the prison system.

"There's not just one justice system in America," said panelist Reza Nekumanesh, a representative of the Muslim community from the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno.

Discussing societal factors such as poverty, immigration and education, the panelists agreed there is a need for change within a system that discriminates against minority groups.

"One of the big questions we have to continue to ask ourselves is, do we really believe that criminality is more an inherent quality in people of color?" said pastor Michael McBride from The Way Church of Berkeley.

For Fresno City Council Member Oliver Baines, the major negative impact of incarceration is the disruption it causes families. A former Fresno police officer, Baines spoke of his experiences seeing the justice system disproportionately affect minority families in poverty.

"It disallows our families to be home and to heal," Baines said.

Several panelists said while finding a solution is no easy task, community members can begin the process by starting conversations between the diverse cultures of the Central Valley.

Panelist Stephanie Kamey, representing Fresno's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said such inclusive dialogue provides an opportunity to spread success stories — challenging the preconceived notion that such examples in minority communities are exceptions.

The fifth panelist, Noe Hernandez of the Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary, expressed his concern about America being a culture in which incarceration is taken "lightly." Drawing on his personal experience going through the prison system, Hernandez said a key problem is that minorities often lack the money to hire defense lawyers.

The panel discussion was the final event of "Race in Fresno," a community conversation series held to raise awareness about race as a barrier for people in the city and the need to build bridges to end such ethnic divisions.


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