Border Cantos is a timely, new and free exhibit now on view at Crystal Bridges.
In the latest evidence of the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in shaping the American policy agenda, this past week has become "ban the box" week. Banning the box refers to the national (indeed international) movement to remove questions regarding past criminal convictions from job applications, thus reducing bias against individuals with a record at the earliest stages of the job-seeking process. While employers could ultimately do criminal checks on prospective workers and deny individuals a position because of concerns about their past, banning the box would allow prospective employees to make a positive impression before that stage. Undoubtedly, this policy creates a fairer playing field for individuals who have typically been eliminated before the interview process no matter their other positive attributes as employees.
This movement goes back a number of years with a smattering of communities barring questions about criminal records on public and/or private employers' job applications across the past 15 years. However, the energy for the practice has intensified in recent months as one of many strands of the Black Lives Matter movement. While much of that movement focuses on reforms to the criminal justice system itself, the ban the box effort focuses on the interplay of the justice system and society. The logic, of course, is that the opportunity at a fair fight for a job provides hope to those who have been in the criminal justice system previously, making it less likely that they will commit future crimes. While individuals of all demographic backgrounds with criminal pasts must check the box, it is African Americans — and African-American men in particular — who are disproportionately likely to be required to do so as they attempt to become full participants in their communities. The past week has been the vital moment when the movement for banning the box moved from the edges into the political mainstream.
On Monday, President Obama issued an executive order barring questions about criminal history on job applications for federal jobs. Last Friday, Hillary Clinton announced her support for an extension of that executive order to also cover federal contractors, a position previously promoted by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont). Clinton's other Democratic opponent — former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — brags of his signing legislation in his state banning the box for jobs in the public sector. Finally, New York City's ban that extends to the private sector went into effect last week as well, drastically increasing the number of American employers covered by the restriction.
In 31 other states, either at the state, county or city levels, there has been some move to ban on public or private sector employers from asking about criminal records in the job application process, according to the National Employment Law Project. While many private employers operating in Arkansas have voluntarily removed questions about criminal convictions from their applications — most significantly, Walmart, which moved away from the practice in 2010 — no locality in the state has instituted such a ban. It is one of many obstacles facing felons as they attempt to return to their lives and livelihoods after completing the penalty for their crimes. I remember well walking door-to-door during my campaign a few years back and regularly having the door answered by African-American men in their 20s in the middle of the day. These men would explain that they were continuing to pay a price for mistakes they'd made — often as juveniles — that they could not erase from their records and could not hide at the start of the job application process.
Little Rock — the state's largest city and, as a result, the place where the largest number of former felons are attempting to get their lives restarted — provides the best hope for movement forward on the issue in Arkansas. While a New York-style ordinance that covers private employers is unlikely to be achieved because of business concerns, the city should bar the box on the job applications of those companies contracting with the city. It would send a strong signal that the city needs felons to re-engage in the community and in the local economy. Moreover, it would have a real impact on those former felons effectively shut out of the job market.
Early this year, the city of Little Rock showed its commitment to justice by taking the step of barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in employment with the city and with such city contractors. The city should extend that same spirit of fairness and ban the box.