Many job and college applications include a question that reads something like, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” While this may seem like a simple question, used to filter out people who have committed crimes, it actually has huge racial implications and is therefore a very problematic question to have on an application. Whether companies and colleges realize it or not, this question traces back to laws in the criminal justice system that are made to purposely keep White people at the type of the hierarchy.
In her chapter on mass incarceration, Michelle Alexander (The New Jim Crow; 2010) explains that police are actually allowed to do a search based on race, but after that, all of the laws are based on the conviction and are therefore “not about race.” Colorblind ideology is the norm, so people are encouraged to avoid talking about race all together. However, for that split second, police can ignore that and be overtly racist when deciding who to search. After that, they switch right back to colorblind ideology and the crime is no longer talked about or thought about in terms of race.
Once someone is out of prison, they are kept in what Alexander calls an invisible cage. It becomes much harder, almost impossible, to get back into normal life. One obstacle is this box on applications that asks about being convicted of felony. Because people of color are more likely to be searched based on race and are seen as more culpable, they are more likely to be convicted of a felony. Therefore, this seemly simple question actually follows colorblind ideology in that it allows for companies to discriminate based on race without acknowledging it. This is just another way to keep the racial system of control in place.
Should applications remove this question from their applications? Clearly this is a short term solution to a bigger problem, but could this a good first step to take in the mean time?