How does race inequality play out in Restorative Justice?

Published: Wednesday, November 25th, 2020

A blog by Why me? Director Lucy Jaffé

I came across a book recently, Colorizing Restorative Justice, which challenged my perspective on Restorative Justice, its potential to do good, and the dangers of perpetuating racial injustice. This collection of essays asks how race inequality plays out in Restorative Justice and explores what can be done to ensure that restorative professionals and organisations challenge rather than replicate the unequal power structures in society. Coming after Fania Davis’ inspirational Little Book of Race and Restorative Justice, which explores how race and the US criminal justice system intersect, this new publication provides a beacon of hope and ideas for practitioners and policy-makers who are committed to social change.  

As the editors suggest, if Restorative Justice does not address racism in everyday policy and practice, then Restorative Justice could itself enable discriminatory conduct, because that is the default way the justice system and society operate. This book has a distinctly North American perspective, from the role of indigenous people to the language used (the term “people of colour” is used throughout) but many of the insights rang true for me in the UK. One example is the precondition of admittance of guilt for a restorative intervention to take place, which can be a barrier to many young people from black and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. 

During the last few months, the murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests have led to calls for a new approach to addressing racial injustice in the criminal justice system. Alongside this, we have seen calls for alternative approaches, including restorative approaches, to provide a place for people to talk about their needs and to be listened to, and find ways to move forward, indeed, Why me? held a race hate listening forum for BAME people along these lines.

However, as Desirée Anderson states, we often reach for restorative interventions to address disciplinary or criminal issues, instead of a holistic approach.  She argues that our understanding of harm, who is harmed and how to repair the harm is flawed, and that we are in danger of reinforcing structural inequality and re-traumatising individuals, whether harmed or harmer. This point is grippingly illustrated in the podcast ‘Nice White Parents’ about racial inequality in US schools. Imkaan’s 2018 training of Why me? offered practical and supportive ways of challenging personal and organisational prejudice by introducing reflective practice between co-facilitators and within the service.

This 20-author collection of essays offers many perspectives including intensely practical solutions, such as Sheryl Wilson’s ‘Calling out Whiteness’, in which she sets out a series of group discussions and workshops for organisations and individuals, including questions and prompts; or Sharon Goens-Bradleys’ race-conscious road map which reads like an outdoor orienteering activity and offers a clear set of steps to enrich understanding. 

We have a duty to ensure, as Fania Davis comments in the preface, that Restorative justice remains relevant and that as Restorative Justice professionals and advocates, we become more skillful at identifying, navigating, and transforming racial harm. With increased demand for restorative interventions, we have a duty as organisations and practitioners to address inequality and inter-racial needs in all we do. 

This includes the recruitment of Restorative Justice facilitators from diverse backgrounds, as well as leadership commitment to equality and reflective practice throughout the organisation. To that end the team at Why me? are currently working on a broad reaching organisational strategy which we hope will address some of these issues from the ‘inside out’. In 2021 we will be continuing to deliver restorative justice for marginalised groups and advocating for change for all across the criminal justice system to improve access to Restorative Justice for everyone.


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