Justice In America Season 3: Donovan X. Ramsey
Donovan X. Ramsey joins Josie Duffy Rice as a guest cohost for season 3 of the podcast, starting February 26.
The third season of Justice in America launches February 26. You can find it on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, SoundCloud, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Hosted by Josie Duffy Rice, president of The Appeal, each episode of Justice in America focuses on a different topic in the criminal justice system. Through conversation, storytelling, media, and interviews, the show sheds light on how our system functions, and the ways in which it disproportionately harms poor people and people of color.
This season, the show features four guest co-hosts. Let’s meet one of the hosts, Donovan X. Ramsey.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Donovan X. Ramsey is an indispensable voice on issues of identity, politics, and patterns of power in America. His commentary on racial politics during the Obama era has been featured in the New York Times and his reporting and commentary on the criminal justice system have appeared in outlets including WSJ Magazine, The Atlantic, GQ, Gawker, BuzzFeed, Vice, and Ebony, among others.
Ramsey served most recently as the commentary editor at The Marshall Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning news organization dedicated to the U.S. criminal legal system. Before The Marshall Project, he worked as an editor and writer at a number of outlets including Complex, NewsOne, and NBC’s theGrio.com.
Ramsey holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Morehouse College. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia, and is currently completing his first book, a history of the crack cocaine epidemic for One World—an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade book publisher.
Josie Duffy Rice: Hey everyone. I’m Josie Duffy Rice. Season three of Justice in America is just around the corner and we’re doing things a little bit differently this time around. Clint Smith is writing three books, has two kids so he won’t be able to join us this season and we’re going to miss him. But I called on some amazing people to join me as co-host for season three and we’re so excited to have them on. So I invited each of my new co-hosts to talk a little bit about who they are for our ten questions bonus. And this time we’re talking to Donovan X. Ramsey. So Donovan’s a journalist, he’s the author of When Crack Was King, which is a forthcoming history of the crack epidemic. Just like me he lives here in Atlanta and we’re so excited to have him on. So let’s talk to Donovan.
We are here with our guest co-host, Donovan Ramsey, and we’re going to ask him a couple of questions so our audience can get to know him as we get ready for season three. So hi Donovan.
Donovan X. Ramsey: Hey Josie.
Josie: Our first question is where do you live and where are you from?
Donovan: I’m originally from Columbus, Ohio, which is the capital of Ohio, home of the Buckeyes.
Josie: Yes. Love the Buckeyes.
Donovan: And I currently live in Atlanta, Georgia.
Josie: Yes. Right down the street from me. Tell us a little bit about what you do, what you’re working on these days and what your day to day is.
Donovan: Sure. So I am a journalist and I’m writing my first book, which is what I’m calling a people’s history of the crack epidemic.
Josie: Like me you are very interested in the criminal justice system, we are both criminal justice journalists. And what kind of got you interested in working on this topic in particular?
Donovan: Yeah, I mean I think on a personal level I’ve always been interested in policing in particular. I am a person that kind of just has issues with authority, I think. So that put me in journalism, but I think also sort of made me have lots of questions about policing and how policing works. So when I was in journalism school, I went to Columbia in New York, one of my first assignments was going to a community sort of precinct meeting and I just realized that there was like this entire world about community safety and policing that just was not tapped into. And my professor liked the piece and I think I was hooked from there.
Josie: And in terms of the work on the criminal justice system, the books, the articles, the writers, who has had the most influence on your view of the system or what work has had the most influence on your view or is your kind of favorite work about the system?
Donovan: When I think about a book like The New Jim Crow, I’m inspired not just by the ideas that Michelle Alexander presented, but I think that she found with that phrase an incredible way to create language around something that a lot of people thought about the criminal justice system and it kind of just unlocks people’s curiosity, right? To say “the new Jim Crow” and as a writer that’s super inspirational right there. Like what you want to be able to do is to master language in a way you can use words that people have in their head and kind of explode them to create new meaning. But another book that I think was really instrumental in kind of developing my view of the criminal justice system was Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s The Condemnation of Blackness because he gets into the deeper questions about identity and American values and the ways that race has always been intertwined with our criminal justice system.
Josie: Is there a sort of one moment or one experience that you had that influenced the way that you see the criminal justice system?
Donovan: I’m from Columbus. Columbus is a city that historically has always sort of had issues with its police and in particular with its police union. These were not things that I knew about growing up. Right? That, you know, you would just see police officers sort of around and they were just a part of the architecture of sort of how the city ran and operated. But there was maybe one summer when I must’ve been about 12 or so, and I remember my aunt, she had a neighbor behind her, sort of these like kids. They must’ve been like 15, 16, and during this summer they were making all of this noise, all of this commotion. And then towards the end of the summer we actually saw them in their backyard fighting dogs. And of course we were horrified. We told my aunt who called the police. So I’ll never forget my cousin Troy and I were waiting on her front porch for the police to show up. Right? Cause it’s summer in Ohio. Like what else are you doing? So, the police pulled up in front of my aunt’s house because she had called them and when they got out they immediately put their hands on their guns. And I remember not consciously thinking you should be very careful right now in this moment, but by like the grace of god, we just didn’t do anything. We were just standing there waiting to see what was going to happen. And it wasn’t until they came up to the house and my aunt then came out to the porch that they took their hands off their guns. And I remember just sort of like reflecting back on that moment and being, first I think for a while I was confused about what was happening or like why that happened. And the older I got, the more sort of terrified it made me. It’s thinking about sort of all the things that could have gone wrong and then it just didn’t make any sense. Right? Sort of like if you’re coming to the house where you know the call was made why would you suspect that people at the house were, you know, in some way a threat.
Josie: I know I-
Donovan: Well, yeah. So, that was an experience that I think sort of left an impression on me. And I’ve since then known tons of police officers. I’ve interviewed tons of police officers and I understand that institution a lot better. But I think that it implanted in me a skepticism about both our police and our system more broadly.
Josie: So where do you go for news?
Donovan: Ooh, where do I go for news? I mean, of course I read all the things that a lot of journalists read, so I read The Times and The Atlantic and The New Yorker for criminal justice. Of course I read The Marshall Project, I read The Appeal, but I’m also really into social media. Twitter for me is just a constant source of like people’s takes on the news. You get really interesting stories from on the ground. But then there are some more unconventional sources like The Shade Room, Baller Alert. Every now and then they actually do present big national stories. And I think the absolute best thing about social media is that you can get into those comments and see the ways that people are reacting almost in real time and folks that you wouldn’t hear from otherwise.
Josie: Yeah. Definitely. I love The Shade Room. So you’re in good company. What are you reading now?
Donovan: What am I reading now? So I am currently writing my book, so I’m not reading a whole lot of anything that isn’t like a primary source document that sort of relates to the crack epidemic. But the last book that I read that I really, really enjoyed was I re-read Song of Solomon and I think that it’s really important for us to, you know, even those of us that work in journalism and are writing nonfiction to still be able to read fiction because it expands the imagination in a way that reading nonfiction can’t, like if you’re just reading everything terrible happening day to day from news sites, then your imagination gets smaller and smaller and more restricted to the way that the world is. But when you read somebody like Toni Morrison, right? Who is dealing with big ideas and fantastic scenarios, it brings out just so much possibility.
Josie: Is there any topic within the criminal justice system that is of particular importance to you or that you especially like to focus on or that is most interesting?
Donovan: Coming from a background of doing like mostly police reporting I want to always be interested in how the conversation around policing develops in this current presidential cycle. There’s been a lot of conversation around the role of mayors, right? Like someone like Pete Buttigieg or you saw when Bill de Blasio was still in the race conversations around his handling of the Eric Garner case. So that’s always fascinating to me and I think it’s something that policing is such a central institution in American life there’s always a story out there, but I’m also right now I think after many years of covering that topic, I’m very interested in big ideas around our criminal justice system. I want to look into the movements around abolition, whether it’s prisons, police, probation, parole. I’m interested in models where people are actually doing some of that work. And those are the stories that I’m just constantly fascinated by and always looking for.
Josie: Great. What do you do for fun? The people that we have on this show and the people that are guest hosting are all kind of dealing with a system that’s exhausting and sad and upsetting. So what do you do that’s not criminal justice related when you need to get away from this?
Donovan: As you can tell from my news consumption habits I’m kind of into like trash content. And I think that if you are constantly covering things that are super serious and dire, that you have to be able to like immerse yourself in things that just don’t make any sense. So any programming that starts with The Real Housewives of is like catnip to me. I’m kind of sad to say this, but I do also watch Love After Lockup.
Josie: I’ve watched it with you. I’m sad to say that too.
Donovan: And it’s interesting on two levels, right? One you kind of just get the voyeurism into people’s everyday lives that you normally wouldn’t be able to see, but also as somebody that cares about the criminal justice system, I’m constantly seeing things right within that little piece of entertainment about people’s love lives, stories about like what it means to be on probation or how people have been changed by being incarcerated. So I sort of like a bit of a guilty pleasure, but also I kind of feel like it’s a little bit nutritious at the same time.
Josie: And our last question is, what is your favorite criminal justice movie? And that can be any movie that includes the criminal justice system? It’s a broad question.
Donovan: In any possible way. I would say that my favorite criminal justice movie is A Time to Kill because John Grisham is just, I mean the like suspense and the intrigue, but Samuel L. Jackson is terrific in it. He delivers that line, “They deserve to die and I hope they rot in hell.” And he just, you know, does it at that Samuel L. Jackson volume that nobody else can duplicate.
Josie: A young Matthew McConaughey’s in it.
Donovan: A young Matthew McConaughey looking like a young Matthew McConaughey.
Josie: He sure is.
Donovan: And then you also have, I mean to take it to like a deeper level, a really interesting analysis of what justice means, right? So he kills these guys because they assault his daughter and that he’s a black man in the South, they’re white and somehow connected to the clan. And it’s a scenario where it kind of upends people’s ideas I think of what justice is. It’s an obvious rip off of To Kill a Mockingbird, I think.
Donovan: But still super, super satisfying
Josie: A rip off of To Kill a Mockingbird is still pretty good. Okay, great. Thank you so much Donovan. We’re so excited to have you on the show.
Donovan: Thank you.
Josie: Please make sure to also check out our ten questions bonus for Derecka Purnell, me, Josie Duffy Rice, Zak Cheney Rice and Darnell Moore. Our new season starts on February 26th so subscribe on Apple Podcasts, on Stitcher, on Google Play or wherever you listen to podcasts and find us on Facebook at Justice in America or on Twitter @Justice_Podcast. We’re looking forward to talking to you on February 26th.