Clayton Mosher reflects on career, racial disparities in policing, and role of public sociology

A front facing photo of Clay Mosher, from the shoulders up. He is looking into the camera. ng into the camera.
Clay Mosher

Amid the pandemic, there has been racial unrest regarding police brutality and systemic racism in the United States and elsewhere. We spoke with Clayton Mosher who has long worked on issues related to racial/ethnic inequalities in policing, in the academic and public sphere. In the interview below, Mosher tells us about his background, career path, and his experience as a public sociologist.

Sadie: How did you become interested in crime and racism? I know you got your PhD at the University of Toronto, but for people who don’t know about your background, can you talk about your dissertation and the resulting book Discrimination and Denial: Systemic Racism in Ontario’s Legal and Criminal Justice Systems, 1892-1961?

The cover of the book is dark, contrasted by two balled up fists.
Mosher’s first book, “Discrimination and Denial” 1998.

Clay: I grew up in a relatively small city in Northern Ontario (Thunder Bay, population approx. 100,000) that had a significant Aboriginal/First Nations population, and from an early age, I witnessed a great deal of mistreatment of these people, both on the part of law enforcement and citizens. I think that was part of my motivation to enroll in social science courses (especially sociology and criminology) at the University of Toronto. I strongly considered pursuing a law degree so that I could “change the world,” but decided instead to pursue a master’s degree in criminology at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. My thesis examined the history of cannabis (and drugs more generally) regulation in Canada. Following that, I returned to Toronto and enrolled in a PhD program in sociology. My thesis was a more general examination of the history of drug legislation, with a specific focus on the sentencing of drug offenders. As is the case in the U.S., Canadian drug legislation had racist foundations, and the enforcement of Canadian drug laws disproportionately targeted minority groups.

At the time I was working on my PhD, I was fortunate enough to be involved with the Ontario government’s Commission on Systemic Racism in the Criminal Justice System. I received a grant from the Commission and conducted research on the history of racism in the province’s legal and criminal justice systems. My report from that grant provided the foundation for my first book.

I should add that my research agenda (and approach to research) was impacted by my undergraduate and graduate training—the disciplines of Criminology and Sociology in Canada have something more of a critical orientation.

Sadie: Where has that research led you and how has your work progressed since then? What are you working on currently?

Clay: I have continued my research on drug policies and racial/ethnic inequality in criminal and juvenile justice systems, with a particular focus on the Clark County Juvenile Court: for almost 2 decades now, I have been conducting evaluations of juvenile court processes, both locally, and in Washington state more generally. A recent project, which was funded by the Washington State Partnership Council on Juvenile Justice, examined racial/ethnic disparity in school discipline and juvenile justice in Clark County. Among other findings, that report noted that, while juvenile crime and the incarceration of juveniles have declined significantly in the last 2 decades, racial/ethnic disparities (especially with respect to youth incarceration) have actually increased.

The cover of the book shows a close-up of a weed plant, and the background is orange to red ombre.
Mosher’s most recent book coauthored with Scott Akins (Oregon State University, WSU PhD, 2002), In the Weeds, 2019. Source: Amazon

Sadie: As a sociologist who does work on racial disparities in policing, what are your thoughts on the current situation regarding police brutality and race relations in the U.S.? How does your work speak to this issue?

Clay: From 2000 to about 2012, I also conducted research (with colleagues from the WSU political science and criminal justice departments) on biased policing for the Washington State Patrol and Vancouver, Washington, police department. That research involved examining millions of traffic stops and other police/citizen contacts, with a focus on racial disparities in stops, arrests/citations, searches, and use of force.

I believe much of that research is relevant to the current, and heated, discussions surrounding police brutality and race relations, because it speaks to the issues of systemic racism but also underscores the importance of understanding situational/contextual factors that lead to racially disparate outcomes.

Sadie: What do you believe to be the role of public sociology and how have you embodied this in your own career trajectory?

Clay: I have been very fortunate in my career to serve on numerous committees at the state and local levels that are focused on general criminal/juvenile justice and drug policy issues, several of which also address racial/ethnic disparities. This service is among the most rewarding aspects of my work, and I personally believe that, especially at a land-grant institution such as WSU, it is important for those of us who conduct research that has implications for the people of our state to engage in this type of work.

Having said that, engaging in public sociology exposes us to criticism. A recent example from my own experience: following the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, there were discussions in Clark County regarding systemic racism, with many (including local elected officials) denying its existence. I authored an opinion-editorial in the local paper (The Columbian), outlining what systemic racism is, and that, not surprisingly, it certainly exists here. In response to that piece, I received several nasty emails—and, yes, a few complimentary ones!