Making Sense of the Senseless

Academics are called to help interpret and guide a national response to police violence and related civil unrest.

June 3, 2020
 
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There is a biting senselessness in what happened to George Floyd, whose death catalyzed national protests: he was denied breath for nearly nine minutes by police for allegedly using a counterfeit $20 bill at a corner store, all of it caught on video by a gathering crowd.

The same senselessness hangs over the deaths of so many other unarmed black men and women killed by police. It hangs, too, over the shooting death of black runner Ahmaud Arbery, whose white alleged killers evaded criminal charges until recently, when a video of the incident surfaced.

Yet trying to make sense of seemingly inscrutable problems is what academics do. So just as they’re emerging from the deep end of rapid remote spring term instruction, they’re being plunged into another national crisis. This time, it’s racially motivated police violence, subsequent protests and myriad related questions, and how academe must respond.

In print, on social media and TV, and in comments to Inside Higher Ed, academics who study race, culture and criminal justice are sharing their interpretations of recent events. They're also sharing what those events mean for academe, especially the curriculum.

Yes, It's a Systemic Problem

Hedwig Lee, professor of sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, co-wrote a 2019 study on the risk of being killed by police, by age, race and sex. She found that during their lifetime, black men have a one in 1,000 chance of dying this way, 2.5 times higher than white men.

Black women and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are also significantly more likely to be killed by police force than whites, while Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men, according to Lee’s study. Her other research suggests that that living in a neighborhood with aggressive policing hurts residents’ mental health and well-being, and that family members of those who are incarcerated face chronic stress and other health risks.

Frank Edwards, Lee’s collaborator on the police study and an assistant professor of criminal justice at Rutgers University at Newark, said that police violence is a "systemic problem" that “disproportionately harms black, Native and Latinx communities."

The same communities that have been subject to segregation, deindustrialization, disenfranchisement via what Edwards called mass criminalization, and high levels of exposure to environmental and health hazards are also "the same communities that experience incredible levels of police violence," according to spatial analyses.

"The science," he continued, "is overwhelmingly clear."

Edward Maguire, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who studies policing and violence, agreed that the “use of coercive authority against black people -- including the use of violence -- is a systemic problem that deserves much more attention than it has gotten.”

As someone who identifies as black and Puerto Rican, Lee has had personal experiences concerning police brutality. When Lee was a teenager, for instance, her father was walking to his car after a meeting while talking to the family on his cellphone. Then he saw a group of young black men in a confrontation with a police officer and stopped to help de-escalate the situation. The last thing the family heard before Lee’s father’s phone cut out was yelling.

Lee’s father was a lawyer, a former school board president and a local newspaper columnist, but as a black man, she said, “we knew he was not safe. I remember bursting into tears of utter relief when he came through the door. My Puerto Rican family members face similar experiences.”

Across the Curriculum

Beyond personal anecdotes, the data speak volumes. Yet Lee said that for everyone to truly “get” them “requires innovations in teaching across disciplines that center and integrate race and ethnicity, as well as intersectionality.”

Many colleges and universities already require that students of all majors have some grounding in race and ethnicity through their general education programs. But a real education in these topics doesn’t last one day, one term or one course, Lee said. Instead, it’s “something woven into our curriculum in meaningful ways.”

In response to recent events and the history behind them, she said she hopes to see extensive curricular changes spanning disciplines in race and ethnicity and civics, at the undergraduate level in particular, but also the graduate level, including in medicine. This means studying contemporary and historical understandings of racial violence and protest that go beyond police violence, to include what Lee called the "slow violences" of racial segregation and environmental discrimination.

While one class will suffice, Lee reiterated, "this would also be a good time for universities to consider developing new courses around topics such as race and ethnicity, understanding racial violence, and civic education" -- and to support the faculty members teaching them. Lee said that in general, students crave these kinds of courses.

This fall, for example, Lee is scheduled to teach a course, called Sick Society, on health disparities, which draws students from different majors. She plans to adapt it with research and public writing on the health and racial disparities within the COVID-19 pandemic and concerning police violence.

Ibram X. Kendi, professor of history and director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University, for instance, this week published a gutting essay in The Atlantic linking the disproportionately high number COVID-19-related deaths among black people to police killings of black men and women.

Teaching Antiracism

"To be black and conscious of anti-black racism is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction," Kendi wrote. "Ask the souls of the 10,000 black victims of COVID-19 who might still be living if they had been white. Ask the souls of those who were told the pandemic was the 'great equalizer.' Ask the souls of those forced to choose between their low-wage jobs and their treasured life. Ask the souls of those blamed for their own death. Ask the souls of those who disproportionately lost their jobs and then their life as others disproportionately raged about losing their freedom to infect us all. Ask the souls of those ignored by the governors reopening their states."

The "American nightmare," Kendi said, "has everything and nothing to do with the pandemic. Ask the souls of Breonna Taylor," who was killed by police in Louisville, Ky., in March, Arbery and Floyd. "Step into their souls."

Shannon Gibney, a professor of English at Minneapolis College who has written books about race, said these are "strange, difficult and exhausting times.”

The mood among “so many of my colleagues is exhaustion and sadness,” she said. “Some of us -- especially the few of us who are black -- are also really angry that this is happening, that it keeps happening, that the [Minneapolis police] and police forces in general are sanctioned to kill black bodies with impunity in Minneapolis and throughout the country.”

As a faculty, however, she said, “We need to continue to find ways to support students and those most vulnerable members of our community who are many times on the front lines of these battles. We had better already have incorporated aspects of stories of those impacted by incarceration and racial violence in policing into our curriculum, or we will become even more irrelevant to our students than we are already.”

A number of individual scholars and groups are assembling antiracist reading lists or syllabi as part of their public outreach or to use with students. Kendi recently published his own "Antiracist Reading List" in The New York Times. Kendi's 2019 book How to Be an Antiracist tops several other lists.

"No one becomes 'not racist,' despite a tendency by Americans to identify themselves that way. We can only strive to be 'antiracist' on a daily basis, to continually rededicate ourselves to the lifelong task of overcoming our country’s racist heritage," Kendi wrote in the Times. "To build a nation of equal opportunity for everyone, we need to dismantle this spurious legacy of our common upbringing. One of the best ways to do this is by reading books. Not books that reinforce old ideas about who we think we are, what we think America is, what we think racism is."

Instead, he said, "we need to read books that are difficult or unorthodox, that don’t go down easily. Books that force us to confront our self-serving beliefs and make us aware that 'I’m not racist' is a slogan of denial."

Lee also hopes to incorporate some more research on civic participation into her class next semester. Students "want to know the sources of social problems," she said, "but they also want to understand the solutions."

The Criminal Justice Curriculum

Beyond the general curriculum, some discussions have centered on how criminal justice programs need to change.

Edwards said that “race is at the center of how the U.S. criminal justice system operates and should be a subject in any serious criminal justice course, not an adjacent or separate course.” Any reform effort should also "push further to note the antidemocratic elements of U.S. policing," he said. "Police have played a prominent and aggressive role in the suppression of a vast range of social movements."

Maguire, of Arizona State, said any program that isn’t “actively taking on the kinds of justice issues that the current movement is highlighting should consider doing so.”

There's a tendency in some corners of criminology to think of "crime alone as our principal outcome of interest," and that other social factors “only matter to the extent that they influence crime,” he said. Yet in a democracy, “thinking about crime control without focusing on justice is shortsighted. The racial justice issues that are coming to light right now are core issues of our era, and our academic programs need to take them on.”

These issues have been part of Arizona State’s criminology curriculum for years, he said, and the faculty plan to “continue to do that work with a renewed sense of vigor.”

Asked about the language used to discuss police brutality, Maguire said that “police violence” is often used in academic writing and in social justice circles, and that's OK. The term remains “deeply offensive to the police,” however, he said. For scholars who seek to influence policy, then, “it would not be a bad idea to think carefully about the language they use.”

Jeffrey Czarnec, a former police officer and current associate dean for criminal justice and social sciences at Southern New Hampshire University, said that the criminal justice program there debuted a competency-based curriculum in fall 2019. Many of the issues at play in the Floyd case and others like it motivated the overhaul.

“The philosophy of the program is to address things that go wrong like we’re seeing today,” Czarnec said. Among other topics, students study discretion, subjectivity and bias and build cultural competence and communication skills. They’re asking to complete projects for diverse audiences, including recently settled immigrants to the U.S.

Czarnec said the program attracts students from a range of backgrounds, who are ultimately learning about problem solving.

“We’re trying to create compassionate, critical thinking problem solvers with cultural competence who are at ease in any particularly circle they’re working in,” he said. “At the root of many types of poor decision making that manifests itself in racist activity or bias is ignorance.”

Showing Up

As for how institutions and individual faculty members can respond to this particular moment, Lee said that “showing up” can and should take many forms.

Recognizing and naming the “suffering that communities are facing -- including students, faculty and staff, but also, and importantly, surrounding communities -- is a necessary first step.” She cited her own chancellor’s public remarks as strong example of this kind statement.

The next step is identifying “short- and long-term strategies that universities can do that serve to address racial and ethnic inequality and injustices and making these transparent to the communities they serve and work with.” Curricular changes “are just one strategy.”

Individual faculty members, meanwhile, can reach out to students, colleagues and staff members to offer support, Lee said. Faculty members are already under stress due to COVID-19, and faculty members of color may be particularly stressed by the events of the last week.

Praising the University of Minnesota’s recent distancing from the Minneapolis Police Department, Edwards said, “We also have a real opportunity to rethink the role of collaboration with police at the university level.” More universities should “think critically about how they collaborate with police and whether such collaborations are in the best interests of their students and the communities they are in.”

Gibney said she has little hope that systemic change will happen any time soon within predominantly white academe. Her classroom is a different story, though, "so that is where I put my faith and my energy."

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