Evidence-Based Action Is Required

Scholars must help inform the creation and implementation of policies that protect black communities from racial profiling and end police killings of unarmed black people, writes Shaun R. Harper.

June 4, 2020
 
 
Istock.com/Viktor Kyselov

I value black people and our lives. And like most researchers, I also value evidence.

Evidence from multiple data sources across numerous academic disciplines and fields consistently highlights systems that cyclically disadvantage black people. Clearly, policing is one of those systems that warrants more attention.

The evidence that researchers furnish in peer-reviewed academic journals and elsewhere normally emerges from rigorous interpretation. Scholars could independently analyze the same evidence yet reach vastly different conclusions. I appreciate this. Notwithstanding, I hope each of us concludes that the video-recorded murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, is horrifying and inexcusable. I care more about our collective interpretation, though, than I do about the unanimity of our conclusion.

I urge us to resist misinterpreting the outcome of this one black person’s interaction with four Minneapolis police officers as an isolated incident. Too much evidence confirms it is not.

Furthermore, it would be intellectually irresponsible of us to misinterpret protests in cities across the country as unreasonable overreactions to this single incident. Trustworthy archival evidence and oral histories help us understand how murders of black people without consequence have occurred for centuries. Quantitative evidence of officer-involved shootings of black people over the past decade is easy to find. Also, those of us who value qualitative forms of evidence, as well as colleagues who actually take time to listen to black people’s interpretations of our own realities, understand that this week’s uprisings are in response to long-standing systems of racism and state-sanctioned violence against black bodies.

As scholars who teach and conduct research at colleges and universities, we have a responsibility to call for the use of evidence in the onboarding, professional learning, leadership development and accountability of law enforcement officers. It is also our responsibility to use data to inform the creation and implementation of policies that protect black communities from racial profiling and the use of excessive force in police interactions.

Research universities like mine often incentivize interdisciplinary collaboration among faculty members. Also, higher education institutions often attempt to be useful to their local communities. Given this, provosts and vice presidents for research can incentivize professors from criminal justice, sociology, African American studies, public policy, statistics, and other academic departments to work with each other and with local police forces and mayors’ offices to address racist law enforcement policies and practices. That would be one powerful way to confirm that black lives, interdisciplinarity and community engagement do indeed matter.

We cannot place the responsibility of criminal justice reform entirely on our academic colleagues in the field of criminal justice, as police killings of unarmed black people have enormous educational, social and psychological consequences. One is the trauma that ensues for black students. We have plenty of evidence to confirm that students who are exposed to violence and trauma perform less well academically than their peers. Another consequence is the psychological toll that these killings have on our black colleagues, friends and neighbors.

Saying “black lives matter” simply is not enough. We must unite with colleagues on our campuses and across institutions, as well as with researchers within and beyond our academic fields and disciplines to take bold, evidence-based action that exposes and ultimately ends the catastrophic police killings of unarmed black people.

Bio

Shaun R. Harper is a provost professor at the University of Southern California and executive director of the USC Race and Equity Center. He also is president of the American Educational Research Association; this essay is an adaptation of a statement he sent to its 25,000 members.

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