I have closely followed the developments of the nearly two weeks since George Floyd’s needless death in Minneapolis. But as I look over the past 11 days, I find myself less analytical and more introspective.
This week Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer wrote about the ways in which his life and successful career had been in part the result of the privilege attached to his race and class status. He tells of how his family had setbacks, but inherited wealth and connections of social capital opened doors that wouldn’t open otherwise.
Meanwhile, Thomas Reese, S.J., wrote this compelling piece for the Religion News Service. Titled, “My generation failed to deal with racism“, he rightly observes that the Boomer generation recognized the inequities of racial inequality and simply chose not to deal with it. Tom, a decade older than me, represents the front edge of the Boomers while I fall right in the middle of the cohort. But I share in his recognition that we have not championed change and now must leave it to others to pick up from our failure.
Yesterday, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota shared on Twitter that two of the officers charged with aiding and abetting in the death of George Floyd were graduates from the sociology program there. Minnesota had a track preparing students for careers in law enforcement.
I am now in my third week of retirement but these three stories have me reflecting over things said and left unsaid in my courses in sociology and criminal justice, in my role as an academic administrator, and as a member of the larger Christian college community.
There are rational reasons why I didn’t say more. I knew that the institutions tended to see sociologists as liberal social justice warriors, so I kept my comments more general and nuanced than what I really thought. I knew the constituency didn’t like social advocacy and so I didn’t push too hard. I bought into what MLK called “the tranquilizing drug of incrementalism“, accepting small steps as important when larger ones were called for. I knew my students were disproportionately from smaller and more rural towns and had strong pro-police sentiments (relying on “war on police” rhetoric).
I did ground my teaching in what we knew about structural inequality. We talked about stop and frisk and police deployment and mass incarceration and the challenges of reentry. I tried to raise the questions about the vast amounts of money we spend on criminal justice and how if we invested just a fraction of those funds into community and economic development our reliance on criminal justice would go down.
But there was so much more to say.
I could have talked more about how the culture of policing leads one to prioritize loyalty to peers and superiors over impact on the citizenry. The reckless assault on Martin Gugio in Buffalo under the auspices of “clearing the streets” and the subsequent protest of the other officers on the task force makes this clear.
I could have talked more about the importance of officer discretion and how an oversimplified view of the law is problematic. The NYPD actions on the Manhattan Bridge that trapped protestors between two groups of officers shouldn’t have happened. Sure, curfew violation is technically a Class B misdemeanor punishable by up to 3 months in prison, but arresting and prosecuting hundreds of violators is not feasible. The point was to get them off the street — no need to treat them like criminals to be subdued, beaten, or gassed.
I could have spent more time on how default assumptions about “criminal neighborhoods” become self-fulfilling prophecies. We have assumed those neighborhoods are poor and crime-ridden, used that as a justification for lack of economic and social investment, deployed our police force to patrol those areas, and expected them to be areas where police need to show maximum strength. No big surprise that they show disproportionate arrest rates.
I could have said more to administrators about Christian college’s tendency to support a type of model minority myth. We want to diversify our student body and our faculty, but we want “the right kind” of diversity. Rather than adjusting to open doors for underserved populations, we too often expected them first to “fit in” and be like us.
I could have talked more about the churches our students came from and how homogeneous they were both racially and politically. The ways in which being THAT sort of Christian get normalized could have been compassionately challenged.
I could have spent much more time interrogating the political talking points and legislative policies that fly past so many of our students (and faculty). The underlying assumptions needed to be exposed as the manipulative strategies they are.
I could have spoken more about the importance of civil disobedience and the role of protest movements in fomenting social change. Yes, these have the risk of being coopted by those interested in looting and sometimes people get caught up in collective behavior. But it is wrong to assume that protestors are “idle college students” seeking to destroy things. If the past two weeks have told us anything, it is that people are sincere in their concerns (even if they provoke the police).
I could have said more about how the warrior stance of policing become quickly problematic. It encourages an officer to see threat present everywhere and be prepared to act accordingly. We are one month past the 50th anniversary of the Kent State shootings that told us what happens when we put a group of militarized officers into a strange situation and have people mistreat them.
I could have spent more time encouraging us to see the common humanity present in all social interactions. My restorative justice students get introduced the the African notion of “ubuntu” — the mutuality and interdependence of our shared humanity. It’s the one thing they are still talking about at the end of the course and hopefully for decades after.
In many ways, being a retired sociologist gives me the freedom to worry less about how others will hear my words. I may still offend some, but am outside any institutional confines i may see as limiting.
So now I’ll be saying quite a bit more.