“POLICING, AT PRESENT, is trapped in an intractable dilemma caused by the gap between a just society and the one we inhabit,” said Harvard political theorist Brandon Terry, leading off a Radcliffe Institute online conversation Monday afternoon on American policing and protest. His sentiment set the tone. For much of the next hour, Terry and two other speakers—Princeton anthropologist Laurence Ralph and Yale law professor and sociologist Monica Bell, Ph.D. ’18—kept circling this same idea: that the nation’s deep and urgent problem with policing, laid bare by the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, is much bigger than the police.
The panelists spoke about alternatives to incarceration, the failure of previous police reforms, and the history of policing as a tool for racial surveillance and control. They discussed Afro-pessimism, the view that history is fixed and racial domination inevitable (“I think we have to radically resist any account of history that’s so corrosive of our agency,” Terry said). And they talked about public funding for law enforcement—Ralph, who studies policing in Chicago, noted that $1.46 billion, or 40 percent of that city’s budget, goes toward the police department, and that between 2004 and 2016, Chicago taxpayers paid out $662 million in misconduct lawsuits. More than once, panelists questioned whether policing, as it now exists, actually makes American society safer. Recent conversations in the broader public sphere, Bell said, have begun to “disentangle policing from public safety, and to say, ‘OK, we're trying to achieve public safety. Is it possible that policing sometimes stands in the way of that?’”
Terry, an assistant professor in African and African American studies, argued that the country’s basic social structure “profanes” its stated ideals of civic equality and mutual respect: “Our lives are shaped by fantastic wealth inequalities and low social mobility.…If you look at redlining [the practice by government agencies and mortgage lenders that throughout the twentieth century systematically segregated housing by closing off certain neighborhoods to African American residents], lead poisoning, incarceration, and unemployment—all of these things map rather neatly onto violent crime.” Americans talk about meritocracy and community, Terry added, but at the same time, they allow the country’s worst-off neighborhoods to stay mired in mutually reinforcing cycles of despair.