A Different Way of Seeing

After studying crime and gang violence in Chicago, Laurence Ralph—the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of Social Sciences at Harvard University—turns a critical eye on systemic police brutality
Laurence Ralph. Photo by Jonathan KozowykLaurence Ralph. Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk
By Julia Hanna

As an undergraduate co-op student at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Laurence Ralph RI ’16 was hired by the Ford Motor Company to work at one of its plants. But his assignment changed at the last minute: Ford had donated computers to an underserved school across the street from the Georgia Tech campus; Ralph would work on building the school’s technology network instead. That took about a month. For the rest of the semester, he served as a tutor and mentor.

Until that point, Ralph—a history, technology, and society major—had been uncertain about whether to opt for a practical career and pursue computer engineering. His co-op experience clarified things. “I realized I was more interested in the students, families, and community than installing the computer grid,” he recalls. “The school was poor, but the kids were so smart. They took advantage of every opportunity presented to them and engaged in a way that inspired me.”

Ralph went directly to the University of Chicago for graduate school, driven by his interest in the factors contributing to youth crime, violence, and mass incarceration. His first order of business, however, was finding an apartment. “When you arrive, people tell you, ‘Don’t live across the Midway—it’s dangerous across the Midway,’” he says of the thoroughfare dividing the University of Chicago campus from the city’s South Side. Ralph chose to live on the “wrong” side of the Midway. “You can look in one direction and see a pristine environment,” he says. “When you look the other way it’s like you’re in a different country. I was curious about that.”

To take a break from the demands of grad school, Ralph started volunteering for antiviolence programs in his new neighborhood. “I was interested in how the community was dealing with its own social problems,” he says. Yet when he considered possible topics for doctoral research, he somehow imagined his work taking place outside Chicago. During his third year of graduate school, he began to describe his interest in assembling a project on youth, crime, and violence, mentioning that he’d probably do his fieldwork elsewhere.

“Everyone said, ‘You want to study youth, crime, and violence, and you’re leaving Chicago?’” Ralph says. “That’s when I started thinking seriously about staying, and what that would look like.”

Not Just a Researcher—a Neighbor

The (anonymous) community he chose on the city’s West Side harbored the full constellation of institutions he wished to study: churches, police stations, a rehab center, and an incarceration facility—along with the headquarters of a large gang that had existed more than 50 years. The connections Ralph had made as a volunteer brokered introductions to community members across town, but he sensed a deep fatigue in the people he met, due to the many researchers who had come and gone before him. So he moved into the area, notorious for its high rate of violent crime.

Once poised to pursue a career in computer engineering, Ralph changed course after a co-op job led to his tutoring and mentoring students from an underserved school. Photo by Jonathan KozowykOnce poised to pursue a career in computer engineering, Ralph changed course after a co-op job led to his tutoring and mentoring students from an underserved school. Photo by Jonathan Kozowyk

“It helps when people can see you in different roles,” Ralph says. “You’re not just a researcher; you’re a neighbor.” A longtime skeptic of the sound bites used to characterize urban African American communities, Ralph spent four years living alongside the people of “Eastwood”—its gang members, pastors, grandmothers, community activists, people with HIV, teenagers, and wannabe rappers. The book he wrote as a result of his experiences, Renegade Dreams: Living through Injury in Gangland Chicago (University of Chicago Press, 2014), portrays them as complex, hopeful individuals who imagine a different future for themselves despite the physical and social injuries they’ve experienced.

A Full Immersion

Ralph’s book provides a full immersion in community dynamics, in sharp contrast to the stereotypical snapshots of urban poverty and violence often shown in popular media. Readers learn, for example, how a seemingly benign effort at community redevelopment by a church-affiliated nonprofit could inspire resentment rather than appreciation—and could, in fact, be considered a form of injury as a result of its disregard of residents’ analyses of the neighborhood’s needs. Ralph also introduces Tamara Anderson, a 40-something business owner who hoped to restore Eastwood’s reputation by creating a museum dedicated to the area’s activist past. She reached out to Otis Ball, one of the local gang’s oldest living members, because he kept in his basement an unofficial archive of neighborhood affairs over 50 years. In the book, Ball recalls the gang as a constructive institution years ago, and Anderson agrees: “I’ve come to realize we have to meet people where they’re at—not where we want them to be,” she says. “You can be a different kind of gang member . . . one that has a positive change on your peers and on your community.”

In order to gain the level of access that leads to such honest and revealing insights, Ralph spent time listening and observing. “A lot of my process involves writing down initial impressions, then adding the layer of my conversations with people, then another layer in putting those interactions into dialogue with scholarship and history,” Ralph says.

 The contradiction of the title lies in the fact that an organization charged with protecting and serving its citizens is contributing to violent deaths.” 

—Laurence Ralph on his book in progress, “The Contradiction: Policing, Race, and the Limits of Democracy in the 21st Century”

Beyond Bad Apples

As the 2015–2016 Joy Foundation Fellow at Radcliffe, Ralph turned his focus to a forthcoming book, “The Contradiction: Policing, Race, and the Limits of Democracy in the 21st Century.” Also centered on Chicago, the book will weave his interviews and observations with media accounts and court transcripts of cases of police brutality in Chicago since the 1980s.

“The contradiction of the title lies in the fact
 that an organization charged with protecting and serving its citizens is contributing to violent deaths,” says Ralph, adding that the overriding impression members of the public might draw from recent cases such as that of Laquan McDonald is that an officer was simply a bad apple. It’s an easy mindset to fall into, Ralph says, yet one that completely overlooks a decades-long, recurring pattern of systemic misconduct and violence. He hopes “The Contradiction” will be part of a growing conversation about new ways of approaching criminal justice and mass incarceration reform. He cites as a potential model the efforts of Chicago activists who in 2014 traveled to the United Nations in Geneva to seek accountability for police violence as a human rights issue.

“International laws give people a different language to talk about systemic racism and the 
fact that African Americans are disproportionately impacted by police violence,” says Ralph. “The work of these activists is important in the sense that going to the UN opens up a space to imagine how the law can be more expansive.” In other words, it creates a way to see how the case of Andrew Wilson, a murder suspect who in 1982 was beaten, electrocuted, violated, and burned by three Chicago police officers, could be equated to instances of government-sanctioned torture, child soldiers, and other human rights violations recognized by international criminal courts.

“My hope is that creative solutions can be imagined to solve the problem,” says Ralph. “I don’t know what those solutions will be yet.” What is clear, he argues, is that reform won’t come from the publication of yet another official report or firing police department higher-ups. But maybe, just maybe, 
it will come from a different way of seeing. That’s something Ralph contributes to every day, through the simple, radical act of doing research and writing.

Julia Hanna is an associate editor at the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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