Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

“We need a broad, non-racial political movement that aims at the foundation of our political economy...”

Glenn Loury

Black Communities and the Police: On the Meaning of Ferguson

Event Recap

Experts gather at the Watson Institute to debate Ferguson’s national implications

“Mike Brown is no Rosa Parks, and he ain’t no Emmett Till either.”

This was how Brown University Professor of Economics Glenn Loury described the crux of his argument during a recent Watson Institute panel on black communities and the police, which included Brown Professor and Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America Tricia Rose; Rutgers University Associate Professor of Political Science Lisa Miller; and Director of the New York Public Library Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture Khalil Muhammad.

The event was convened in response to Loury’s recent Boston Review article, “Ferguson Won’t Change Anything. What Will?” In the article, Loury argues, “The case of Michael Brown should not frame our deliberations on racism and public order.” Loury explained Thursday that his article highlights three unhelpful dualisms that are endemic to discussion surrounding Michael Brown—individual versus collective responsibility, police as “pigs” and civilians as “thugs,” and the image of victims as either “gentle giants or public menaces.”

“We need a broad, non-racial political movement that aims at the foundation of our political economy,” Loury explained, not the oft-discussed narrative of a stream of white oppression that has taken only slightly different forms from the Reconstruction through Jim Crow and to the present.

Khalil Muhammad pointed to multiple key points he found lacking in Loury’s argument, arguing that the central problem is not policing, but rather the mindset of the top leadership in law enforcement organizations. He also explained that law enforcement agents are not accountable to the communities they police, because of the “impact of federalism and ongoing challenges of electoral politics for minority populations.”

Muhammad also discussed the pervasive willingness to use taxpayer dollars to enforce racial subordination via the prison system, despite the high costs of incarceration—both financial and in terms of human capital.

In her remarks, Professor Tricia Rose drew parallels between Loury’s three points—individual v. community, pigs v. thugs, and gentle giant v. public menace—and the media’s polarization of these issues.

Rose argued that it is in the media’s and ruling elites’ interest to present “oppositional thinking,” because after the civil rights movement’s successes, explicitly racist laws were no longer acceptable forms of maintaining black subordination. The use of extremist speech and focusing on the individual—what they were doing when they were killed and “what kind of person they were”—end up obscuring structural racism.

Rose discussed the endemic “disaggregation” of individual cases—referring to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown—whereby systemic brutality is depicted as exceptionality.

Professor Lisa Miller of Rutgers focused her analysis on what she called “state failure,” or the inability and unwillingness of the state to intervene in positive ways in minority communities.

Rather than reign in the state, Miller suggested the goal should be to promote incentives for positive and active state involvement in communities.  She objected to an exclusive focus on the policing narrative as well, as it obscures the fact that black women often suffer in silence. An emphasis on black male victimhood conceals that while homicide is traditionally a male-on-male crime, African-American women are almost four times more likely to die from homicide when compared with overall national data.

During the discussion, Professor Loury defended members of the law enforcement community, saying, “I’m about to say something that Rudy Giuliani agrees with. Count the number of homicides in 2014 and compare to that 1994. We’re down to 400 from 2,000. Do the police have something to do with this? Yes!” Loury attributed this change—and the waning of stop-and-frisk—to the election of a new mayor.

Rose argued that rather than electing a new mayor who shares different views on policing, widespread social justice movements eventually helped change perceptions on stop-and-frisk.

Despite deep disagreement over how to approach issues of social justice and racial inequality, the event provided an opportunity to further the conversation on what Watson Institute director Richard Locke called, “One of the most pressing problems in the U.S. today.”

-Michael Chernin ‘15

Watch the webcast from the event