Michael Wenye Li / Sun Senior Photographer

Marc Lacey '87 moderated the virtual "Racism in America" panel, dealing with topics such as systemic racism and police reform.

September 18, 2020

‘Racism Is Embedded’: Scholars Wrestle With Issues of Racism, Policing and Mass Incarceration

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Editor’s Note: This article references anti-Black violence and police brutality. 

This past summer, the death of George Floyd ignited a flurry of ongoing nationwide protests over police brutality and a spate of questions about the state of policing and incarceration in the United States.

At a panel Wednesday evening, scholars tackled these many questions on policing, racism and how the U.S. could move forward in reforming its current law enforcement system.

National Editor of The New York Times and Distinguished Visiting Journalist Marc Lacey ’87 moderated the panel; panelists included Prof. Peter Enns, government, Prof. Anna Haskins, sociology, Prof. Sabrina Karim, government, and Prof. Joseph Margulies, law and government.

Enns kicked off the panel by discussing his personal experiences with the prison system, describing how he has friends in the prison, students who have been incarcerated as well as friends and neighbors who are prosecutors and police officers.

“These experiences remind me that ultimately, we’re talking about people’s lives. We have a system that needs to change,” Enns said. “And I believe it is possible to make changes that benefit everyone, community members, police, those in prisons and those responsible for guarding those in prison.”

Haskins brought up the cases Amy Cooper, a white woman who called the police on a Black man for bird-watching, and Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black people at a church in South Carolina in 2015, to show how many typically perceive racism as individual cases rather than a structural issue. However, she stressed that racism is pervasive on an institutional level as it is reflected through the criminal justice system, the media, schools and local governments.

“Racism is embedded in American society,” Haskins said.

During the Q&A section of the panel, Lacey asked about the idea of defunding the police and feasible reforms the panelists would recommend.

Once a concept only familiar among activists and progressives, defunding the police gained significant traction this past summer after Floyd’s death, with many people supporting the idea of reallocating funds to support communities through non-policing entities, while promoting public safety. Some cities across the county have also already taken steps toward defunding their police departments.

In June, the Minneapolis City Council pledged to dismantle the city’s police department, hoping to create a new public safety system. When contemplating the city’s budget, New York City officials also decided to cut $1 billion from the NYPD’s budget, even though the vote was contentious.

Enns said he believed that when assessing this issue, city budgets should be tied to accountability — an initiative that he thought should garner bipartisan support. He also brought up the example of a move to defund the police in Syracuse, saying that in order to respond to the increased demand for police reform, Syracuse pledged to first conduct an inventory of military weapons in its police department.

“They don’t have an inventory of their military weapons?” Enns said. “That strikes me as the most basic level of accountability that everybody should agree with.”

Margulies recommended ending “saturation policing strategies” like stop and frisk policies because such strategies can have a detriment to neighborhoods and upend the livelihoods of many communities.

“What they do is they sweep entire segments of the community into the clutches of the carceral state, who had no prior involvement in the criminal justice system,” Margulies said.

Karim cited examples of police forces in European countries to show what police reform in the United States could look like. In particular, Karim talked about the Netherlands, which does not have a heavily armed police force. The first responders in the Netherlands are “peace officers” who possess similar powers to a police officer, but they are not armed.

Looking to the 2020 presidential election, Enns felt that the election will primarily be partisan and a referendum on President Donald Trump, but said that it’s possible that the election could prompt some criminal justice reform.

“Ultimately, my view on the election is that it’s gonna it’s a very much Democrat, Republican, approve of Trump, disapprove of Trump,” Enns said. “But in terms of a moment for criminal justice reform, I think that’s a possibility.”

Lacey asked the panelists why Floyd’s death was a catalyst for conversations about police and criminal justice reform, noting that countless Black Americans have died at the hands of police brutality for years.

One of the reasons Floyd’s death triggered an outpouring of support for reform, Margulies said, was the callous nature of his death.

“I was shocked and what I saw in the Floyd murder,” Margulies said. “Eight minutes and 46 seconds, snuffing the life out of a man, as … he was protesting ‘I can’t breathe.’ There’s extraordinary callousness.”

At the end of the panel, Haskins said that in order to enact meaningful reform, structural racism in the county must be addressed head-on.

“We cannot get the story about mass incarceration right if we don’t talk about race and racism,” Haskins said, “and particularly structural racism.”