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Social Sciences

Much Bigger Than the Police

7.1.20

Screenshot of Zoom conversation with Laurence Ralph, Monica Bell, and Brandon Terry

Clockwise from top left: Laurence Ralph, Monica Bell, and Brandon Terry


Clockwise from top left: Laurence Ralph, Monica Bell, and Brandon Terry

“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” the 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. 

“And amidst this crisis of illegitimacy,” Terry continued, “we have set police off on the self-undermining task of using state-sanctioned violence, arrest, and confinement to enforce property law and criminal law against the most marginal and disadvantaged members of society. What the police do is try to compel deference and compliance in the absence of legitimacy. But this is a task that only brings forth more brutality, resentment, and rebellion.” The larger ideal, he said, in the Movement for Black Lives, which brought protestors to the streets after Floyd’s killing, is a wholesale rethinking of society’s fundamental structure. “And policing is just a prism to do this work.” 

Bell picked up a similar thread. “Police violence is not just physical,” she said. The catalyst for the current wave of protests was certainly physical: the brutal killing of George Floyd. “And that is very important.” But in surveying residents in minority communities, Bell said, what becomes equally clear is the widespread “symbolic violence” of segregation, marginalization, and deeper exclusions, often enforced by police. “When I do research in communities where people say, ‘I don't trust the police,’ ‘I've experienced violence,’ etc.—especially black communities, which is where I do most of my research—there is also this idea that the police are the solution to the problem,” she said. “One thing that’s really exciting about this time is that we’re beginning to have conversations where that ideological hold is shifting” away from an automatic reliance on police to fix problems. 

Ralph, who directs Princeton’s Center on Transnational Policing and whose book on Chicago’s history of police torture—The Torture Letters: Reckoning with Police Violence—came out earlier this year, traced the historic role that fear plays in law enforcement. “The very idea of safety in the United States is rooted, from the inception of the U.S., in the frontier logic that justified the settlement of this country in the eighteenth century,” Ralph said. “For those white settlers, safety was premised on viewing Native Americans as threats, and so transforming them into savages.” That frontier logic, he argued, remains salient today. “It’s foundational, in fact, to modern-day policing. We can see it at work when one court after another acquits a cop who gunned down an African American under the pretext that the cops felt threatened. In such cases, the violence enacted against black people works to transform the police officer, who actually committed the violence, into the victim of those black people. And this is how the tangled and twisted logic of fear becomes rooted in the security apparatus of the United States.”

A few thorny questions came up during the discussion. Ralph asked Terry, who specializes in the political thought of Martin Luther King Jr. and earlier this year co-edited a book on King’s philosophy, whether the civil-rights movement “brought us this idea that you can have a pristine victim, a Rosa Parks figure.” Many of the police-torture victims Ralph studied in Chicago had prior criminal records or run-ins with the law, and so it was easy to discredit their testimony and vilify them as undeserving. Inherent in the idea of a “pristine victim,” Ralph said, is the “subtle, implicit argument that maybe [torture and abuse] should happen to some people who weren’t so pristine.”  

Terry’s answer: yes and no. The civil rights era, especially early on, contributed to “what a lot of people refer to as a politics of respectability”—the philosophy that advocates conformity to mainstream behavior and appearance as a defense against racial prejudice—but the context is larger than that. “I've actually come to think that a lot of it is due to the way our legal system works,” Terry said. For attorneys claiming racial discrimination on behalf of black clients, it’s helpful to be able to rule out other variables—for instance, antisocial behavior—as a factor in the mistreatment. “When you're under that kind of pressure,” Terry said, there's a strong incentive “to putting forth someone that is unimpeachable in the existing terms of respect for the broader society.” He added that one thing the current Black Lives Matter movement has accomplished “is to foreground a critique of the politics of respectability, by saying that it’s both not a reliable safeguard against mistreatment, and it's not a reliable standard by how we should evaluate moral worth and the kind of civic standing that people should have.” 

Toward the end of the hour, the panel took an audience question about COVID-19’s connection to the protest movement against police brutality. For an answer, Terry returned to Martin Luther King. “I do think that COVID demonstrated for the United States writ large that King's line about us being in a ‘single garment of destiny’ is really true. That it’s the kind of problem that you can’t easily segregate or confine or beat into submission. It requires enormous social cooperation.” Working-class people in front-line jobs, he noted, are “conscripted into providing services for the elite at huge cost to themselves.” The resulting resentment has been recognized in a new way by a broader swath of American society, which spiraled into an “unprecedented” wave of protest. “So I’m hoping,” Terry concluded, “that we can find the right kind of art, literature, music, philosophy, and writing that can keep that idea in the front of our minds, even as we overcome the disease, because it’s the foundation of a new social order, one that would really be worth our assent.”

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