Not If, but When

Expert on Racial Inequities Reveals Foundations of New Protest Era
By Liam Farrell | Photo by John T. Consoli

After George Floyd was killed by a police officer amid a pandemic disproportionately hurting people of color, sociology Professor Rashawn Ray saw the ensuing protests as the logical result of America’s ongoing failure to deal with entrenched racial inequality.

“It wasn’t ‘if’ this was going to happen, it was when,” says Ray, who is also the David M. Rubenstein Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based think tank.

Ray has conducted training sessions on implicit bias with the military, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and police departments and organizations across the country, and frequently shares blunt, even searing insights with media outlets nationwide. He spoke to Terp about why the protests caught on, what reforms are needed and what calls to “defund” the police actually mean.

What led to your professional focus on the intersection of race and policing?

My family has had multiple police officers, but it was actually a byproduct of my early research at UC-Berkeley. I was studying physical activity and obesity, and found that Black men in predominantly white and affluent neighborhoods engaged in less physical activity. One main reason was overpolicing, profiling and criminalization from neighbors and law enforcement. I realized that an activity, such as jogging, that should extend life might actually be reducing life if a person is Black.

Why did the protests become more popular, widespread and sustained this year than they did after similar incidents?

Because of COVID-19, everyone had stopped what they were normally doing. And because of structural racism, Black people have died more often and Black businesses have been hit harder. People paid attention to that. Everyone’s seen George Floyd’s death. It was on cable news, local news and social media. George Floyd is the Emmett Till of the 21st century. They could no longer deny that racism is such a powerful part of our lives.

What do you see as necessary policing reforms?

Police officers are working 60, 80, 100 hours a week. They are so overwhelmed with everyday tasks. Roughly 90% of calls for service are for nonviolent incidents. Social service calls can be handled by mental health and addiction specialists. Then, officers can focus on more violent crime, since the clearance rate is horrendous. About 40% of homicides, 66% of rapes and 70% of aggravated assaults and robberies go unsolved.

Officers also need mental health support, so require them to go to psychological counseling so it can’t be stigmatized. They should be required to live in the jurisdiction where they work and receive a housing subsidy. We have these programs in place. They just need to be scaled up.

We need to make a shift toward misconduct payouts coming from police department insurance policies rather than taxpayer money from general funds. We do this with hospitals and malpractice insurance.

Also, put together a list of officers who have been terminated for misconduct or resigned while under investigation for misconduct and ensure they cannot get another job in law enforcement.

Will the newer slogan of “Defund the Police” be more difficult to rally around than “Black Lives Matter”?

“Defund the Police” means to reallocate resources. It does not mean abolishing the police. The “Defund” movement is not even directed at police. It’s directed at elected officials. What voters and taxpayers are saying is, “We don’t want police to dictate how much money they get. We don’t want our taxpayer money to pay for police misconduct settlements. Imagine the dent that amount of money could have on workplace equity and education.” Reinvestment—that’s another word for defund.


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