About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Providence, pass the Community Safety Act

This was my testimony on Wednesday night September 28th, at the East Side neighborhood meeting on the Community Safety Act (CSA) here in Providence.  The East Side is a predominantly white part of the city, and the goal was to convey to our elected officials that people here care deeply about having an accountable police force and criminal justice system that both reflects and respects all the people who live within it.


In thousands of households around the country tonight, there are young black men receiving “The Talk” from someone who loves them.  It is happening in Charlotte.  It is happening in Tulsa.  It is happening in Providence.  It is happening in wealthy families, poor families, middle class families.  It is happening in the homes of black policemen.  It has happened, generation over generation, throughout the entire history of this country.  Attorney General Eric Holder, who is black, got the talk from his father when he was young – and he recently gave it to his own son.  Eric Holder, who was until recently the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the United States. 

Does everyone know what I mean by ‘the Talk’?  I am white.  My 10 year old son lives here on the East Side with us.  I doubt it ever occurred to my father to give me The Talk.  The fact that I know some of my son’s school friends have already received it, and that he will never have to, horrifies me.  This conveys a message to our children, about who we are – and who they are.  It is not a message that is consistent with any of our faith traditions, or the best of our national ones.  It tells us, in the words of black writer Ta Nehisi-Coates, that “something went very wrong, long ago…something we are scared to see straight.  That something has very little to do with the officer on the beat and everything to do with ourselves.”

Our society has tolerated the conditions which have necessitated The Talk -- even encouraged them – for centuries.  In modern societies the state, at all levels, has a monopoly on violence.  In American history, that monopoly has consistently been used to contain black people, and to protect white people and their property.  It was true under slavery, when access to arms by white individuals and white militias was 'needed' to deter and suppress slave rebellions, and to chase down fugitive slaves.  It was true out West in the 19th century, when the state used its military power (and granted white citizens related power) to displace and destroy native economies and peoples.  It was true in the Jim Crow South, where the primary role of police forces (and of the 2nd amendment) was first and foremost to reinforce the racial order.  And as blacks moved to Northern cities by the millions 1910-1970, the job of all-white urban police forces in black neighborhoods was to maintain racial boundaries in housing and public spaces; they were generally absent when needed, and abusive when present.  Virtually every Northern black protest movement of the 1960s -- and virtually every riot -- began with a focus on police brutality.  

Whether conscious or not (and for most of our history, it was very much conscious), this has been the clear will of white Americans for most of our history.  The injustice of this, Coates tells us, “compounds, congeals until there is an almost tangible sense of dread and grievance that compels a community to understand the police as objects of fear, not respect.”  When Officer Timothy Loehmann got away with murdering a 12-year-old Tamir Rice, white Americans may have believed it was aberrational, however awful – but it was consistent with generations of black experience. 
The problem, ultimately, is a deep one.  

When police officers encounter citizens of color, they do so in a situation that white Americans have spent decades constructing and defending.  Too many whites hide (literally as well as morally) from the consequences of their complicity behind housing segregation, and explain away what they can’t ignore with platitudes about black criminality and white innocence.

Our 'policing problem' is really a societal problem.  A policy problem.  A white problem.  Cops don't make policy.  Citizens do.  You can't ask people to do the dirty work of white privilege, and then blame them for being dirty. 

Just last week, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division – the entity tasked with investigating the police departments in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities – told a legal symposium that “Unconstitutional policing undermines community trust.”  “Blanket assumptions and stereotypes about certain neighborhoods and certain communities can lead residents to see the justice system as illegitimate and authorities as corrupt.  Those perceptions can drive resentment.  And resentment can prevent the type of effective policing needed to keep communities and officers safe.”

In many black and Latino communities today, police derive their power solely from the force they deploy.  This is dangerous to those being policed, but it is ultimately dangerous to do those doing the policing too.  A liberal democracy, a society based on the rule of law, will not long survive if all the law represents is brute force.

If the police are seen as having no legitimacy in certain communities -- as having a license to exercise power that is arbitrary, capricious, and unaccountable -- they will be increasingly seen as an occupying force, and mistrust and resistance to them will be seen as legitimate.  Endangered and ineffective, police will focus more and more on force protection, and will have implicit and explicit biases confirmed, further delegitimizing their authority.  Whites, fearful that the 'criminality' in black communities will threaten them, will enact policies that make the situation worse.  This is not where we are in Providence.  Not yet.  

White Americans have never lived under those conditions, not in the past, and not now.  That is why white Americans of good will have to learn their history, they have to listen as empathetically as they can, and they have to act.

The CSA is an important and powerful step in the right direction for Providence, and I fully support it.

No competent professional should fear a system of accountability, as long as there is adequate training and due process, and the system of accountability is evidence-based.  In fact, they should welcome it.  It buttresses and legitimates their authority, and it ensures that they are surrounded by other professionals who know what they're doing, enabling them to be more safe and effective.

Let us create a Providence in which the generations to come never need to give or receive The Talk, and in which police officers of all backgrounds can do the people’s will safely, effectively, and justly.