Statement in Response to the Police Killings of Unarmed Black Men and Women
June 19, 2020
Say their names! Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor! They are among the recent cases of unarmed Black men and women killed by police in the United States. Brooks, Floyd, and Taylor are hardly the first to suffer this injustice, and sadly will probably not be the last.
What can we as academics do to address this injustice? Historians and sociologists have unique skills for understanding such problems and for helping to find effective solutions. Historically, there is nothing new about state-sanctioned violence against African-Americans. American slavery arose as a system of legal violence imposed by force on kidnapped Africans. Despite the end of slavery, the failure of Reconstruction in the 1870s allowed white Americans to impose Jim Crow in the South. Jim Crow was a system of legally-enforced terror that denied African-Americans their rights under the U.S. Constitution. After the dismantling of Jim Crow in the 1960s, white backlash against the civil rights movement encouraged politicians to embrace "law and order," the "war on crime," and the "war on drugs." These "wars" disproportionately affected Black Americans, imposing what legal scholar Michelle Alexander has termed the "new Jim Crow," a criminal justice system that disproportionally impoverishes, imprisons, and disenfranchises African-Americans.
Historians and sociologists have produced a trove of rigorous research demonstrating this system of injustice, a system that extends far beyond policing. Racial injustice is built into the structure of our cities, determining where highways go and who gets the best service from mass transit. Structural racism pervades medical care, with Black women dying in childbirth at far higher rates than white women. Racism is embedded in public education, with re-segregated minority schools receiving significantly less funding per student than majority-white schools. Racial disparities pervade higher education too, especially in science and technology. In 2018, African-Americans accounted for less than four percent of bachelor's degrees in engineering. And Blacks continue to be underrepresented among higher education faculty and in the tech industry.
Historians and sociologists need to go beyond understanding to action. Our knowledge is essential for helping policy makers develop effective strategies to remedy racial injustice. And our teaching is crucial for a new generation of students eager to learn how to create a more just world. We need to help them achieve this goal.
Chair, School of History and Sociology
Note: this statement reflects my opinions only, and not those of the School or Institute.