George Floyd’s death last month at the hands of Minneapolis police has led some in the community to call for dramatic changes to the city’s policing policies. Floyd died on May 25 during an arrest, when a police officer pressed his knee to Floyd's neck for several minutes while Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street. Two other officers further restrained Floyd and a fourth prevented onlookers from intervening.
Two experts from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs discussed inequities in policing and public policy, and how communities can rebuild trust in the wake of Floyd's death, in an online forum Wednesday as part of this week's Social Equity Leadership Conference.
The conference, held virtually this year, highlights the work of scholars and experts who address the best ways to address social justice issues, including racial and gender disparities in health, housing, education, and treatment in the criminal justice system.
Professor Samuel Myers Jr. and Associate Professor Kathy Quick shared their views on law enforcement, community relations, and racial injustice in public policy. Here are some excerpts from their conversation, which was moderated by Humphrey School Dean Laura Bloomberg.
The race problem in Minnesota:
Professor Samuel Myers Jr. (SM): I refer to the Minnesota Paradox, the fact that Minnesota is the greatest place in the country to live. It has some of the best schools, it has fantastic lakes, wonderful places to bike, a wonderful education system. It has some of the best homeownership rates, it has some of the greatest innovations and corporations like 3M, like the Mayo Clinic. But, yet, it has some of the worst indicators for racial inequality in the country. And so the question is, how is that possible?
My point of view is that it's rooted in a very intriguing aspect of egalitarianism among whites, good white people in Minnesota who believe that if you just don't talk about race, if you acknowledge the fact that we're all members of the human race, then there won't be a problem of race.
Associate Professor Kathy Quick (KQ): As a white woman, I see lots of people waking up to this issue. There is a part of me that wants to say to those folks that are beginning to pay attention, welcome. There is also a part of me that is deeply fatigued by how long it took those folks to begin to pay attention and to recognize the urgency of the situation. I think that there are reasons that white people are inherently untrustworthy in many ways in talking about racial issues, because we are powerfully good at deflecting, denying, being overly nervous to say the wrong thing, stepping back thinking it's not our place, that something is just an individual incident rather than a pattern in history.
On efforts to reform or defund the Minneapolis Police Department:
(SM) I'm trying to frame my comments in the context of how you do public policy. And it turns out that the norms of doing policy frequently silence the voices of the people who are the poorest and the most oppressed and most marginalized in our community. For example, if what we're talking about is trying to reduce the number of illegal neck holds by police—illegal methods of restraining African American males—has anybody actually talked to a group of African American males?
The fact that many public policies have been proposed without having the voices of the diversified community helps explain partly why some of these programs have mixed results.
Some of these proposals that are coming out, both incremental changes and transformative changes, aren't asking the core question that needs to be asked, and aren’t using the standard apparatus of linking the policy prescription with the underlying problems. As long as we have the policy analysis being developed by people who don't have the best interests of the communities that they're in, I'm worried.
I would say, let's start from the position of humility and acknowledge that we really don't know what we should do … Instead of starting with the presumption that we know what we're supposed to do, let's listen. Listening to people who are most adversely affected by problems with police, with lending, with schooling, gives you a different perspective on what the range of options happen to be. I'm not saying ignore all the proposals that have been suggested in the past. I'm saying let's pause, take a deep breath, and let's express a little bit of humility about what we don't know.
(KQ) I think there is certainly a place for reforming policing. There are a lot of good recommendations out there, and a lot of good practices that are well-informed and that have been tried out with good success in communities all over the country.
Defunding can mean a lot of things, but I personally find myself increasingly sympathetic to that view and wanting to put my own efforts behind those calls, because the move to reform [in Minneapolis] has been stuttering at best.
My own experience of working in the community of Falcon Heights after Philando Castile was killed [in 2016, by a police officer], there were a lot of people who said, ‘we know what we need to do. We need to discipline these officers, we need to discipline the police department that was involved, we need to work on policing,’ and all of those things are absolutely true.
However, it was not really until the task force and those dialogues moved beyond focusing on the ‘bad apple’ police officer to understand that policing is the point in the prow of a boat in a whole system of racism that has weight and freight and momentum behind it. You must blunt this issue of policing and its abuses. But if you're not looking at the complicity and the whole system of systemic racism and supremacy and really addressing that head on, then there is no fundamental solution. That is the work that needs to be done.
I certainly don't want to send a mixed message here that focusing on policing, or focusing on justice for George Floyd, or prosecuting fully the four officers who were involved in this case, is not important. It is absolutely critical, but it's only some small piece of this.
On hope for the future:
(KQ) I am hopeful because there are many more white people who are involved in this, and I am hopeful, also, to see the coalitions of black activists, indigenous activists, and other communities of color who are coming together in solidarity with one another. I feel great respect for them. I feel hopeful, also, that people will increasingly take their lead and back them up on what they're trying to do. There is also a lot about artistic expression and the role of artists in the community, expressing the grief and the rage, and celebrating these lives that have been lost, and sending powerful messages that certainly help to sustain me in continuing to do the work.
(SM) I'm of two minds. I have this feeling of weariness, I have this feeling of depression, the fact that we've been down this route before. The last time we went around it there was this expression of solidarity, the sense that we need to make changes. But then when the next big crisis comes along, and everybody would have forgotten.
Let me talk about the positive part. This is one time when I saw lots of white people … and they had t-shirts on that said "Black Lives Matter." So we have made some progress. … These young people are really different, and they're really expressing a sense of commitment. My feeling is I'm going to work hard and I'm going to work with people. I'll try my best to provide advice. But I like to be realistic about the sustainability of these changes, and I don't want to get people in my community’s expectations up too high, because we have been let down before.