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On Race And The Police: A Few Bad Apples Or Systemic Failure?


In addition to national crime statistics, the FBI is also trying to gather comprehensive information about police-involved shootings. The bureau's information has so far been inconsistent and incomplete. The recent shootings in Tulsa and Charlotte have led Clemson University professor Chenjerai Kumanyika to try talking with his students about race. He's black. Most of them are white. Professor Kumanyika, welcome to the program, and tell us what you're hearing.

CHENJERAI KUMANYIKA: As you mentioned, you know, most of my students are white, and many of them actually have family in law enforcement. And for that reason I've often avoided talking about these issues a lot in class because I don't want the students to feel that I'm trying to bias them in any particular way.

But you know, after this week's - the past week's events in Charlotte and what happened in Oklahoma, I just felt like at a certain point that it would be irresponsible in a class on public communication to not talk about the way that we're communicating about these things. You know, I'm someone who has been an organizer to some extent and someone who's certainly sympathetic to the protesters and interested in trying to transform our systems of policing.

But what I realized is that my students who have family in law enforcement - when you have family in law enforcement, it's hard to talk about these issues on a systemic level because as soon as people start talking about police, you feel a gut-level instinct to defend the person who really is your family member. And you can separate your belief in the system of policing from your worries and of - and care and fear about your family members that are officers.

SIEGEL: You would say that there are systemic problems, that the - and that the remedies should be systemic, not just rooting out the bad apples.

KUMANYIKA: Absolutely. I mean I think that that's the biggest thing I learned, is that we have to actually probably talk much less about individuals and start talking about systems. You know, what is going on at the systemic level? And that's very hard. We don't have a habit of talking that way in the U.S. about policing.

SIEGEL: And what have you heard from your students in response to this kind of talk?

KUMANYIKA: Well, I think what I've learned is that there's a way to communicate about this that really does focus on shared interests. And it's hard because there's anger, right? Like, I have anger about these cases. And they have real fear. So those angers and those fears can kind of come together in a place where I say, is this current system the way it is really making your family members safer or my - or me safer or my family members safer, right?

And what we have to acknowledge, Robert, is that policing has never worked for vulnerable people in the United States. I mean if you're going to, you know - how can you make an argument that it has? Certainly it's impossible to make that argument before 1965 when you had the Voting Rights Act passed. You know, it's - becomes hard to make that in the context of the War on Drugs, The War on Terror.

So what I'm seeing now with these recent cases is people are kind of tired of the surface reform conversations about body cams and training, and they want to get to the fundamental structure of policing.

SIEGEL: But what does that mean? I mean you said the fundamental structure of policing, taking - well, no. Let me ask you. And I don't understand what that would mean.

KUMANYIKA: Right, no, I understand. It's kind of - you know, it seems like a broad, vague and maybe naive kind of proposition, right? But if you look at the kinds of things that are being put out in the Black Lives Matter platform or even, you know - there's a lot of platforms that, like, you know - the ACLU has offered a report.

So when we talk about changing the system of police, we're talking about, do - when you have, like, a minority of crimes being understood as violent crimes, do police officers need to be armed in these situations? How are police governed, right? Can we take some of these people who are currently officers and redeploy them as public servants without guns and who are actually serving the community because in my lifetime and I think for a lot of people in these communities, they do not perceive police officers as public servants that are creating safety. There's danger. When whenever I get pulled over by the police, there's a sense of danger.

SIEGEL: What do you come away with from your discussion with your students that might move us forward a little bit on this subject?

KUMANYIKA: I always talk about human beings who put on a uniform because the police uniform is representative of the system. And when you put on that uniform, you know, you're a part of a system. But you know, there's a human being under there and just like the people that are being killed in the situation are human beings.

So I found in my classroom that when I shift the language to the - to talking about systems instead of individuals and when we talk about those shared interests, the conversation goes to a different place.

SIEGEL: Professor Kumanyika, thanks for talking with us today.

KUMANYIKA: Thank you so much.

SIEGEL: Chenjerai Kumanyika is an assistant professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.