Panelists Discuss Policing, Racism, and Criminal Justice Reform

On Wednesday, October 12th, 2020, Frank Baumgartner, the Richard J. Richardson Distinguished Professor in the Department of Political Science at UNC-Chapel Hill; Andra Gillespie, Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute of the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University; and Phillip Atiba Goff, Co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity and Professor of African American Studies and Psychology at Yale University, spoke with Dartmouth students and community members for the Rockefeller Center’s fifth Rocky Watch event of the term. Rocky Watch is a weekly series of live broadcasts that foster a virtual common space for community discussion in this time of social distancing and remote learning

The panel discussion revolved around the issue of racial bias in U.S. law enforcement, and how the protests against racial injustice this past summer will impact it.

Professor Gillespie began by addressing her most recent book, Race and the Obama Administration. Race and the Obama Administration examines the concept of de-racialized politicians, i.e. politicians who forego the identity and priorities of their racial group to appeal to a wider, often White, American audience. Specifically, the book explored the legacy of Barack Obama, who has frequently been regarded as one of the most prominent deracialized politicians. Gillespie found that while the Obama Administration kept its “promises towards Black Americans,” based on indicators of well-being “not much had changed for Blacks under the Obama Administration.” With that in mind, Gillespie concluded that “elections have consequences,” but “there is no one elected official who can offer a panacea for centuries of inequality.” That, Gillespie says, is why the mass movements against racial inequality this past summer have been so important.

Professor Baumgartner is a leading scholar of public policy and political response who first began to study racial disparities when he was working on a book about the death penalty. In studying the death penalty, Baumgartner says that “you can’t ignore geography, race, poverty, and general arbitrariness.” The “racial and gender dynamics of the death penalty are so stark that they come out in any study,” Baumgartner says, and frequently the death penalty is reserved for Black men who “kill White female victims.” Baumgartner was deeply disturbed by these revelations, which prompted him to expand his research to racial bias in traffic stops. In his latest book, Suspect Citizens, Baumgartner found that controlling for other factors African Americans are stopped by police at nearly twice the national average.

With the protests this summer, Baumgartner wonders if there is finally enough concern about racial bias among the American public for meaningful reforms to policing and the criminal justice system to become possible. Baumgartner asks: “Will people be able to take advantage of the sustained and high amount of attention… to leave a residue of important public policy reforms to cause [racial] disparities to be dramatically reduced?”

Finally, Dr. Goff offered his perspective. Goff, who is a cognitive psychologist by training, has been studying the impact of racial bias on policing and notions of criminality for 20 years. He is also the Co-founder and CEO of the Center for Policing Equity, which partners with police departments nationwide to make data-driven interventions to fight bias. From a psychological perspective, Goff is alarmed by racial bias in the United States. For example, “black boys and black girls are seen as older and less innocent than they actually are,” and are “beaten by law enforcement at a higher rate than white adults.”

Goff sees “two competing diagnoses” on the cause of racialized policing in the United States. The first is that racial injustices in law enforcement have been caused by “too many errors;” mistakes have been made because of a “lack of managerial control.” Holding this view, one would think that an increase in the “professionalism” and “training” of law enforcement would remedy America’s error-ridden, racially biased police departments; however, Goff says, there is another view. Namely, that “things are working exactly as they are intended to work.” If that is the case, if police departments are racially biased at their core, then “you have to start reducing the footprint of public safety and law enforcement.” Without endorsing one view or the other, Goff decries the ideological fight between these camps, asserting that it’s “destructive to have people fighting over whether or not centering black lives needs to be the issue.”

Ultimately, Goff believes that it’s “going to be incredibly important that we figure out the right way to marry the passion of this moment with the policies that allow us to move forward and not lose ground.”

The tactics of the Black Lives Matter movement, specifically the “defund the police” campaign, were[JRB1]  a topic of interest for all of the panelists. “Defund the police” is a slogan that supports divesting funds from police departments and reallocating them to other public services. Baumgartner believes that, “if there is one failure of the Black Lives Matter movement, it is the marketing failures of “defund the police” due to how extreme the demand can seem at face value. Goff, however, argues that “this moment is limited by what we imagine,” wryly suggesting that, though the statement might sound like rhetoric, “the storytellers and imaginers are the architects of the future.” America’s failure to achieve racial equality and unbiased policing can, to some extent, be attributed to a “failure of imagination.”

Finally, the panelists offered advice to the students in attendance. Baumgartner encourages students to “learn how to talk with people who disagree with you in a way that is respectful but also persuasive.” Gillespie argues that “you need to make sure your voice is being heard,” and that students should be willing to change their strategies to ensure that. Finally, Goff emphasizes that students should “learn how power works,” and leaves a message for those interested in criminal justice reform: “If you really want to make a difference, strap in.”


Written by Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Program Assistant for Public Programs

Rocky Talk Podcast w/ Frank Baumgartner: Apple Podcasts and Spotify.