The continuing nationwide demonstrations launched after the killing of George Floyd have sparked a debate among minority groups and leaders, activists, academics, and public officials over how best to convert the energy of this moment into meaningful and lasting change. Some have called for overhauling laws that shield police officers from accountability or allow practices that have tended to lead to excessive force disproportionately used against African Americans. Others want to shrink the ranks of officers and shift the funding to increase social services, thereby reducing the need for enforcers. But for many, racial violence is just one manifestation of wider systemic disparities facing African Americans in arenas such as health, education, employment, economy, and housing that also must be addressed. The Gazette asked faculty members across the University to share their views on this question: What actions would you most like to see taken next to begin building a more just society?
David J. Harris, Ph.D. ’92
Managing Director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice, Harvard Law School
First, and essentially, we must reckon with what our history has wrought. As difficult as such a reckoning will be to define, indicators will reveal the extent to which we have succeeded. In order to facilitate the process, we must acknowledge a foundational point: “We the People” has never included all of us. That cannot be subject to debate.
Once we acknowledge this defining exclusion, we can trace the myriad ways in which having denied large groups of people, notably African Americans and Native Americans, the most basic rights of membership and participation — the qualities of citizenship — has diminished life chances for individuals and communities. Understanding the real, ongoing harm from policies and practices that have differentially distributed access and opportunity, state violence, and deprivation will open our eyes to avenues for repair and restoration.
We must rethink our notions of justice, as well. Our current coupling of criminality and justice locks us into a fixation on punishment in lieu of a system of justice. I understand justice as being made whole, which promotes practices that center on health and well-being of all residents, and whole communities, as the hallmarks of safety.
Another more tangible indicator of our progress on the pathway to reckoning will be whether we not only hear and empathize with what people who have suffered for decades are saying, but act in truly responsive ways. As people are taking to the streets at great risk to themselves to decry the institutionalized racial violence perpetuated by policing, promoting legislation that bans chokeholds is tone deaf. New York had such a prohibition in place when Eric Garner was murdered. People are not asking for more humane policing, but for a direct reckoning with the culture and institution of policing, including its defunding.
All of our institutions, from government to industry, the academy to the press, must listen more attentively and respond more directly. In reckoning of the horror we have wrought, let us overcome our fear of the word reparations and begin the extensive repair we need.
Assistant Professor of African and African American Studies and Social Studies, Harvard University