Fire burns during protest of police killing of George Floyd outside White House.

Protesters demonstrating against the police killing of George Floyd set a blaze near the White House.

AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Nation & World

The fire this time

long read

Lawrence D. Bobo dissects police killings of Black men and the history and cognitive forces behind racial bigotry and violence, and why he sees signs of hope

Protesters once again have taken to the nation’s streets to voice their anger over another killing of a Black man by police officers. The reaction now seems familiar, if higher in heat and broader in scale. This time it was over George Floyd, who suffocated after a white Minneapolis police officer jammed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while three other officers either held him down or looked on. Floyd is the latest link in a long chain of deaths and injuries involving police:  Rodney King, Malice Wayne Green, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, among them. Lawrence D. Bobo is dean of social science and the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University. He studies social psychology, politics, and race. He spoke with the Gazette about police killings of African Americans, the cognitive forces underlying racism, the long history of violence toward Black people, why training hasn’t changed anything, and why he sees signs of hope in this “deeply troubling moment.”


Lawrence D. Bobo

GAZETTE:  What’s your reaction to what’s been happening across the country?

BOBO: Like so many people, I was dumbfounded and horrified and outraged by the video of George Floyd slowly being murdered, basically, at a point where he was outnumbered by police officers, handcuffed, subdued on the ground, and basically begging for his life. We watched him slowly, casually, be killed by a group of police officers. And I find it horrifying and numbing. It’s reminiscent in some ways of how I felt when the Simi Valley jury acquitted the officers who had beaten Rodney King; it’s reminiscent of the feeling I had when the jurors acquitted George Zimmerman in killing Trayvon Martin. And the whole sense of just stunned futility and rage is characteristic of when I was very young, back in that terrible spring of 1968, when we lost Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy in a short span of weeks. So it’s a terrible and depressing moment. But we can’t leave it there; we shouldn’t leave it there; and we should be mindful of the ways in which there are real opportunities here, real resources here, and I think progress to be made.

On the one hand, I am greatly heartened by the level of mobilization and civil protests. That it has touched so many people and brought out so many tens of thousands of individuals to express their concern, their outrage, their condemnation of the police actions in this case and their demand for change and for justice, I find all that greatly encouraging. It is, at the same moment, very disappointing that some folks have taken this as an opportunity to try to bring chaos and violence to these occasions of otherwise high-minded civil protest. And I’m disappointed by those occasions where in law enforcement, individuals and agencies, have acted in ways that have provoked or antagonized otherwise peaceful protest actions.

It’s a complex and fraught moment that we’re in. And one of the most profoundly disappointing aspects of the current context is the lack of wise and sensible voices and leadership on the national stage to set the right tone, to heal the nation, and to reassure us all that we’re going to be on a path to a better, more just society.

“It’s really important to recall that what slavery did, in many respects, was to forge a tight link between our social class structure and a kind of racial hierarchy.”

GAZETTE:  In the majority of police-related killings of Black people, the assailants are white. Is that enough to conclude that racism is the cause, or are there other forces also at work?

BOBO: Certainly racism, and both the historic legacy of racism and the long, deeply etched legacy of racism in terms of our current social conditions and circumstances and the physical geography and spaces in which people live, and indeed, in terms of our cultural landscape, and toolkit and reservoir of ideas, and resources we all have to draw on, these have been profoundly distorted by racism.

It’s really important to recall that what slavery did, in many respects, was to forge a tight link between our social class structure and a kind of racial hierarchy. It created a bottom rung [of] people who were racially stigmatized and in the deepest economic disadvantage and poverty. And we have never fully undone that terrible circumstance. In the present moment, we have to add many, many layers of complexity to this, that part of this is the historic legacy of African American communities suffering from both over-policing and under-policing.

GAZETTE:  Can you explain?

BOBO: Under-policing in the sense of often not getting police response to violence and crime within the Black community, and certainly not getting an adequate response in cases where Blacks are victims of white perpetrators. And then, over-policing, where police have run roughshod over the lives and circumstances and civil liberties of Black folks and where Black folks have been subject to the most arbitrary and capricious forms of justice in the American system.

We had all thought, of course, that we made phenomenal strides. We inhabit an era in which there are certainly more rank-and-file minority police officers than ever before, more African American and minority and female police chiefs and leaders. But inhabiting a world where the poor and our deeply poor communities are still heavily disproportionately people of color, where we had a war on drugs that was racially biased in both its origins and its profoundly troubling execution over many years, that has bred a level of distrust and antagonism between police and Black communities that should worry us all. There’s clearly an enormous amount of work to be done to undo those circumstances and to heal those wounds.

Lawrence D. Bobo studies social psychology, politics, and race.

File photo by Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer

Lawrence D. Bobo.

GAZETTE:  Many police departments, particularly those in Black and brown neighborhoods, have been criticized for having an “us vs. them” attitude. Our politics, in recent years, has successfully encouraged voters to take an “us vs. them” attitude toward those with different ideological viewpoints. Is that “us vs. them” dynamic what’s happening with police violence in Black neighborhoods? What’s at work cognitively/sociologically when we see the world in binary terms?

BOBO: We certainly do inhabit an incredibly politically polarized moment. And it is sad, but hopefully we are nearing the nadir, the low point, of that moment, and we’ll someday see our way out of this great chasm. The saying used to be, “If you’re in a hole, the most important thing is stop digging.” Unfortunately too much of our political leadership is continuing to dig because it has been profitable for them in terms of holding onto a shrinking coalition and political power.

I am heartened by the diversity and array of individuals who turned out for the civil protests and do believe that in a way that will ultimately prove to be the great majority of the American people. But this is a deeply polarized ideological moment we’re in, this moment of really serious economic inequality, a level of economic inequality that has had really unfortunate political consequences where extremely wealthy, well-connected segments of the population exercise really significant, almost veto power over so many aspects of our economic and political system that many people are feeling deeply frustrated and left behind, and I think people are easily sold on scapegoating political messages rather than doing the kind of deeper analysis that would get us toward constructive response to these circumstances.

Racism in some respects remains the core of this, but it’s not the only thing operative. There are issues of economic class inequality, ideological and political polarization, and exploitation of the circumstances, and there are aspects of just the nature of the job of policing in such an unequal society that lend themselves to these potentially explosive encounters.

GAZETTE:  Why are we racist? What are the cognitive drivers of racism?

BOBO: There’s no simple answer. It’s a combination of things. It’s partly historical circumstance; it is partly how we have organized relationships in particular, what kind of forms of thought, action, and behavior have become codified in law and routine practices.

So, for example, our society used to recognize a far more complicated set of racial gradations than we typically think in terms of now. If you were to go back to the 1870, 1880, 1890 censuses, you would see categories on the census form for, of course, white, but you would also see colored Negro, Black, mulatto, quadroon, even octoroon, that were recognized categories of color and racial gradation. When slavery was finally completely crushed, and when the effort to reconstruct the South was defeated, we suddenly had a world in which those who held power in the American South decided they needed a sharp Black/white dichotomy in order to maintain control of the Black population. And they enacted a set of laws that basically said there are two categories of people, Black and white, and that any drop of African ancestry basically made you Black. And we created the role of hypodescent. The important point to note is that had not always been the case. But it is a very powerful cultural trope now, and that’s because we institutionalized it in law, day-to-day practice, and ultimately, therefore, widely shared, deeply rooted commonsense understandings. That sadly is where we are here.

GAZETTE:  Does that account for the level of brutality we’ve seen in so many of these cases?

BOBO: How does a police officer place his body weight on a man’s neck while two or three other police officers mill around? Well, there’s obviously a profound “othering” that has gone on. You are clearly no longer regarding that other individual as someone who’s due the kind of regard that you yourself would expect from anyone else. That the other officers so casually walked around, took notes, just stood there chatting, bespeaks a wall of everyday routine and indifference that has such profound cultural roots at this point that it’s not just unconscious bias. Sadly, it is the state of our culture in many circumstances, especially as it manifests itself in the particular circumstance of police encounters with African American individuals and communities in too many circumstances.

GAZETTE:  Critics say the Minneapolis Police Department culture tolerates or rewards unethical behavioral, as demonstrated not just by the officer who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, but by the others who did not intervene. Broadly, the law enforcement profession is often seen as adopting a code of silence when faced with criticism. What dynamics shape or contribute to this kind of organizational culture? Does it vary by profession?

BOBO: It varies from profession to profession. And of course in policing, we have to recognize that it is a high-risk profession. We expect and demand a lot of law enforcement officials. But in those high-risk professions, it’s often the case that very, very strong norms of solidarity develop. And those kinds of norms of solidarity and mutual support are reinforced by organizational practices, the routines of their work, the training that goes on, so that I think you’re more so inclined there than in many other settings to get a degree of social conformity and deference to your fellow officer and those of higher authority, if for no other reason than a purely defensive one — we have to stand together in order to survive. And there are obviously ways to intervene in this, but it’s hard to intervene in an American culture that is otherwise so suffused with access to guns and an image of police as dominating and assertive and controlling, rather than supportive and aiding and working with communities. So cultivating a whole new understanding and way of doing policing is really just critically important to usher in debate. And in my experience, frankly, many, many higher-ranking police officials are eager to do that. But how they move forward on it in a context of rank-and-file unions and the high solidarity among the rank and file is a hard task and one that requires some real planful action.

“That the other officers so casually walked around, took notes, just stood there chatting, bespeaks a wall of everyday routine and indifference that has such profound cultural roots at this point that it’s not just unconscious bias.”

GAZETTE:  A number of police departments have tried to address implicit bias and culture change through training. Why hasn’t it been more successful?

BOBO: Because the problem is not just one of implicit bias. For example, you can try to train officers to be more reflective and to recognize that we have all grown up in a culture that is filled with negative ideas and images about African Americans as violent, as dangerous, as threatening, as lesser. That kind of devaluing of Black life, sadly, is a part of the American cultural fabric. Not as extreme as it used to be, but still very clear and very deeply rooted. And so, if you have that kind of layering out there and at the same time police departments are told, “Look, we are now going to wage a war on crime, and you’re expected to demonstrate progress on that war on crime.” The easiest way to do that, the one with the least blowback, is to redouble if not triple your efforts in policing the weakest segments of society. We know from many different sources, the actual consumption of illegal drugs and substances does not appear to vary by race. However, the odds of being arrested are enormously unequal by race, and the odds of then being convicted and serving jail time even more radically so. That is a function of where policing agencies decide to focus their gaze. So we’ve got policies, interacting with culture, interacting with psychological processes that are continually reinforcing this systematic inequality.

GAZETTE:  We’ve seen violence and aggression this week across the country between police and sometimes U.S. military forces on one side and peaceful demonstrators, looters, and provocateurs on the other. Do outward displays of dominance over the less-powerful — like police striking an unarmed Black person or a news camera operator — or mayhem against institutional power — like setting fire to police cruisers or throwing things at officers — scratch the same psychological itch? Why does that attract some but repel others?

BOBO: We live in such a complicated and contradictory moment that it’s hard to put your finger on any one thing. There’s certainly a powerful body of research in social psychology suggesting that some individuals and indeed, on average, some members of more privileged groups tend to be more supportive of maintaining inequalities and asserting a certain level of dominance and control and a social order. For good or ill, policing is the sort of profession that both selects for, and in some ways probably encourages, that sort of inclination. I’m still optimistic that there is a lot of widely, widely shared upset and anger about this ongoing litany of unarmed minority civilians who end up suffering and dying at the hands of those who should be serving and protecting us all in an equitable way. And it is sad, but real, that some people are exploiting this moment to pilfer, to rob, to loot, or to engage in fights with police. Some of them may be provocateurs on the right and from white supremacist groups, some of them may be provocateurs on the left, from Antifa or what have you. But there’s a much larger number, I do believe, of people of genuine goodwill who have higher aspirations, who want to see a better world in this regard. What worries me most right now is less those disruptive forces on the street than the dangers we all face if a democratic society descends into heavy-handed, militaristic regulation of its own citizens who are expressing a legitimate grievance.

GAZETTE:  What would be that moment for you that would suggest when we have crossed that line?

BOBO: Truthfully, I don’t know. The last three years have brought one moment of shock and awe after the other, as acts on a national and international stage from our leadership that one would have thought unimaginable play out each and every day under a blanket of security provided by a U.S. Senate that appears to have lost all sense of spine and justice and decency. I don’t know where this is. I think we’re in a deeply troubling moment. But I am going to remain guardedly optimistic that hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, the higher angels of our nature win out in what is a really frightening coalescence of circumstances.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.