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.
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.