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Race, Racism and Law Enforcement in Communities of Color: A Call to Action

Handcuffs on top of the American flag

By Gwendolyn P. Keita, PhD (Executive Director, APA Public Interest Directorate)

The shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, at the hands of a police officer has led to outrage and continuing civil unrest in Ferguson, MO. These events are emblematic of the fraught and often problematic interactions that communities of color have with law enforcement including, but not limited to, racial profiling, harassment and police brutality. It has been over 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act and more than 50 years since the first March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. And while our society has made major progress, the events in Ferguson are a harsh wake-up call that long entrenched social divisions still remain. In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at APA’s annual convention. He was disappointed in us, the social scientists, at our minimal involvement in the civil rights movement at that time. He told us, our society is “poisoned to its soul by racism” and he believed that social scientists had the opportunity and the responsibility to do something to change that. He called on us to take on these enormous challenges of racism, unemployment and economic inequality, and violence.

And he also said this: “The problem is deep. It is gigantic in extent, and chaotic in detail. And I do not believe that it will be solved until there is a kind of cosmic discontent enlarging in the bosoms of people of good will all over this nation.”

APA’s mission is to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives. The Public Interest Directorate’s mission builds on the APA mission to explicitly address the psychologist’s role in society: to apply “psychology to the fundamental problems of human welfare and social justice” and to promote “equitable and just treatment of all segments of society through education, training and public policy.” I entered psychology because I believed in its power to create positive change. Many psychologists have worked tirelessly on the issues Dr. King named, yet I believe we have fallen short.

An in-depth and honest conversation is much needed about the influence of race and racism in interactions between law enforcement and communities of color. We want to highlight psychologists and other social scientists working to understand problems and to develop solutions. We must include law enforcement in this conversation; they are essential partners to making positive change. We want to draw attention to good models of law enforcement that have improved both the effectiveness of policing and interactions with minority communities. We want to identify legal and policy changes that could lead to durable and commonsense solutions.

To that end, we are inviting psychologists, other social scientists, law enforcement, legal scholars, and policy makers to offer their perspectives in a series of guest posts on APA’s Psychology Benefits Society blog. Some of the topics we will be looking at include stereotyping and racial profiling, the role of implicit bias in police perceptions and decisions to use force, racism and the criminal justice system, safety and preparing minority youth for interactions with police, fostering positive relationships between police and communities of color, assisting recovery of communities after violence or unrest, and systemic economic and power inequities that lead to community unrest.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Clearly, the questions raised are complex and there is no single answer. It is a multifaceted issue requiring multiple perspectives. This is one of the reasons we felt a blog series could be helpful. It provides a quick and effective way to gather a variety of perspectives from experts on the different pieces of this larger puzzle. So, we want to hear from you. Do you perform research relevant to this discussion? Do you implement programs within communities of color or with law enforcement that could offer insight or practical solutions? If you would like to contribute, please submit your topic on the blog’s Authors page.

A final word: Our immediate goal is to explore and highlight efforts that increase our understanding and create meaningful change. Our hope is to build on the “cosmic discontent enlarging in the bosoms of people of good will all over this nation,” so that 50 years from today, we will have truly changed the world for the better.

Relevant Resources:

How Psychology Can Help Ferguson Heal – St. Louis Post Dispatch Op-Ed by APA President (Dr. Nadine Kaslow) and APA CEO (Dr. Norman Anderson)

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