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Ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Tia Sherèe Gaynor and Brandi Blessett
December 19, 2014

Society as a whole has the tendency, when seeking solutions to pressing issues, to focus on the lowest hanging fruit, i.e., that which is the easiest to address. Rather than considering what is easiest to address (although immediate, Band-Aid fixes are sometimes needed), we urge public administrator to refocus their thinking, not on the option that is most readily available for inspection, but on the root causes of an issue at hand.

As researchers, teachers and practitioners of American public administration we cannot forget that the behaviors of Officers Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo and the countless other law enforcement officers who have unjustly harmed or murdered American citizens, is grounded within the mental imagery and political discourse that is specifically associated with people of color in the United States.

Both consciously and unconsciously, those who benefit from white privilege often relate crime, animalistic behavior, laziness, violence, etc. to people of color, particularly, but not exclusively, to those in urban communities. The misrepresentation and legitimization of normative assumptions of truth is propagandized at the expense of lived experiences and personal realities.

blacklivesmatterIs there a disproportionate number of black and brown men incarcerated in the U.S.? Are people of color more at risk of being arrested? Do public schools in primarily black and brown communities face challenges of poor test scores, a lack of extracurricular activities and inadequate instructional tools? Do people of color have higher risks for health issues including, but not limited: to infant mortality, HIV, high blood pressure and obesity? Yes! The answer to these questions is, yes.

However, let us ponder do black and brown men commit more crimes than their white counterparts? Are children of color unable to learn? Do people of color care less about their health and smoke, drink, eat unhealthy foods at a higher risk than their white counterparts? No, they do not. So how do these ideologies and narratives of people of color persist?

Today’s America was founded on the grounds of racism and segregation. Enslaved Africans were not considered human and therefore, not considered when the founding documents were drafted. Although slavery was outlawed hundreds of years ago, 21st century America is riddled with the residual effects of chattel slavery.

Dr. Angela Davis, in a Dec. 14, 2014 article in The Guardian stated “there is an unbroken line of police violence in the United States that takes us all the way back to the days of slavery, the aftermath of slavery, the development of the Ku Klux Klan.” In this regard, while the proverbial chains have been removed from around the necks, wrists and ankles of enslaved people, people of color remain second-class citizens. Their humanity has consistently been compromised within the context of policy development, implementation, governance structures, zoning, housing, public education and other aspects of American life.

In this capacity, American public administration has remained connected to systemic injustice, ingrained racism and disparate treatment under the law. All of this contributes to the racial disparity that exists in the quality of life issues mentioned above. Despite the work of a cohort of researchers that seek to illuminate these challenges within public administration, the bridge to connecting this body of work to practice has yet to occur on a large scale.

In the case of the article “Post Ferguson Public Policy Solutions” first published in PA Times Dec. 14, 2014, Adams, Robinson and Henderson present seven notable policy changes that may begin to address the behaviors of law enforcement personnel across the country. We argue however that this is far from enough.

Law enforcement departments across the country need more than body cameras. This is evidenced by a lack of an indictment for Officer Pantaleo who murdered Eric Gardner on video. Providing hand-to-hand combat training and allowing officers to opt into carrying a Taser in addition to their firearm are arguably providing officers with additional tools to harm and murder. Physically fit officers and regularly scheduled psychological examinations will do little to decrease the bi-directional tension that exists between residents of color and officers. Congressional legislation and a larger role for prosecutors and public defenders to appoint grand jury jurors seems to be affording privilege to police themselves. After all, state prosecutors were involved in managing the grand juries for Officers Wilson and Pantaleo, both of which resulted in no indictment.

We argue here that cultural competence training is the first and best avenue to address the deeply rooted prejudices, ideologies and negative social constructs held of people of color by law enforcement. The competency training in which we speak extends far beyond one two-hour session that discusses superficial topics like tolerance and acceptance. We propose a training that is comprehensive, reoccurring and in-depth that seeks to debunk myths through respectful dialogues, examination of power and privilege relationships and provides opportunities for self-reflection and introspection.

Ultimately, the goal is bi-directional learning for law enforcement officers and the residents of the communities being served. This ongoing partnership would connect law enforcement with community members to enable residents and officers to explore norms within neighborhoods, discuss police department protocol, resolve long-standing “beef” between residents and officers and build the trust of community residents. The Community Safety Partnership started by two Los Angeles police officers 15 years ago is a step in the right direction.

For those who argue that intensive competency training is far too expensive and difficult to implement, we argue that training is less expensive than the financial and social costs associated with not acting. In an environment where communities of color have an increasing distrust of law enforcement, when legal and judicial recourse have not held law enforcement and judicial officials accountable, injustice and inequality appear to be sanctioned and legitimized by government and administrators. Without the advent of public administration to facilitate new and innovative approaches to addressing injustice and inequity, the legitimacy of the field and the ideology of justice and fairness for all really becomes an abstract and meaningless myth.


Author: Tia Sherèe Gaynor, Ph.D. is an assistant professor at Marist College. Her research interests explore the intersection of social justice, local government and resident and citizen participation. She focuses on identifying avenues by which the distance that currently exists between community residents and political issues can be decreased and, ultimately, eradicated. She can be reached at tia.gaynor@marist.edu.

Author: Brandi Blessett, Ph.D. is an assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy & Administration at Rutgers University-Camden. Her research interests are rooted in issues related to social justice. Areas of study include: the school to prison pipeline, re-entry, felony disenfranchisement and administrative responsibility.

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One Response to Ensuring that #BlackLivesMatter

  1. Nick Reply

    December 29, 2014 at 1:44 pm

    This article seems to be severely lacking the objectivity necessary for us, as public administrators, to confront contemporary problems in our communities. Instead, this article seems rife with bias, and points to very debatable circumstances as some sort of condemnation against all law enforcement officers. I find it incredibly disappointing that these two authors (who have PhDs and should be well aware of the importance of objective, unbiased literature) would publish this piece.

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