Faculty Forum - Featured Post Posted on Monday, August 01, 2016

Race, Inequality and Law Enforcement: An Understanding of Complex Social Realities

Shyama Venkateswar Distinguished Lecturer, Hunter College and Director, Public Policy Program, Roosevelt House

The tragic deaths of black men at the hands of police like Eric Garner in New York City, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the recent shooting deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile continue to occur, despite widespread protests and outrage over alleged police brutality. These deaths, as well as the countless other heartbreaking stories across the country, point over and over again to the uneasy relationship that exists between law enforcement and communities of color – especially with their young men.

Findings from the Vera Institute, a non-partisan research organization, confirm the high level of mistrust of the police that exist in poor neighborhoods of color. In a survey of 500 people, 59 percent reported that they would not go to the police even if they were the victim of a violent crime. Disproportionate attention on young men of color, in particular, is largely fueling this distrust of law enforcement in minority communities, which has had negative consequences on race relations as we have seen all too well across the country. Other research on the nature of stops by the police, that include factors like race, neighborhood, and type of crime in New York, found disparate treatment by the police – “over-policing” – in racially segregated neighborhoods with high minority populations.

The data paint a powerful picture, but to have a more nuanced understanding of the roots of the tensions around race and law enforcement, more attention must be given to the following factors:

  • Deep and embedded structural inequality in the United States results in poverty rates of 27.4 percent among blacks.
  • The problem of mass incarceration with its attendant punitive sentencing laws disproportionately impacts black Americans, who are 20 times more likely to receive harsh sentences than whites.
  • Voting laws in states that prohibit former convicts from voting, even after they have served their time, result in more than a third of African Americans being barred from voting. States requiring IDs in order to vote disproportionately impact African Americans and the poor. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling on this matter only served to continue to erase protections against racial discrimination in Americans’ right to vote.
  • Educational attainment continues to lag behind other industrialized countries with stark differences in achievement rates linked to race and income levels. School segregation, which concentrates low-income minority children in low-achieving schools with limited resources, perpetuates the profound educational achievement gap that exists between blacks and others in the country.

Together, these factors have contributed to a highly unequal society along race and class lines polarized further by what many see as unjust treatment in the daily lives of African Americans by the country’s law enforcement entrusted to protect all equally.

Effective policing certainly is a high priority issue across the nation, but there is no single solution to address a particularly corrosive system that is embedded in our institutions. Police departments and civilian groups can work together on revising policies, retraining officers, and increasing supervision and monitoring. But other changes are necessary to tackle entrenched institutional discrimination – what FBI director James Comey called the “hard truths” in a candid speech in 2015. In this speech, Comey discussed the role that law enforcement has historically played to perpetuate racial bigotry in the country, the unconscious racial biases that are deeply entrenched in our society, which continue to reinforce ever-increasing barriers, the profound tension that exists between police officers and young African American men across the country, and the disproportionate challenges faced by African American men in terms of access to jobs and education. These are the areas, he argued, where change must begin. We, collectively, as a nation must turn our attention to tackling these issues in order to disrupt the entrenched institutional discrimination that continues to perpetuate the deep inequality and racial tensions in America today.

This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.


Shyama Venkateswar is Director of the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House and Distinguished Lecturer at Hunter College. In this capacity, she leads the Public Policy Program’s undergraduate curriculum, teaches the senior Capstone Seminar, co-manages faculty initiatives, works closely with city & state agencies for student internships, manages adjuncts, and directs a scholars program funded by the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women. She is a regular columnist for Roosevelt House’s website on a variety of national and global policy issues on conflict resolution, food security, women’s leadership, criminal justice reform, among others. She has almost twenty years of experience in research, policy and advocacy focusing on social justice issues, both in the U.S. and globally. Before coming to Hunter College, she worked at the National Council for Research on Women (NCRW), where she served as Director of Research & Programs, and helped provide the vision and strategic direction for the Council’s policy agenda on economic security for low-income women, diversity in higher education and the corporate arena, women’s leadership, and ending global violence against women. She is co-author of two NCRW reports, Caring for Our Nation’s Future; and The Challenge and the Charge: Strategies for Retaining and Advancing Women of Color in addition to numerous commentary and opinion pieces on poverty, job creation, peace-building, and immigrant rights published in The Miami Herald, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Asia Times, The Indian Express, and the Chicago Sun-Times. She has given Congressional briefings, and presented her research findings to academic, policy, advocacy and corporate audiences. She received her Ph.D. in Political Science from Columbia University and is a graduate of Smith College.