Tuesday, June 9, 2020

A Civil Rights Expert Explains the Social Science of Police Racism

Columbia University attorney Alexis J. Hoag discusses the history of how we got to this point and the ways that researchers can help reduce bias against black Americans throughout the legal system.

Protester holds sign during a demonstration in honor of George Floyd on June 2, 2020, in Marin City, Calif. Credit: Justin Sullivan Getty Images

By Lydia Denworth

In a now-infamous event captured on video, on May 25 George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed by a Minneapolis police officer outside of a corner store. Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds while two other officers helped to hold him down and a third stood guard nearby. All four officers have been fired; Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter, and the other three officers have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

The 2014 shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., sparked a renewed emphasis on racism and police brutality in the U.S.’s political and cultural conversation. In the past few years many names have been added to the list of black people killed by police. Despite some efforts to acknowledge and grapple with systemic racism in American institutions, anger and distrust between law enforcement and black Americans have remained high. But Floyd’s death sparked a new level of outrage. Protests have erupted in hundreds of cities around the U.S. Most demonstrations have been peaceful. But some have turned violent, with police using force against protesters, and a small percentage of people setting fire to police cars, looting stores, and defacing or damaging buildings.

Civil rights attorney Alexis J. Hoag is the inaugural practitioner in residence at the Eric H. Holder, Jr., Initiative for Civil and Political Rights at Columbia University. She works with both undergraduates and law school students at Columbia to introduce them to civil rights field work (which she describes as “real issues, real clients, real cases”). Hoag was previously a senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Scientific American asked her to share her perspective on the history that has brought the U.S. to the breaking point—and her ideas for how to make substantive improvements in how law enforcement and courts treat black Americans in the country.  Read more >>