Taking On The Difficult, Part I
Creating new possibilities requires grappling with messy, imperfect, and difficult realities. Sometimes events and crises can galvanize this process. And, of late, the challenges are seemingly myriad and massive: the needless and tragic deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, racial violence and discrimination, the global pandemic, the economic crisis, isolationist policies, climate change, the rise of fascist-like leadership and ideologies, threats to democracy and individual liberties, the continued global refugee crisis, homelessness, income disparity, persistent poverty, the rise in deaths of despair, and the continued impacts of structural inequalities, symbolic violence, and decimated neighborhoods.
We provide no easy answers nor simple solutions. We do, however, traffic in ideas here and bend in outlook towards the possible, so here are some nuggets for contemplation:
- Let’s start with the police. The Atlantic published an article on fixing the nation’s police departments. The co-authors included legal and criminal justice scholars as well as a former municipal police department deputy chief. As the article shares, we have 18,000 separate police departments here in the United States, and reforms are too often focused on a few “problem” departments or in one city or state. We need more systemic reform across the landscape of jurisdictions. The authors share three very specific, but important, actions that could and should be taken by Congress, at the federal level. Similarly, they offer five recommendations for state action and then go on to offer suggestions for local police departments. The authors describe how, at present, police departments vary on their training and guidelines for use of force, with many just repeating a Supreme Court recommendation and others offering a few principles but with few specifics. Some departments outsource this type of training and others offer very little in the way of meaningful guidance. The article does describe some departments that may serve as examples here, that have developed clear policies on the least amount of force to be employed in a situation or that include detailed tactical examples and guidance for officers in specific instances. Beyond that, the authors continue, policies must be enforced and supervisors and leaders at all levels need better training and oversight, including external oversight and review mechanisms. Transparency and accountability to the public is also critical. And none of this should be an isolated, one-time, or a stop gap solution, but instead a part of a larger effort at culture building, at shaping the type of police culture that values non-violence, self-restraint, respect, kindness, caring, and the use of the least amount of force as core values and lived practices.
- Let’s continue with our neighborhoods. Neighborhoods still matter, and we still have too many under-resourced and distressed neighborhood, many of those with high percentages of black or other minority populations. Multiple researchers have pointed to the persistent structural disadvantages that are disproportionately concentrated in African American communities. And, neighborhood characteristics influence levels of crime and delinquency, education, psychological distress, health problems, and other issues.
- Our neighborhood can affect our life span. Lower-income residents of wealthy neighborhoods live longer than residents of poorer neighborhoods, and the life span differential is significant – residents of rich neighborhoods live on average 15 years longer than residents of poor neighborhoods. For residents of lower-income residents in the US, their longevity is on par with residents of countries such as Sudan and Pakistan rather than akin to what might be expected as a typical lifespan of an inhabitant in a more developed nation.
- Neighborhood-level income and lifespan disparities are often linked to racial and ethnic segregation and disparity. As Sarah Holder and David Montgomery wrote for CityLab, these “poorer, browner, neighborhoods” have seen leaders and developers fail to invest in schools, businesses, public services, housing, and other infrastructure. These under-supported neighborhoods, largely populated by people of color, are also proximate to more environmental health risks from air pollution to brownfields.
- In his recent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, David Brooks argues that a moral life entails four distinct types of commitments, and that one of those is commitments is to community. He suggests that “rebuilding community involves seeing that the neighborhood, not the individual, is the essential unit of social change.” And a part of this work entails a radical shift in power structures and in approach, recognizing that there is no one single fix, no easy solution, but rather a focus on supporting “an affinity of positive influences [that] subtly reinforce one another in infinitely complex ways.”
- The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has historically contributed to some of the neighborhood decline through failed policies of urban renewal and tacit support of redlining, which led to massive underinvestment in higher poverty, mostly black neighborhoods in the United States. The agency authored a 2016 report that summarized the research on neighborhoods and violent crime. The report pointed to some strategies to address structural inequalities at the root of violence. For instance, the author called for “investments that increase inclusion and support education, skills, and access to jobs” and “policies that reduce economic, racial, and ethnic segregation”. The report also called for better and more comprehensive national data on neighborhood-level crime and policing and cited community policing tactics as one way to improve community relationships with law enforcement.
- Perhaps we should be more open to the radical, and to having conversations about big, sweeping changes. For instance, earlier this year Time Magazine’s Abigail Abrams shared 8 radical ideas for a more equal America.
- Writing in the June issue of the New York Review of Books, Marilynne Robinson reminds us that it is ok to ask big sweeping questions about what kind of country we want to be: “How is it that we can be told, and believe, that we are the richest country in history, and at the same time that we cannot share benefits our grandparents enjoyed? When did we become too poor to welcome immigrants? The psychology of scarcity encourages resentment, a zero-sum notion that all real wealth is private and is diminished by the claims of community.” She challenges us to examine our situation more deeply and to better use our wealth for the well-being of all, including future generations.
- Robinson eloquently challenges us to consider how so much our ideas about America and public issues are influenced by capitalist ideas, that are in some instances simply wrong. Unrestrained commerce does not lift all boats. Many of the gains of capitalism tend to aggregate to the mega-rich, help the largest corporations and top executives, and accumulate in off-shore accounts or non-domestic investments. We do have tremendous wealth, if we but use it correctly and share it a bit more broadly. And no small part of that is on us, as individuals, to recognize our responsibility to community and to the greater good. But inequality in our country is not the fault of lazy individuals, or too little charity, or failed programs, but it is a failure of will (as Robinson alludes to) and also a failure of policy. Writing for the Brookings Institute, Andre Perry and Tawanna Black, argue that, “George Floyd’s death represents not just a failure of policing, but a failure of economic policy, a failure to close wealth and homeownership gaps, and a failure to value Black lives.”
- It is not just the Naomi Kleins and Bernie Sanders of the world that are calling for a new consideration of the role of the private sector in our society. It is businesses themselves. Last year, the United States Business Roundtable, a fairly mainstream entity of corporate leaders, endorsed a new set of principles affirming the commitment of companies to support communities, embrace sustainability, and focus on the long-term wealth and well-being of people and places.
- While violence and hatred are all too real and way too prevalent, it may be useful to consider the fact that many countries have seen their homicides rate significantly decline in recent decades and that additional declines may indeed be achievable. Robert Muggah and Steven Pinker wrote about this for Foreign Policy. Although, the authors do not mention that some of the very practices that have proven effective at overall homicide reduction, such as focused deterrence and hot spot policing, reinforce a tougher on crime mentality that can lead to police abuses and racial violence.
- It may be even more important than ever to read or listen to more poetry, or stories, or music, or art, or film, or essays. Consume more forms of meaningful content, beyond the loud walls of social media echo-chambers. Art and story can help us, in profound and soul-nourishing ways, to better identify with the other, to bridge difference, to more fully understand. This poem from Dawn Lundy Martin, featured on Tracy K. Smith’s The Slowdown Podcast offers an affecting example.