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Opinion: College degrees won’t lessen police racism unless campuses confront own biases

The words "Defund the Police" were added by protesters  alongside the words "Black Lives Matter" near the White House in Washington.
The words "Defund the Police" were added by protesters alongside the words "Black Lives Matter" near the White House in Washington.

Credit: DOUG MILLS

Credit: DOUG MILLS

Have we ensured our colleges and universities are committed to pushing back against racism?

In a guest column, two Ohio State University researchers address the contention that police officers should be encouraged to pursue college degrees under the premise that more education leads to less racism.

Matthew Mayhew and Musbah Shaheen question whether police officers will get education that really works. They say we must recognize that colleges are also affected by a white supremacist system that devalues people of color.

Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of Educational Administration with a focus on higher education and student affairs at the Ohio State University. He has published more than 60 peer-reviewed articles in journals. He is also one of the co-authors for "How College Affects Students: Volume 3."

Musbah Shaheen is a doctoral student in higher education and student affairs at Ohio State, and is a research assistant in the College Impact Laboratory.

By Matthew J. Mayhew and Musbah Shaheen

The country is overwhelmed with tragedy as more incidents of police brutality against communities of color came to public attention. Once again, there are debates about what responsible policing should be.

As liberals pushed for defunding police, conservatives defended the establishment, blaming "a few bad apples."

Both sides of the aisle seem to agree that racism in policing is a real problem and that reform – through training and education – may be part of the solution.

Recently, two experts who specialize in crime and punishment provided a catchy, Buzzfeed-like list of 5 reasons why police should have college degrees, suggesting that officers with more education are better fit to serve the community. The data they present suggest that the more education officers receive, the better.

While we agree with this argument – to some extent – we are concerned with the seemingly negligent and short-sighted portrayal of college as the catch-all solution to this, among other, problems. Colleges are not magical places. People don't just go to college, participate in service-learning, and become more aware of bias and less racist.

report from 2017 on policing education showed that one third of officers have a four-year college degree, more than half have a two-year degree, and around 5.4% have a graduate degree. In other words, a significant fraction of the police force does, in fact, have some sort of degree. But – based on recent events – clearly, college may not be working.

Plus, many police departments mandated bias training for police officers to address concerns that arose about police brutality. Even before the murder of Michael Brown, experts have called for more training about multiculturalism and bias awareness. According to a report by CBS News, close to 70% of the departments surveyed have implicit bias training, but 60% of those do not have a way to measure the outcomes of such training. 90% make it mandatory. So, training is generally required, but is neither assessed nor is it sufficient.

Matthew Mayhew
Matthew Mayhew

So, before pushing police officers through the higher education pipeline or adding more trainings to their onboarding process, we need to make sure that the education they will get actually works.

Musbah Shaheen
Musbah Shaheen

Is higher education fit to educate a police force that is culturally competent and able to recognize and push back against institutional racism? How might college education in America reflect hegemonic values and their expressions to their students?

How does police-force training –which is presumed to be a potential point of intervention– also reflect messages of a white supremacist system built upon access to democracy for some, but not for all, especially Black Americans?

Although there are no silver-bullet solutions to answer these questions, we offer five recommendations based on the reputed idea of decolonizing predominately white colleges.

Integrate anti-racist agendas into college mission statements 

Many institutions now include in their mission statements language that supports diversity, but that does not mean that an institution is committed to reversing past, present, and future effects of discrimination and racism. A commitment to diversity is not enough – colleges and universities must explicitly and publicly commit to an anti-racist agenda, one that not only values diversity for its benefits to the institution, but also actively combats racism. Only such institutions could truly prepare students to responsibly serve the public.

Hire more Black executive administrators 

No doubt, student diversity has increased significantly, but diversity within administrative ranks still lags behind. A 2016 report on minority university presidents showed that only 8% of presidents are Black. Even more alarmingly, women of color represent a mere 5% of college presidents. Top-level executives, like presidents and provosts, are visible and influential. They can steer the institution towards more anti-racist action. The lack of Black people in university leadership positions is no coincidence – it is symptomatic of the system designed to always give an edge to white people – change must start at the top.

Hire more Black faculty to teach 

Diverse students need diverse teachers, and yet colleges and universities still struggle to hire and retain Black faculty. Even those who are hired quickly face systemic obstacles to their success, and are disadvantaged in the tenure and promotion process compared to their white counterparts. This is not new. Institutions have known for quite some time that they need to hire more diverse faculty – we know that representation matters. Yet, it is the complacency with the white supremacist status quo that has halted progress in hiring more Black faculty. An institution that is truly committed to practicing and teaching anti-racism should actively work to recruit, retain, and support Black faculty in the classroom. Failure to do so is in itself an act of pervasive white supremacy

Provide consistent, anti-racism educational opportunities for educators

Diversity and inclusion workshops and training session have almost become routine on many campuses. Many of the diversity programs have lost their potency due to the feel-good approach that provides the satisfaction of being aware without creating actual dialogue or change. Scholars and diversity experts have indicated the need for authentic dialogue about race within students, faculty, and staff. Institutions must stop relying on Black employees to educate all others and must start making institutional commitments to an anti-racist agenda. Yes, a student may enroll in a diversity course or participate in diversity dialogues, but if these are not well-facilitated and well-managed, they are not only useless, they often induce harm.

Decolonize existing syllabi, programs, and practices designed to educate students

Current educational practices are biased toward promoting and strengthening whiteness as the dominant group. Decolonization in higher education means questioning some of the taken for granted practices. Educators, administrators, departments, colleges, and programs should engage in a decolonization process by rethinking how current practices serve to affirm white supremacy. Institutions must determine how anti-racist agenda could be integrated in the core of teaching and learning at the university, which requires attention starting at the individual syllabus level.

Yes, let’s send more people to college, but before we do that, we need to ensure that our colleges and universities are committed to pushing back against racism. Otherwise, efforts to increase police education will fall flat, leaving us with a “highly-educated” yet still deeply racist police force.

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