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Lasting police reform will require confronting roots of racism in American policing

Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University
Racial Literacy: Community and Policing moderated by Rod Brunson with panelists Margaret Burnham, Lisa Bailey-Laguerre, and Rebecca Riccio on Oct. 20, 2020.

Four researchers at Northeastern who have dedicated their careers to the subjects of policing and social movements came together to discuss what fair and just policing might look like in the future during the final installment of the university’s Racial Literacy series.

It is the issue of the moment, said Margaret Burnham, university distinguished professor of law at Northeastern. She noted that the practice of assigning police the role of preserving power and social order is embedded today in our immigration policies, our schools, our social services, and in our criminal justice system.

“We all recognize how deeply embedded the history of violent and racist policing is in our state institutions,” she said. “It’s ubiquitous, it’s comprehensive, and it begins in the history of slavery.”

Burnham founded and directs the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern’s School of Law, through which she and her students investigate acts of racial violence that took place in the South from 1930 to 1970. The purpose of the initiative, said Burnham, is to examine the associated legal, historical, and economic issues that the cases bring up. 

The group also works with families on restorative justice projects. Most recently, Burnham and her students uncovered the details of the death in 1948 of a black man named Rayfield Davis, whose story was chronicled in the Northeastern documentary Murder In Mobile.

On the topic of reform, Burnham discussed the importance of engaging all communities, including police officers, in the process, and taking into account the fundamental causes and historical scope of violence perpetrated by unjust policing. Imagining a future of safety is also key, she said. 

“We can talk about absolute abolition, but we need to visualize what that actually might look like,” Burnham said.

Continue reading at News@Northeastern.

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