How Sociology (Re)Produces Racist Policing – #BLM Guest Post

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By Amber Hamilton. Amber M. Hamilton is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota. Her research examines digital articulations of Black identity and the broader relationship between race and technology.

On Friday, June 5 between 10:15am-10:26am, I posted the following 7-tweet thread on Twitter (I am using an unrolled version of this thread provided by the Thread Reader App): 

“Two of the police officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd were previously students in the Sociology dept. at the University of Minnesota.

Yesterday, my dept. sent the grad students an email requesting we stay silent if contacted by media. Y’all. (1/n)

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My fellow grad students have issued excellent email responses to that request calling it out for what it is: an attempt to cover-up something that is politically unfashionable in this moment. 2/n

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Our dept has a Law, Crime, and Deviance track that is actively marketed to students as a path to law enforcement. So this dept. is actively recruiting and training folks who go on to join the MPD and other law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and beyond.

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If you actively market your courses to folks who want to be in law enforcement, you have to accept the consequences down the line. When those officers kill/abuse/main citizens, you can’t shy away from your role in that 4/n

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Several of my grad school colleagues have realized that they were instructors/TAs for the two officers and are sick about it. But this is what it is. The Soc dept. has to stand in this and choose a path forward. 5/n

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Either they can continue to actively market the LCD major as a path toward law enforcement or they can choose to divest from that practice. But what they can’t do is request my complicity and silence about their failures 6/n.

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Last thing: this thread is going to burn bridges for me and I’m probably going to get emails about it. That’s just what it is. But I’m not going to stay silent about Black deaths and white complicity.”

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Sitting in my apartment, writing this thread on Friday, I did not expect my words to travel as far and as widely as they have. However, as of this writing on Sunday, June 7th at 9am, the first tweet in this thread 19,000 retweets and 55,000 likes. So, in writing this blog post, I hope to offer clarity on my words and suggestions on how to move forward. 

I posted this thread in response to a June 4 email from the chair of my department that was sent to the University of Minnesota Sociology graduate student listserv. In this email, the chair informed us that J. Alexander Kueng and Thomas Lane, two of the officers charged with aiding and abetting the murder of George Floyd, “appear to have ties to our department, college, and university.” 

The email also asked that we direct any media inquiries regarding current or past students to an official in the College of Liberal Arts. 

Many of my graduate school friends and colleagues responded with outrage, demanding that instead of shielding ourselves from the media, that we ought to use this moment to critically reflect on our practices of actively marketing our LCD program toward aspiring law enforcement and inviting cops into our classrooms.

Moreover, this message was read as an attempt to silence graduate students, making them avoid speaking with the media out of a fear of associating the department with a high-profile incident of anti-Black police violence. 

After reading these brilliant and thoughtful emails from my colleagues (and watching those emails receive no response from departmental administration), I felt sad, frustrated, angry, and hurt. So, I decided to use my platform on Twitter to spark a public conversation about my department’s practices regarding the undergraduate curriculum. Though I knew my tweets would receive attention, I admit that I was naive to just how much attention my thread would attract. But, I’m glad that I started a necessary and difficult conversation about my discipline’s dirty secret. 

Many Sociology and/or Criminology departments across this country actively market their majors and courses toward aspiring law enforcement officers and/or actively invite current law enforcement officers to their classrooms. While my thread specifically calls out University of Minnesota Sociology, the same is true of many other departments. These practices work to uphold an anti-Black, racist institution in order to reap the benefits that tuition dollars provide. In this moment of profound upheaval about race and policing in the United States and beyond, we — sociologists and academics writ large—have to interrogate our own complicity in upholding white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and systemic racism. 

I believe that the path forward for my department (and others) begins with putting an immediate end to the active recruitment of and marketing to aspiring law enforcement officers. Obviously, departments have no power to bar these students from their courses. But departments do have the power to shift how and to whom their courses are targeted. The path forward also includes putting an immediate stop to the inviting of current police and other law enforcement officers to classrooms to speak about their careers. Along with providing law enforcement officers a platform to spread state propaganda, inviting officers into classrooms is also a violent act against Black and Brown students. 

To be clear, I do not believe that the Law, Crime, and Deviance major should be eliminated. I have had the opportunity to meet and interact with many brilliant students in this major who are interested in careers that work to dismantle the racist criminal legal system. I am only suggesting an end to the practice of actively marketing the major toward aspiring law enforcement officers.

I am not an activist nor am I an expert in policing or the criminal justice system. However, many of my colleagues in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota are. In fact, my department is well-known for its research foci in various aspects of the criminal legal system. As such, we know better. We know what recruiting aspiring law enforcement officers into our undergraduate programs means and the potential consequences of that practice. However, we have thus far elided that responsibility and have continued to engage in practices that uphold anti-Black racism and systemic injustice. 

On May 27, 2020, University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced that the University will cut ties with the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. As such, continued advertisement of courses as a path toward law enforcement and inviting law enforcement officers to our classroom represents a hypocritical disjuncture between the University’s stated policies and the practices of the Department of Sociology.

It is my sincere hope that department administration and the faculty will immediately work to rectify this division.

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