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Christina Heatherton and john a. powell discuss Trump’s and Clinton’s positions on policing and racism in America

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KIM BROWN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Kim Brown in Baltimore. Levels of mistrust between police and communities of color, in particular African American communities, are at very uncomfortable levels. Really since the rise of smartphones and social media, the number of cases involving unarmed black citizens being gunned down by police with often times little to no consequence and the rise of such movements such as black lives matter, push the issue of police brutality and police accountability to the forefront. Well, sort of. Both of the presidential candidates of the major parties have expressed positions encouraging the strengthening of police forces via either more funding or training and/or more powers such as expanding polices like stop and frisk. But can communities of color really expect understanding of this issue from either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Well let’s start the discussion by introducing our guest today. We’re joined by John A. Powell who is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair & Inclusive Society. We’re also speaking with Christina Heatherton. She is an assistant professor of American studies at Trinity College. Thank you both for joining us today. CHRISTINA HEATHERTON: Thank you for having us. JOHN A. POWELL: Thanks for having us. BROWN: Well before we get into the discussion let’s hear from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on this issue. HILLARY CLINTON: You know I started off as a young lawyer working against discrimination against African American children in schools and in the criminal justice system. I worked to make sure that kids with disabilities could get a public education. Something that I care very much about. I have worked with Latinos. One of my first jobs in politics was down in South Texas registering Latino citizens to be able to vote. So I have a deep devotion to use your absolutely correct word, to making sure that every American feels like he or she has a place in our country. DONALD TRUMP: I’ve heard them, what Hillary’s constantly talking about, the inner cities of our country which are a disaster. Education wise, job wise, safety wise, in every way possible. I’m going to help the African Americans, I’m going to help the Latinos, Hispanics, I am going to help the inner cities. She’s done a terrible job for the African Americans. She wants their vote and she does nothing. And she comes back four years later. BROWN: Those clips were from the second presidential debate which was held Sunday night at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. John let’s get started with you because the issue sort of came up in the second debate, not really. We heard more from the candidates during the first debate where Donald Trump double down on his calls for law and order. He called for a national policy of stop and frisk from policy. On the Hillary Clinton side, she has expressed some understanding about systemic racism and implicit bias but her solution seems to be more money and more training for police. Are either of these candidates on the right track for rectifying this very troubling and dire situation? POWELL: Well a couple of things. The problem is actually huge. The police is one expression of it but it’s not just the police. It is really the police is doing the bidding of much of our society in the sense of containing, controlling, and in some cases killing black and brown people on the streets. But in terms of that I would say the comparison between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump couldn’t be further apart. Donald Trump is actually advocating for more of the same. He’s actually advocating for a police state. He’s not really speaking to the black community. His campaign, it wasn’t until very late that he even went to the black community. So his talk about reaching out to the black community is largely for moderate white voters. But his hardcore constituents are really quite hostile to blacks. Certainly when there are in a sense with the police almost an [inflexive] support of the police and his call for law and order is reference to Nixon’s law and order campaign in the 1960’s which again was reaching out to white segregationists. So Trump is actually pretty hostile. When he talks about what are you going to do for the black community and he’s like law and order. I’m going to give them more police on the street and have stop and frisk, then people must respect the law. He describes the black community in theory in disparaging terms. The black community is huge. Most black people don’t even live in the city. But his notion of the black community is like a caricature. In terms of Hillary, I think again it’s not a complete solution but I think she’s talking to people at least. She talked about implicit bias which most Americans were not aware of and they still are not aware of. It’s a real thing. It actually affects all of us. It’s a deadly effect with the police. Training can help. It can’t solve the problem. But we can begin to take steps. So while neither of them have a complete solution, a complete solution will take time because the problem is so deep. They’re really radically different. Trump is really from my perspective, clearly hostile to the black community and stoking black hostility in the right wing white community. BROWN: Christina, there have been some on the left, African Americans, millennials, those within the movement within the movement for black lives, who say that Hillary Clinton is basically saying the right things in order to court the African American vote. However, what she will actually do as president in regards to law enforcement and how she will direct her Department of Justice certainly remains to be scene. Her idea of providing more training for police, this notion of body cameras, it’s an idea that many seem to feel is the elixir to solving the issues that—if only the police were trained better, if only they have the equipment to help them hold them accountable, then we won’t have these issues. Do you think that’s actually the case? HEATHERTON: Well thanks very much for the question and before I begin let me say happy Indigenous People’s day. I think what’s so interesting in this debate is not so much where the two candidates stand and as you said before, Trump’s positions are often so incoherent, it’d be disingenuous to say they’re actually coherent solidified positions. I think what we need to be mindful of are the ways in which they define and to limit the conversation. So you know for example when the question is about racism, there’s this huge deflection about inner cities for Trump. Similarly, when there’s a question of policing we see nothing but a set of deflections. Last night’s debate was extraordinary in that it was set in St. Louis and yet there wasn’t a mumbling word about Ferguson. There wasn’t a mumbling word about Mike Brown. There wasn’t a word spoken about the outrage and unrest around this country, around police killings, around mass incarceration, around things, the outrage that people in this country are feeling. Now to your question, what we’re dealing with right now is a flawed solution that comes from a flawed diagnosis. As professor Powell said, the Clinton campaign has introduced the concept of implicit bias. But the solutions as you mentioned, the solution of trying to diversify police forces, trying to officer sensitivity or diversity training for officers. This has not proven to succeed at any point in US history. This does not reverse implicit bias. Racism in policing is not an individual set of assumptions or beliefs. It’s systemic, it’s a reflection of the material conditioning and if we’re going to change racism in police we’re going to have to change racism in this society full stop. BROWN: One of the most telling moments in this discussion as far as it relates to the 2016 election, didn’t happen in the presidential debate. It actually happened in the Vice Presidential debate where the republican Mike Pence was debating with democrat Tim Kaine about this very issue of implicit bias and Mike Pence seemed to approach it with a level of incredulity. So let’s take a look at that clip if we could. MIKE PENCE: The risk of agreeing with you, community policing is a great idea. It’s worked in the Hooiser state and we full support that. Donald Trump and I are going to make sure that law enforcement have the resources and the tools to be able to really restore law and order to the cities and communities in this nation. It’s probably why the 330,000 of the Fraternal Order of Police endorse Donald Trump as the next president of the United States of America because they see his commitment through them. They see his commitment to law and order. But they also hear the badmouthing. The badmouthing that comes from people that seize upon tragedy in the wake of police action shootings as a reason to use a broad brush to accuse law enforcement of implicit bias or institutional racism and that really has got to stop. TIM KAINE: African Americans and Latinos get sentenced for the same crimes at very different rates. PENCE: We need criminal justice reform. Indiana has passed criminal justice reform. KAINE: We do. But I just want to say, those who say that we should not be able to bring up and talk about bias in the system will never solve the problem. PENCE: African American police officers involved in a police action shooting involving an African American, why would Hillary Clinton accuse that African American police officer of implicit bias. KAINE: I guess I can’t believe you are defending the position that there is no bias. BROWN: So John we need a little bit of professorialisms from you right now because Mike Pence is echoing a sentiment that we hear from a lot of people who don’t seem to understand that even if the police officer is African American involved in the shooting of an African American, that somehow implicit bias is not involved in that equation. Can you explain that for us? POWELL: Yes. You know it’s hard when new concepts like implicit bias get introduced in such a thing like a presidential election because it’s a complicated concept but it’s also real. It’s comparably tested. One of the things implicit bias does not mean the same thing as racism although it has very serious implications. Implicit bias comes from society. It’s automatic response to the environment based on being exposed to something in close proximity. So when we see things in close proximity, the example is Pavlov’s dog. You hit the bell, you feed the dog. You hit the bell, you feed the dog. Then you hit the bell, the dog starts salivating because they’ve drawn a connection between the bell and the dog. Excuse me the bell and food. Even though there is not one. So when we see things happen in close proximity frequently, the unconscious mind draws connection. So in a sense, implicit bias is the mind reading environment. So one of the things need to understand is that implicit bias is social. It’s actually reflecting the environment. It’s actually structural. It’s not an individual trait and it’s something that effects all of us. It affects whites, it tends to affect whites more because whites don’t have common stereotypical examples. So if there’s a bias in associate that blacks have guns, which there is in our society which is not accurate; whites have more guns than blacks. White people will not have enough contact with blacks to actually reduce that bias. But even blacks will have that bias. Now whether it exists or not we can measure it. It’s not a question of just argument back and forth. But social science, neural science can measure implicit bias. Implicit bias is actually something that exists in every society. The content of it, the strength of it, how it operates is socially specific. But we could not exist without implicit bias. But implicit bias is not everything. There’s actually explicit bias too. There’s general old fashion racism. There’s structural racialization and structural racism. So a [inaud.] more complex concept but implicit bias is an important concept for Americans to begin to understand and unfortunately it’s being made into a political faux pas. BROWN: Christina there seems to be a range of acknowledgement about the need for criminal justice reform. As we heard just in that clip from Governor Mike Pence of Indiana, he claims that Indiana has undergone some sort of criminal justice reform and we heard this coming mostly from the left of this need for reform in the justice system because of the racial biases for sentencing, for arrests, and for a myriad of things. But are we actually hearing real solutions about how to address criminal justice reform from either republicans or democrats? HEATHERTON: In the early 90’s one of my favorite bands SWV had a song called Weak and they had a line that said I can’t figure out just what to do. When the cause and cure is you. I think this is a great metaphor for police reform in this country right now where both the cause and the cure are the same, more policing. So when there are mass uprisings, when stop and frisks are ruled unconstitutional, the solution is well let’s increase funding for policing. The latest increase funding usually happens is with proposals for more reform. Different kinds of policing, community policing as we talked about before. Programs to reduce implicit violence. Programs like instituting body cameras. But what we show in the book, Policing the Planet, that I recently coedited is that policing is the problem. We’re in this very strange bind where we can’t keep redoubling the problem. We keep funding the very thing that needs to be fixed without any thoughtful protocol about how things actually change. So one important refraining that needs to happen in this election is while extremist like Donald Trump are calling for law and order, how can we talk about increasing law and order when we don’t even have basic rule of law? BROWN: That’s Christina Heatherton. She is an assistant professor of American studies at Trinity College and bonus points for her for using the SWV reference. We’ve also been joined with John Powell. He’s the director of the Haas Institute for Fair & Inclusive society. Thank you both for joining us. I’m sure we’re going to have you both on again in the future cause this issue is certainly ongoing. HEATHERTON: Thank you. POWELL: Thanks for having us. BROWN: And thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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Christina Heatherton is an Assistant Professor of American Studies at Trinity College. She is completing her first book, The Color Line and the Class Struggle: The Mexican Revolution, Internationalism, and the American Century (University of California Press, forthcoming). With Jordan T. Camp, she recently edited Policing the Planet: Why the Policing Crisis Led to Black Lives Matter (Verso Books, 2016).

john a. powell is Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He previously served as the Executive Director at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and the Institute for Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He led the development of an “opportunity-based” model that connects affordable housing to education, health care, and employment. He is one of the co-founders of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council and serves on the board of several national organizations. Prof. powell has taught at numerous law schools including Harvard and Columbia University. He is the author of Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.