Starting a Conversation About Race and Policing
“If I could get everybody to close their eyes real quick,” Lester Jackson told Professor Anne Coughlin’s Criminal Investigation class as he sat at the head of it on a recent morning. “No peeking.”
Jackson, who is African-American, pulled on a black hoodie and donned sunglasses. “Alright, open your eyes.”
He waited for the class to reflect upon his new look.
“I’m still the dude sitting here in these fantastic shoes — and a bowtie,” he said. “So why does this change? And I know you had to feel something when you opened your eyes.
“Those are the narratives that we need to try to change.”
The class was about to dive into the U.S. Supreme Court cases Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, about police discretion in arrests for traffic crimes, and Terry v. Ohio, in which the majority said stop-and-frisk practices were legal.
It was the perfect time, Coughlin said, to try something new. She invited her friend Jackson to speak to present a black American’s perspective on policing.
“In both of these areas, there is substantial empirical evidence that race plays a really powerful role in the policing decisions,” Coughlin told the class. “It’s just not controversial anymore that, in fact, racial profiling — the use of race as a factor in deciding who you’re going to arrest and stop — [is happening]. Folks on both sides of the aisle agree this is going on.”
After the class, Coughlin said she and Jackson are on a mission to transform teaching about race and racism.
The pair met in January 2017 when he was at the Law School repairing an elevator. He noticed Coughlin was wearing a Black Lawyers Matter T-shirt.
“That’s what grabbed my attention,” Jackson said.
He immediately picked up his cell phone and asked Coughlin if he could snap a photo. She agreed and asked him to “friend” her on Facebook and share the photo with her there.
In the following weeks, they began talking about racism in the United States, in the criminal justice system and in their own lives. They talked about their different disciplines and different strategies for breaking down racial barriers. Coughlin said the conversations became more urgent after Aug. 11 and 12, when white supremacists rallied on the University of Virginia Grounds and in Charlottesville.
“Ultimately, we began to wonder if we could use these conversations as a strategy for change,” Coughlin said. “The conversations had changed us. Maybe conversations could change others.”
Jackson’s avocation — his “heart’s work” — is producing art that celebrates African-American people, communities and culture. He is a singer-songwriter who performs under the stage name Nathaniel Star. He is also a photographer and clothing designer.
“For me, art — especially visual art — has the power to begin reshaping the negative stereotypes that all too often dominate our narratives about black men, women and children,” he said.
Jackson and Coughlin said they knew bringing a conversation into Coughlin’s class might be uncomfortable.
“And it was,” Coughlin said.
At one point during the session, Jackson reflected on the pain he will feel when he teaches his young children how to safely encounter police.
“We shouldn’t have to have ‘the talk’ with our children,” he said, then paused for several seconds, holding back tears. He and his wife have a daughter and are expecting a second child. “At some point life will show her that she’s not viewed the same and I don’t want to not prepare her for that at the same time. … But how do I rob my daughter of her innocence?”
He added, “The world will do it if I don’t.”
Coughlin and Jackson said they feel the class is just the beginning of a conversation they want to continue. As for what those conversations could and should be, they are working on it.
Jackson suggested during the class that they should expand the audience for discussions about race and policing.
“It shouldn’t just be a ‘black parents having this talk’ thing,” Jackson told the class. “I feel like that’s how you start some of this change — white parents need to talk to their white kids. And allow them to understand — listen to them, but teach them — the world isn’t the same for everybody. It really isn’t. We want it to be, and we’re unfortunately passing you a world that is not that way. But this is the beginning of trying to create it.”
By bringing their own conversations into classrooms at the University and beyond (through the video), they hope to bring an array of perspectives — and the people that hold them — to the table.
Jackson told students that people of color want to complain about how they are treated by police, but are often labeled as “angry” if they do.
“There’s decades of weight and hurt, because it hurts,” Jackson said. “People have to empathize a little bit more when you have a conversation with a person of color.”