Lehigh faculty address country’s race divisions


Lehigh faculty are addressing the recent tragic events in Louisiana, Minnesota and Dallas in media interviews that acknowledge the deepening divide in the country over issues of race and policing.

James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh, told MSNBC that the nation continues to experience deadly confrontations between police and African Americans because it hasn’t been addressing the root causes of white supremacy and racism, especially institutional racism, in the country.

Despite wide discussions and media coverage of the issues, “we don’t get down to the brass tacks of how law enforcement [is] trained,” he said. “Can we really radically rethink and overhaul how law enforcement, how our criminal justice system works in this nation?”

Peterson also acknowledged that the hostile rhetoric about which President Obama has warned is hurting reform efforts.

“The rhetoric that we have, the kind of vitriol and the sort of back and forth and the hatred that’s in our public and political discourse unfortunately creates context where extremists will take advantage of our vulnerabilities,” Peterson said on MSNBC. “And vulnerabilities are when we all sort of go to our extremes instead of  thinking about the ways in which we can come to the table and try to address some of the main challenges that this nation faces around
these particular issues.”

He added, “It’s a dark moment in the nation’s history…It’s difficult to see a way out of it and a way through it, but it’s long-haul work.”

The fatal police shootings of two black men—Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota—heightened racial tensions. Then, five Dallas police officers were gunned down by a black Army veteran who said he was angry about the killings.

In Quartz, after the deaths of Sterling and Castile went viral on social media, Jeremy Littau, assistant professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh, addressed the live-streaming of police killings.

“Facebook has to worry about normalizing this type of content, turning it into spectacle or voyeurism, as the result of people being desensitized after viewing a video several times or viewing several of these types of videos over the course of a month or year, rather than making the viewing experience focused on the moral weight of what the viewer is showing.”

He said Facebook has an obligation to those who do not want to view the violence.

In Salon, Sirry Alang, assistant professor of sociology and anthropology, addressed the toll of police brutality on minority communities. In addition to more sensitivity training and increased use of body cameras by the police, Alang recommended that communities exercise oversight of their local police departments, with civilian commissions or task forces determining department policies, and that local police forces be required to be representative of their community populations.

“If law enforcement is meant to serve and protect the community,” wrote Alang, who is also an affiliated faculty member in Lehigh’s health, medicine and society program, “then the system needs to be held accountable to the community.”

Holona LeAnne Ochs, associate professor of political science, has been researching the issues.

Ochs is currently examining the use of lethal force across states, within states, and by specific departments within each state, including the Phoenix, Dallas and Baltimore police departments. With an aim of reducing the risks to people of color, Ochs wants to understand the factors that affect the use of lethal force and explore how crisis-intervention training may provide police with de-escalation tactics to reduce incidents. Preliminary analysis of data from Arizona shows support for policy prescriptions that enhance collaborations between police and mental health professionals, she said.

In earlier research, she found that the relative risk of being shot by police from 1994 to 2004 was significantly higher for black people across the 30 largest U.S. cities.

“This is something I’ve been concerned about for a long time,” she said.
With the nation reeling from the recent shootings, Ochs is working with colleagues and local police to figure out a way forward.  She said they are trying to determine how to help people better understand the job of police officers and how that affects whether they think police are doing a good job or whether they think police are credible.

“There are police officers who care about this and who understand that this will make everyone safer if we can figure out ways to decrease incidents of lethal force,” she said.

With recent events reminiscent of the turbulence of the 1960s, Ochs said, “Even though that was a really difficult time, it did lead to a lot of really positive changes that everyone benefited from.

“We can look at this again as an opportunity,” she said, “if we focus on what we’re doing right and how to do more of that and understand that these incidents should be addressed, but they don’t necessarily define the whole of what the police are doing, that there are a lot of great things that the police are doing. We certainly wouldn’t want a situation where we don’t have any police. “


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