Examining Race and Policing

In the wake of police killings of Black Americans, a political science class takes students beyond the headlines

Last May, the nation was rocked by the video of George Floyd’s death as he was detained by Minneapolis police. As people took to the streets in pain and outrage, political science professors Vickie Sullivan and David Art talked about what they could offer students who wanted to think critically the about the volatile intersection of policing, race, and protest that filled the news.

“These were cataclysmic times, the demonstrations were going on, and we were wondering how we could incorporate the current political events into our teaching,” says Sullivan, the Cornelia Jackson Professor of Political Science.

There is a lot to unpack: The killing of Black Americans by police has influenced our culture, our criminal justice system, and our politics. During the November election, an overwhelming majority of respondents to an Associated Press poll—91 percent—said the demonstrations after the deaths of Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and others were a factor in making their choice for president, regardless of whether they voted Democratic or Republican.

Creating an educational experience in this time, says Art, “was something we wanted to do for the whole conversation of inclusion and equity.”

The result was a new class, “Political Perspectives on Race, Policing, and Demonstrations in the U.S.,” that brought a fleet of experts to help Tufts undergraduates put this tumultuous moment in context.

­Sullivan and Art designed the class over the summer, as everyone at the university was trying to envision what a fall semester dominated by pandemic restrictions would look like. They realized that the proliferation of videoconferencing could allow them to connect students, via Zoom, with policing and race experts who might otherwise have been out of reach. Not long after their first discussion in early June, the two had added the class to their fall teaching load.

The course, offered through the political science and civic studies departments, brought thought leaders from academia, journalism, advocacy, and politics to talk about the state of affairs between police and people of color, as well as resistance to systemic racism and violence in policing. “We wanted to make sure people get at the issue in all of its dimensions,” Art says.

Guest speakers and their writings, along with questions from students, made up the bulk of the coursework, and the visiting lecturers consistently remarked on the penetrating and well-informed questions the students asked, Sullivan says. The course had live lectures that students could opt to watch asynchronously. “We wanted to appeal not only to political science and civic studies majors, but to be accessible to first-year students, too, and students from engineering as well as arts and sciences,” Sullivan says. “It’s a model we hope can be used in the future. Ultimately, it shows what we can do to adapt very quickly to pressing political issues.”

As swiftly as the two professors put the syllabus together, speakers and students signed on. Within weeks of advertising the course in August—well after many students had already decided on their schedule for the upcoming semester—registration reached about 140. Tufts students “are interested about what’s going on in the streets, and what that says about systemic racism,” Art says.

Andrew Hong, A22, a political science major who took the class, says it was not about recounting the news. “Anyone with a social media account knows what’s going on—information spreads quickly; you see reposts about protests, police brutality,” he says. “But that’s all largely absent some sort of academic and higher education perspective.” 

To provide that, the expert guest speakers answered the questions students want to know about, Art says: “What is police militarization? Is it a real thing? What’s the data on police brutality? It’s what we do best as scholars: ask our students to think long and critically about the issues they’ve become involved with politically and socially.”

While Art and Sullivan originally conceived the course as an in-the-moment response to current events, they say they can see its flexible format leading to similar classes in the future. “I’ll continue to teach about policing,” Art says. “Criminal justice reform is a key concept for political science—it’s not just something that has a place in the curriculum for one semester.”

Fernando Loureiro, A21, entered Tufts with the class of 2000, and when he returned to finish his degree, he was drawn to the class, partly because he is now a film producer, tackling themes of inequality and social justice. “All good films are really about human nature and the complexities of people,” Loureiro says. The perspectives brought by the various guest speakers, he says, have illustrated that the “situation is a lot more complex than anyone on any one side could have possibly imagined.”

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