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Yasser Payne is an associate professor of sociology and Africana studies in UD’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Article by Beth Miller |
Photo by Evan Krape
Editor’s note: As University of Delaware alumnus Joseph Biden
starts his first full day as president of the United States, UDaily
offers thoughts from several UD experts and doctoral students on the
Biden-Harris administration’s top four priorities: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change. This article focuses on racial equity.
The global coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic laid bare the many layers
of inequities and injustices that have plagued racial minorities in the
United States for more than 400 years. The struggle for justice filled
the streets of many cities in 2020.
And racial equity now is a top-shelf item in the new administration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
“The year 2020 will forever be etched in the historical record for
the massive racial unrest that flooded the country,” said Yasser Payne,
associate professor of sociology and Africana studies. “The rage from
the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd (among many
others) in 2020 was crystalized by the Summer of Protests which took
place in over 350 cities. A set of reforms commensurate to the outrage
are required to materialize real change with police.”
In case that wasn’t clear in 2020, January 2021 has already brought its own arguments.
“The attack on the Capitol building by Trump’s supporters sharply
reflected the difference in policing between Black and white
protestors,” Payne said. “Many in the Black community are grateful for
President Biden’s acknowledgment of this fact. ‘No one can tell me that
if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesters yesterday that
they wouldn't have been treated very differently,’ he said.”
Payne said he sees bold strides for police reform in Biden’s plan.
“The Racial Equity Plan’s recommendations for police reform are the
boldest ever advanced by a president of the United States,” he said.
“Banning chokeholds and weapons of war and creating use-of-force
standards and developing an oversight commission are among the most
crucial issues that need to be addressed to achieve real change. If
implemented, this plan will certainly improve trust between police and
poor Black communities, because it provides a clear set of goals for
police departments to pursue.”
Move this whole section up, swapping places with the section above it.
Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Chair for the Study of Law and Public Policy in the Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration
Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Chair for the Study of Law and Public
Policy in the Joseph R. Biden School of Public Policy and Administration, agreed that police reform is a critical component of the plan.
“This is important because there is a centuries-old association of
blackness with criminality and violence,” Ware said. “In recent years,
courts have consistently allowed police officers to use race as a sign
of an increased risk of criminality. Throughout the criminal justice
system, being young, Black and male has become ‘probable cause,’
justifying the arrest, questioning, search and detention of millions of
African-American males every year. The disproportionate use of deadly
force by police officers against Black and brown women and men is
starting to receive the attention it deserves.”
Payne sees gaps in the plan, too.
“Missing from the Administration’s plan is a mandate for viable
community policing programs,” he said. “Among the most effective crime
reduction strategies are programs that improve the relationship between
police and poor Black communities.
In addition, he said, legislation is needed to develop
“community-controlled” oversight commissions, revamp civil asset
forfeitures laws, enforce mental-health crisis training and change the
racial composition of police departments to reflect the neighborhoods
Ware sees welcome recognition of the comprehensive impact racial
discrimination has had on minority communities — in the criminal justice
system and beyond.
“Much of the disproportionality in the criminal justice system is
attributable to unconscious stereotypes that affect decision-making,” he
said. “Over the last three decades a substantial body of empirical and
theoretical work in cognitive psychology has confirmed that the causes
of discriminatory actions often operate at an unconscious level without
the perpetrator’s awareness of the source.”
Institutional discrimination — the customs, practices and norms used
by organizations to deprive non-whites of treatment as equals — is
another source of unequal treatment, Ware said.
“Institutional discrimination is reinforced by media images,
political discourse and everyday interactions,” he said. “Institutional
discrimination is pervasive; it functions at the societal,
institutional, social and individual levels. It manifests itself in the
workplace, in educational settings, in financial transactions and other
more informal settings. Manifestations of systemic discrimination are so
common that they appear to be ‘normal’ and are unnoticed by those not
“The stereotype of young Black men as dangerous criminals is deeply
embedded in the American psyche. It is a factor contributing to the
stark racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Decisions about
whom to arrest, how much force to use, what charges should be lodged
and jury verdicts convicting minority defendants are adversely
influenced by bias. This is an urgent matter that needs to be
Nefetaria Yates, a doctoral student in the School of Education, said
the Biden-Harris plan is “neat and palatable” rather than radically
Much stronger medicine is needed in her view — and the nation saw the evidence in the video of George Floyd Jr.’s death.
“For 8 minutes and 46 seconds the nation watched,” she said. “Peering
in disbelief, we watched, attempting to process the gruesome scene laid
before our eyes. Surely, the officers hear his pleas. Why are they
ignoring him? This is insane. They’re going to kill him!
“For the nation, this was a wake-up call. For Black people, this was a reminder.”
Yates said the revival of the Black Lives Matter movement brought
vigorous new campaigns such as #DefundPolice and #AbolishPolice because
people had grown tired of the proposition of reform.
“George Floyd was not the first and if radical systemic
transformation was not implemented, we knew he certainly would not be
the last,” she said.
She does not find that kind of transformation in the Biden plan.
“In the wake of unprecedented national outcry, the Biden-Harris
administration chose to center its efforts on justice reform, rather
than radical transformation,” Yates said. While the approaches this
administration plans to implement are indeed needed, they are lacking in
depth, detail and potential impact. President-elect Biden opens his
discussion of justice reform through the lens of racial equity. However,
his administration’s plan of action does little to directly or
specifically address these disparities.
“Moreover, his approach lacks historical context, particularly as it
relates to the relationship between policing and anti-Black racism,” she
said. “The Biden-Harris solution is neat and palatable — not
revolutionary. As the nation enters 2021, we cannot operate ‘business as
usual.’ We cannot continue to place Band-Aids on bullet wounds and hope
for the best. In order to fully actualize racial equity, as the
Biden-Harris administration claims to champion, we must listen to the
voices of the oppressed and implement tangible policies that dismantle
racist systems. In a democracy, the people lead. And in these times, the
people want revolutionary change. So, let’s make that happen.”
Biden Day One: Overview
Biden Day One: COVID-19
Biden Day One: Economic recovery
Biden Day One: Racial equity
Biden Day One: Climate change