The role of research in dismantling racism

June 16, 2020

Dear Changemakers,

The killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Ahmaud Arbery, David McAtee, and so many others are leading many, including current and former colleagues, to question whether the justice policy community should move away from reform toward abolition and defunding of police departments and to suggest that researchers should stop studying reform efforts and focus their energy on informing the design of alternative institutions and investments to provide safety and justice.

My colleague, Jesse Jannetta, for example, is reckoning with that challenge. He is welcoming a hard conversation about the insufficient results of reform—including reform efforts we helped shape with our research findings. Jesse played a critical role in evaluating the Obama administration’s National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. In Minneapolis, the initiative included officer training, policy changes mandating officers to intervene when another officer uses excessive force, and a reconciliation process designed to repair police-community relationships by addressing the deep historical roots of distrust in the police among people of color and other marginalized populations. Yet, Jesse wrote recently, that effort so obviously “wasn’t enough,” a realization causing him to challenge his own thinking and practice of public safety and justice policy research.

My email to you today is not about whether reform, overhaul, reimagining, dismantling and replacing, or abolishing the police is the answer. Urban does not have an institutional policy agenda, nor do we as an institution take positions.

But Urban does empower our experts to draw their own conclusions and argue for their own positions, based on their research and analysis of the evidence. And sometimes they disagree with one another, reaching different conclusions about policy or action from the available evidence. They may even—especially now—disagree about how best to contribute toward creating an antiracist society.

Our community at Urban—like the country at large—is reckoning with questions about how we can adapt our institution and our work to make greater progress in eradicating racism. We are informed by concrete and actionable recommendations offered by our own colleagues and new thinking across society, including the powerful letter written by the Sadie Collective urging change within economic institutions.

Urban’s leadership team and I honor and are reflecting on the various ideas being shared about the best path forward, and we are making plans to progress. As we move ahead, all of us will work differently. Each person at Urban may not take the same path. Thisopenness to adiversity of thought has always been a source of Urban’s reputation for objectivity and intellectual honesty.

I believe, however, that across all of social science and policy analysis, we should be widening the aperture. Our contributions—insight from research, data, and lived experience—can help changemakers consider new ideas and more profound changes in societal structures and institutions that, like policing, schools, and housing markets, consistently produce inequality.

At Urban, we are ready to use our many research and data science capacities to tackle a more far-reaching set of questions than ever before. We will draw upon relevant work from existing evidence to help strengthen decisionmaking and inform debate among activists, policymakers, community leaders, business, philanthropy, media, and other changemakers right now. And we will challenge ourselves to rethink and reimagine what is possible.

As Jesse Jannetta said recently, “Urban prides itself on policy impact. If that’s true, then we bear our share of responsibility for what our government produces.” With that recognition comes the obligation to figure out how to build evidence and bring data forward that will accelerate solutions and help build a society that lives up to its ideals.