Urban Wire Focusing on individual behavior won't solve racial inequality
Kilolo Kijakazi
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Recently, while sitting on the stoop of a brownstone in Brooklyn, NY, a friend told me of her son’s experience walking home from school. He noticed people crossing the street, white men and women, as he approached. It troubled him that people seemed to judge him and avoid him without knowing him. They behaved as though he were a danger to them. This brilliant, industrious young man with old-fashioned politeness had come to terms with the way society perceives far too many men of color—and how he must navigate through it.

A few weeks earlier, I had witnessed another, much more precarious situation in which white people presumed a young African American man to be dangerous. Again in Brooklyn, three white policemen stopped the young African American man. The young man was asking the police what he had done wrong. I stopped to monitor. The police did not answer him but told him to put out his cigarette. When he asked why, one officer taunted, “If we have to arrest you, I don’t want to get burned.” I took out a pen and paper and began writing down the officers’ badge numbers. The same officer then commented that I was being a good citizen. No additional threats were made by the officers, but they gave the young man a $25.00 ticket, apparently for littering.

How do we view inequity? Why does it happen?

People of color are subjected to  disproportionately high rates of police stops, arrests, incarcerations, and killings. There are different perspectives on the root of inequity, but many people assume that these high rates are because of individual, family, and community deficits among people of color. Based on this view—variously called the individual deficits, pathological, or medical model—the policy solutions often focus primarily on behavior change. But if the model is wrong or only part of the equation, those policies and programs are unlikely to eliminate inequity.

An alternative framework is the systems approach. This view examines relationships between individuals and families and  the organizations, institutions, policies, and practices that affect them. The systems approach recognizes that interactions with larger systems in their environment can have a substantial impact on an individual, a family, or a community’s well-being. Institutional policies and practices can shape the oppression and injustice experienced by individuals, families, and communities.

Police, racism, and the systems approach

Chicago’s Police Accountability Task Force used the systems approach to investigate the death of Laquan McDonald, an African American teenager shot by a Chicago police officer. The Task Force’s April 13 report states that the footage of the shooting “underscored and exposed systemic institutional failures going back decades that can no longer be ignored.” The failures identified within the Chicago Police Department included racism, a mentality that the ends justify the means, a lack of accountability, and an underinvestment in human capital.

In a March 2015 Department of Justice report on the death of Michael Brown, an African American teenager shot by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, Eric Holder, then attorney general, described the city as follows:

A community where local authorities consistently approached law enforcement not as a means for protecting public safety, but as a way to generate revenue. A community where both policing and municipal court practices were found to disproportionately harm African American residents. A community where this harm frequently appears to stem, at least in part, from racial bias—both implicit and explicit. It is time for Ferguson’s leaders to take immediate, wholesale, and structural corrective action.

A systems approach can eradicate the roots of problems by addressing inequitable policies, programs, and practices. A deficit model approach to Laquan McDonald’s death may have focused on whether the police officer was justified in shooting McDonald because he perceived him as a threat, rather than uncovering a decades-old systemic pattern of brutality toward African Americans by members of the Chicago Police Department. The reports on Chicago and Ferguson should heighten awareness among the criminal justice system, policymakers, the media, and the public that systemic reforms are necessary. Moreover, these reports may go a long way in helping young men of color make sense of the turmoil that they are subjected to just walking home from school. A quick interaction on the street—like that of my friend's son—isn't just a brief moment of racism. It's part of an ongoing system that affects people, families, and communities for years.


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The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Co-hosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Race and equity
Tags Victims of crime Racial and ethnic disparities Civil rights laws and regulations Policing and community safety Inequality and mobility Racial and ethnic disparities in criminal justice Structural racism
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center