Racial injustice, anger and the power of visibility: "In order to have change, things have to get worse"

Salon speaks to a Columbia sociologist about the mood of the nation and Black Americans' frustration with police

Published July 8, 2016 7:02PM (EDT)

Demonstrators in Oakland, California, July 7, 2016.   (Reuters/Stephen Lam)
Demonstrators in Oakland, California, July 7, 2016. (Reuters/Stephen Lam)

The past week has been a violent and rancorous one, with accusations flying back and forth between politicians and activists. How much of this is coming from partisanship and hatred simmering in the country, and how much from a few violence individuals? And does it seem to be getting worse?

Salon spoke to Carla Shedd, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University. Shedd, the author of “Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice,” writes about adolescence, urban institutions, and the justice system.

We spoke to Shedd from her office in New York City; the interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Let’s look at the big picture first. Over the last few months, there has been violence and threats and tension at political rallies held by both parties. There have been more shootings by police of black men this week, adding to a crisis that goes back years now. Police officers were shot in Dallas yesterday, with five of them killed. There’s anger in every aspect of American life right now, and you can see it on Twitter and social media.

Do we seem to be entering the kind of period we were in in the 1960s, with major waves of urban violence? Does it feel like the country is boiling over?

I think it’s right to harken back to the riots and uprisings of the ‘60s, and look at discrimination and racism as being very prominent and very visible. But I think there are cycles we’re seen, beyond the ‘60s, where things have gotten worse, and then better, in this awful cycle or inequality and injustice coming to the forefront. We have advancement, and then here we are back again. Derrick Bell, the late law professor, talked about that.

What direction does it seem to be moving now?

I think in order to have change, things have to get worse. Things have to bubble up and bubble over. As a scholar of race, I’m actually heartened by this opportunity to put everything out in the open – to think about injustice. If we can confront it, we might be able to do something about it. If we can’t ignore it any longer.

That’s what I think this moment is – the crystallization of disparities across race and class and place that can no longer be ignored because of their visibility, and people being plain about what they feel, what they experience, and how they view other people.

You think there’s something healthy, as rough as this is to watch day by day, since we’re confronting existing problems.


The relationship between black people and the police is something you’re written a lot about. The relationship has been strained for a long time. The recent killings surely haven’t improved things. How much tension and frustration exist now?

I would characterize it as an institutional betrayal in the way black people feel about the police. This is an institution set up to serve and protect, and there are communities that feel that they don’t get that type of service. Instead, they feel surveilled and punished and controlled instead of served and protected. I think that’s the root of the difference. It’s an institutional failure by police in their central mission to protect and serve the public. So black people don’t see themselves as part of that public that is worthy of protection and worthy of respect. And the reason is they perceive an unequal distribution of justice.

My work has been about tracking and documenting young people in particular in their perceptions of injustice by police and other people in positions of authority.

How do generational differences work out here?

I just read a Twitter post by John Lewis, Congressman John Lewis, civil-rights pioneer. He said, “I was beaten by police officers, but I never hated them. I said, ‘Thank you for your service.’ “

In his generation, there was this note that, “If we’re respectable, if we comply, if we show them how great we are, they will see we’re worthy of respect and protection.” He’s trying to morally compel them to see him as a full person.

The new generation – they’re not swayed by that. They can see that does not work. It doesn’t matter what you wear, you can still be stopped and frisked by the police, you can still be compliant and still be killed. This generation sees, This doesn’t work.

Let’s close by talking about the effect this has on children. It’s bruising for everyone to see violence, but it’s especially rough on children. What kind of effect does it have on them, and what’s the right response for parents trying to keep kids informed as to how the world works but also trying to keep them psychologically whole.

We all are grappling with this. I’m the mother of two children, one boy, myself. How do you socialize your children to understand authority, how do you prepare them to be compliant but also not feel that they have to be subject to someone’s dominion and control? It’s a pretty delicate balance.

I think the young people seeing these videos, these horrible news covers and headlines – they are experiencing trauma. And they’re gonna have to figure out – if they’re 10, 11, 12 – that they may be children in the eyes of their parents, but in the eyes of police, they could be seen as suspects of potential criminals, if we think about Tamir Rice being only 12, and what happened to him.

So I think it’s those kids, at the vulnerable space of trying to figure out who they are, also trying to figure out how the world around them views them. They’re the ones we’ll have to talk to and prepare, for reconciling all the messages of “You are a great person, but other people may not see this beautiful side of you.” That’s a pretty big gulf to bridge….

I hope that parents can make it clear that these are authority figures, who we have to show respect to – whether they’re teachers or police on the street -- but also keep intact that child’s humanity, that sense of who they are.

At the extreme end of the trauma – that little girl who witnessed the killings in the back seat – that just hurt my heart. She’s going to need to be supported, by counseling and other things. But it will hit young people especially deeply, as they try to figure out themselves and reconcile that with how the world sees them.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

MORE FROM Scott Timberg

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Black Lives Matter Dallas Shooting Gun Violence Police Shooting Race Sociology Tamir Rice