In the last few weeks, our country has been rocked by nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd, and many other black people, at the hands of police. To be true to the mission of our show, we’re using our platform to address the underlying and historical racial injustices that have driven the protests in the only way we know how: by talking to UChicago scholars.
On this episode, we brought together a panel of experts— Prof. Cathy Cohen, Asst. Prof. Reuben Jonathan Miller and Asst. Prof. John Rappaport—to tackle this conversation from different viewpoints. Our conversation examined the role of formerly incarcerated people in the protests, police reform and calls to “defund the police,” and how young people are making them hopeful about the future.
- Big Brains podcast: What We’re Getting Wrong About Millennials with Cathy Cohen
- ‘Conditions were ripe for a moment like this’: How current protests expose deeper racial inequalities
- Having ‘The Talk’: How Families Prepare Black Children for Police Interactions—WTTW Chicago
- John Rappaport on Police Misconduct and the Influence of Insurers and Public Opinion
- Pod Save the People: What Science Says About Police (with John Rappaport)
Paul Rand: From the University of Chicago, this is Big Brains, a podcast about pioneering research and pivotal breakthroughs that are reshaping our world. I'm your host, Paul Rand.
Paul Rand: In the last few weeks, our country has been rocked by nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd and many other African Americans at the hands of police. This show is dedicated to presenting a central research from the University of Chicago that analyzes the underlying and overt historical and racial injustices that have driven the protests. We're going to do something just a little different for this episode. We're bringing you a panel discussion rather than an interview in order to tackle this conversation from many different angles. Cathy Cohen is a professor of political science at the University. Her work focuses on the African American experience in politics. John Rappaport is an assistant professor of law at the University. He studies policing and police misconduct. And Reuben Jonathan Miller is an assistant professor at the University's School of Social Service Administration. He studies how mass incarceration impacts communities. I started by asking Dr. Miller to lay out the key points of social and political context to understand the movement that we're seeing today.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: There was a recent study, came out last year, that showed something like 1 in 1,000 black men will be killed by police over their lifetime, which is just striking. So death by the hands of police is a leading cause of death for black men. And then, there are other studies that find that one in two black women, for example, is connected to somebody who's currently in jail or prison. And so, if we think about the broader context, on the one hand of police violence and the regularity in which black boys and men, black women interact with the criminal justice system, the landscape is haunting. So much so that political scientists are writing about how modal contact with the criminal justice system shapes the black experience of American democracy. There's a really provocative paper that's called The Police Are Our Government, in fact. So the question becomes, what does it mean for the police stop, the arrest, which often ends in violence and death, to be the main way that black people interact with the state? I think it's telling about a broader set of social conditions where black people are on the bottom. And so it's not just the criminal justice system, though. These systems bleed over. Unemployment rates are always twice or worse for black people. If we look at deaths from COVID-19, we see that black people are disproportionately, not only contracting the virus, but disproportionately dying from COVID-19. And all manner of communicable diseases pass through jails and prisons first and overwhelmingly affect black people. So the health and social infrastructure is deadly for black folks in this country.
Paul Rand: Right. John or Cathy, do you have anything to add into some of the comments that Reuben just made?
Cathy Cohen: I'll add a couple more. I mean, I thought Reuben was right on point, as Reuben always is. But as someone who studies young people, I think in terms of generations and generational exposure, so I think we have a generation of young people who have seen up close the limits of electoral politics. They've seen the election of black mayors, they've seen the election of the first black president, and they've also seen that their lives have not changed. And in many ways, as Reuben detailed, their encounters with the state are violent, they're oppressive, and they don't necessarily believe, in fact, that the electoral arena has a kind of upside that will substantially change their lives or change their communities.
Cathy Cohen: We also have a generation that has witnessed the possibility of protests. So these are young people who saw the immigrant right marches in 2005, 2006. These are young people who saw Occupy in 2011. And these are young people who have benefited from the infrastructure built by the movement for black lives since 2013. So all they can rely on, at this moment, is themselves, their communities, and taking to the streets. And I think that's what we're seeing right now.
Paul Rand: John, what would you add into this?
John Rappaport: I agree with those who have asserted that a lot of what we're seeing is symptomatic. It's symptomatic of broader societal failures, governmental failures that don't appear on the surface to have anything to do with policing or criminal justice, but they're decades and decades in the making and have brought us to this point where we have a racialized caste system in this country, we have a police force that is tasked with preserving order. A lot of times what that means is preserving the order of that caste system. So I think it is very important to trace this all back to the broader, it's the healthcare, it's the education, it's everything else that has created these conditions that are now coming to a head in the protests that we're seeing and in the way that the police are interacting with citizens.
Paul Rand: So it begs this question in some ways of the why now. And Cathy, I know that you certainly studied the AIDS epidemic and how it impacted African American communities during that time, and there was a protest movement that came in around that. Are there similarities to that period and to now that help continue to answer that why now question?
Cathy Cohen: There are and there aren't, so I'll try to unpack it. If we think about COVID, the comparisons, and I've said it, it was pretty amazing to see a country shut down over what was thought to be a health crisis, was more than a health crisis, when in fact, when we think about HIV and AIDS, you couldn't get the president to actually even say the words AIDS. So it is strikingly different, but there are also some deep, deep similarities. I think it reminds us of who is expendable at both of these moments.
Cathy Cohen: When people who were using injection drugs, who were primarily poor and black people, presented at hospitals in emergency rooms, with the same thing that would come to be understood as AIDS, that wasn't seen as a medical crisis. Why? Because those people weren't understood to be full human beings. They weren't understood to be healthy human beings. So if we don't understand them to be healthy, we can't understand when they are, in fact, sick. It was only when white men, largely white gay men who had insurance, who went to private doctors who could say, "Oh my goodness, you used to be healthy, and now you're sick," that we could understand that there was something going on that would become HIV and AIDS.
Cathy Cohen: If we think about COVID, when COVID was existing, and it clearly did, in communities of color devastating those communities, I don't think we understood the kind of impact of COVID. We had the mayor of Chicago saying she was shocked about the devastation in communities of color. I think because oftentimes we are not paying attention to the systemic nature of racism that of course would reproduce COVID in communities of color at much higher rates.
Cathy Cohen: So what did we learn? We learned that, in fact, communities of color have always suffered, they've always been disproportionately impacted, and the ways in which they can amplify their voices are traditionally not through the institutions and the levers of something we call democracy. It is only when, in fact, they take to the street, only when they threaten the privilege and the security of other human beings and other communities that we take their voices seriously and their suffering seriously. The ways in which people are demeaned for, for example, looting or burning is in part the only way we can get people to pay attention to those communities and to recognize what is being replicated and reproduced as sickness in those communities.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: So I want to echo something that Cathy said, seeing the group as deserving of the consequence. So you've got young LGBTQ people of color who were showing up in the emergency room who were exhibiting signs of a disease that people think they got from stigmatized behavior, sex and drug use. This is the understanding of this group. And in a very similar way, the incidence of police killings has been with us and has been really the impetus for so many other protest movements. Almost every other black protest movement that we've seen in history, but police killings are often always dismissed because there's a presumption of guilt on behalf of black people. Black people have been divorced from any presumption of innocence. And I don't mean in a legal sense, I mean black babies are not seen as innocent, black children are not seen as innocent.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: But we've got video now. We've got video as a form of self defense. We've got black people who stop their cars and whip out their video cameras every time a black person's stopped in the street, and we've got nearly nine minutes of video. And we've got the blatant disregard for the human life caught on camera. Different from Laquan McDonald, say, that the video was hidden for a year. But the blatant disregard for the life, the face of that officer. I think that really makes a difference.
Paul Rand: Got it. Got it. I want to continue on this comment about police. And John, I wonder if I can direct this question to you. A lot of your research looks at collective bargaining and right now there's a lot of discussions about police unions. And I wonder if you can kick us off going down this path and talking about what is happening in this area, what's the concern, and is it something that can be dismantled and a new path felt forward?
John Rappaport: If you follow stories about policing and crime, it doesn't take long before you come across some absolutely abhorrent comments from the president of some union following the tapes coming out. So you see this stuff and you think, "This is not healthy. This is not helping." But at the same time, there was no research that could tie this awful rhetoric to behavior on the ground.
John Rappaport: I recently wrote a paper with a couple of colleagues from the Law School, where we were able to identify a natural experiment that let us measure actually the effects of collective bargaining rights on police behavior. And it uses a Florida Supreme Court decision that gave sheriff's deputies the right to bargain collectively for the first time in 2003. And we look at their behavior before and after they had the right to bargain collectively and compare it to the behavior of municipal police officers whose rights did not change when this decision was issued. And we find that when you give sheriff's deputies collective bargaining rights, it led to a 40% increase in incidents of violent misconduct.
John Rappaport: When I think about the big picture effect of police unions, I think about it at three levels. The highest level is electoral impact. So police unions are organized groups of people who collect money and donate it to political campaigns, sometimes large amounts of money, and they endorse candidates. And there are some areas where those contributions and that endorsement can really make a difference in electoral politics. And they tend to, unsurprisingly, favor more conservative, more so-called law and order candidates.
John Rappaport: The next level down is at the policy level. So if you are the mayor of a big city and you want to change your use of force policy or you want to make data more transparent about police officers' disciplinary history, you're going to have to get that through the union and the union's going to oppose it. And they always, always oppose it. And before they were opposing these things, they were opposing affirmative action in hiring, they were opposing letting women into the police, they were opposing anything that I think a lot of us would call progress. So it's hard to get policy changes through, because of the union resistance.
John Rappaport: And then, at the most granular level and I think maybe the most important level, the unions have been incredibly successful in bargaining for contracts that make it extremely difficult to hold officers accountable. And they do this by bargaining for an array of procedural protections that kick in when an officer is being investigated for misconduct. And they contain rights like you can't question or interrogate the officer for the first 48 hours after the incident. And before you question him, you have to give him witness statements from all the other witnesses that you talk to. You have to give him all the camera footage. And so, a cynic would look at this and say, "Boy, it seems like you're just setting him up. You're showing him all the evidence and saying, 'Make up a story that is defensible and fits all this evidence.'" And these are rights that we would never dream of giving anyone accused of a crime, because it just makes it too easy to get out of things.
John Rappaport: And then, even if you do succeed in sustaining a charge against an officer and maybe firing that officer, there are really strong back-end procedural protections, rights of appeal, you take your case to a labor arbitrator. And there's not a lot of good academic evidence on this, but some really good journalistic investigation. I saw one recent study using Minnesota arbitration decisions over the last five years said that 50% of all the officers who'd been fired had been reinstated by labor arbitrators. And so it's incredibly difficult to hold them accountable.
John Rappaport: So my co-authors and I think this is a real problem. I'm very gratified and excited to see that people are starting to pay attention to this. And I think that this is a major impediment to so many of the other things that we want to do. People have lots of good ideas and we have lots of knowledge about how to makes changes. And usually the answer is, "Oh, the union'll never let that through," and that's got to go.
Paul Rand: So along with this concept of unionization, we are now getting an increased number of requests either to fund or abolish the police. And I wonder if I could, Cathy or Reuben, maybe have either one of you weigh in on where is this coming from? People are expressing their feelings about this in a lot of different ways, but where is this concept coming from? And what's the likelihood of it progressing in any which way?
Cathy Cohen: Well, I'll just jump in and then Reuben can follow up and clean up. I think it's coming out of lived experience. It comes out of what happens when you interact with a failed institution. In many ways, people would say that we have asked or at least it's been dictated to police that they will try to provide many different services for which they are clearly not prepared. If there's a mental health issue, we send a police officer. And we send a police officer often with a gun, thinking that somehow the presence of a firearm attached usually to probably a white man who is not a part of that community is supposed to de-escalate the situation, when in fact it often escalates the situation.
Cathy Cohen: If we're thinking about something like domestic violence, again, oftentimes an approach has been to criminalize the encounter, as opposed to thinking about what in fact we can do as a successful intervention. Even around issues of violence, we know that programs like CeaseFire and others that are really thinking about de-escalation in terms of violence, often are more effective than trying to send out a police officer. And so I think part of the defund the police is just about the ineffectiveness of police in communities.
Cathy Cohen: The second part is the way in which a police budget absorbs so much of the air and the possibility for what might be productive in those same communities. So part of, I think, what has happened is that much of the media has really missed the demands that were coming out of the movement for black lives, for example. It was disinvest, invest. It disinvest in the criminalization of black communities. Disinvest in the expansion of police departments. Disinvest in officers in schools. And take that money and invest in those same communities. Provide for healthcare clinics. Provide for individuals who can help with domestic violence. Provide for housing for people who are homeless. It isn't a complete model, and unfortunately I think the media has kind of landed on something that they believe is controversial without taking the whole idea, the whole demand into consideration.
Paul Rand: By latching onto this idea of defunding.
Cathy Cohen: Yes. Yeah. So they're saying defund, yes, but the other critical piece here is invest. Invest in communities where there has been no investment.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: I think that's absolutely right, and I think it comes out of an abolitionist critique of how policing works. Police and prison abolition is really misunderstood. There's a presumption that there's no mechanism for public safety, that what would be produced is a kind of vacuum. But really the abolitionist critique is to reimagine our social systems in such a way that the problems that we're trying to address actually get addressed. Hence, investing in the kinds of infrastructure that's been systematically gutted since about 1965.
Paul Rand: So we're watching and you're seeing Minneapolis saying that they're going to do a complete restructuring, then you've got LA and New York City saying they're going to make cuts. Does that give you, John, any sense of optimism?
John Rappaport: It's early. I don't know what these things really mean. I know that the city council in Minneapolis said, "We're going to dismantle, disband the police department," but then I saw the police chief in Minneapolis give a press conference where it sounded like he hadn't gotten that memo and he was talking about the reforms that they were going to undertake. Reduce the police budget in LA, well what I've heard, the accounts I've read is that, well, it's really more he's not going to expand the police force, rather than trim it back. So I think it's early to say.
John Rappaport: A lot of people are talking about Camden as an example of a police department that has been disbanded and sort of reformed-
Paul Rand: Can you explain what they did, John?
John Rappaport: Yeah. So they were trapped in one of these collective bargaining agreements that made it really hard to hold officers accountable. The police department was basically a disaster. And Camden said, "Look, this is such a disaster, we're not going to get to where we need to be by making incremental changes." And so, they just dismantled the police department. They said, "We're shutting down our police department." That sort of cancels the collective bargaining agreement. "And now we're going to reform a new public safety agency. It's going to be organized at the county level. Camden police officers are allowed to come interview for jobs at the new county level agency, but we get to choose who we hire and who we don't."
John Rappaport: So presumably what they tried to do is hire the good apples and not the bad apples. And I'm not going to stake my reputation on it, because I think we don't know enough about Camden, but the early signs are good, in terms of the way that it has transformed the relationship between the police and the community. I know enough now to know that all sorts of bad things are going to happen in Camden, and so no one should say that this is utopia here, but it does look like a marked improvement. And so I think a lot of people have that in mind as a potential model.
John Rappaport: I can see Cathy wants to jump in here.
Cathy Cohen: I do, because I want to jump in on this point of is it hopeful. And I totally hear everything you said, John, but I think none of us thought we would have a national discussion about defund the police at this moment. So I think, in fact, it is hopeful. It doesn't mean that, in fact, what will be instituted will be what we want, but the idea that young people, young black people putting their bodies on the line can change the national discussion absent of the intervention of a president or even significant political individuals, to change the discussion so that, in fact, we might reimagine what public safety looks like that isn't centered on a policy of policing I think is amazing. And I think it should give us tremendous hope for what is possible in terms of the radical policies, the radical dreams, and just the radical politics of young people, in particular young black people at this moment.
Paul Rand: Right. Reuben, anything you'd want to put into there.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: No.
Paul Rand: No, okay. It's a good sign when it's like, "You've said it all." All right, well let me move into a different area, if I can, Cathy, because you brought this up at the beginning of our conversations about our current political environment and what that represents and why that is contributing to it at this point. And I wonder if you could expand a little bit, maybe articulate what is it that's particularly challenging about the current political environment and what needs to change if we're going to address some of the problems that we've been talking about.
Cathy Cohen: Oh boy, that's a big question. What's problematic about the current political environment?
Paul Rand: And we only have 12 hours, so...
Cathy Cohen: I know. I was like-
Paul Rand: ... fit it in there, if you can.
Cathy Cohen: ... where do you start? Well let me start with, again, the data and the research. We do this bi-monthly survey of young adults and it is very clear to them that many of the political institutions that we think of as central to democracy are failing to them, whether it is the Congress, clearly the presidency, even the media. They have very little faith in those institutions. When we ask the question about should there be a third party, more than two-thirds of young adults say, "Absolutely, yes, there should be at least a third party."
Cathy Cohen: So confidence in terms of leadership is one of the problems. Now, what has been, I think, interesting at this moment is we often are thinking about the kind of political landscape from the federal perspective. We have seen the complete absence of leadership there. But in many of the cities in which we've seen uprisings, whether it is Atlanta or Chicago or DC, we actually see black women as mayors. And there is an interesting, I think, interaction between both them representing governments, but also being able to articulate their position of governance from being black women, from having the experiences that Reuben started us with of having people in their lives, whether it's men or women or folks who are non-binary, who have interacted with the criminal justice system, who have been incarcerated, who understand the difficulties and the dangers of policing. That has kind of opened up a different type of space for the possibility not of young political saying, "I believe in elections," but at least understanding that the electoral arena is part of what they have to focus in on.
Cathy Cohen: But they also are recognizing that they can in fact shape the discourse on their own outside and circumvent those institutions. They can dictate what the agenda will be by taking to the street. They can demand justice for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or the people in their neighborhoods by showing up day after day after day in the streets.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: And just to add to that, I'm thinking about a text that I got from a group of young activists during the last election cycle, and it was a flyer with judges circled, "He's a op," the flyer said, and the judge was circled who was consistently ruling against the interests of these young activists. What that said to me in that moment and what that says to me now is that the activists are paying attention to local politics, which to me is fantastic. I feel like there's been an overwhelming distraction at the federal level, especially during the Obama administration.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: And the second thing are the kinds of things that we're discussing. Cathy mentioned that we're discussing defunding the police, discussions about anti-black racism, about what it means to be a "ally," about how to address change in a broader level, and about the role of violence. This, to me, is the place we need to be where we do away with categories of innocence and guilt. Not altogether, because I think that matters. People cause harm, things need to happen. But there's been a valuing of innocence and a valuing of clean, neat, perfect lines that I feel like is beginning to be done away with that I think opens a new set of possibilities for political action and political mobilization, and just for new ways to experience everyday life.
Paul Rand: And I want to keep this going, Reuben, if I can with you, because I know you've done some research around in the area that you call moral worlds. And I wonder if you can explain a little bit what you mean by moral worlds and what are the moral worlds of this current environment?
Reuben Jonathan Miller: Yeah, so I started a project where I'm following people who have been accused of crimes of violence, murder, rape, people we tend to fear and loathe. And I'm very interested in the way that they're valued in the social world that they navigate. I'm interested in the kinds of messages that are relayed about violent people and problems of violence, and I'm interested in the extent to which they interpret and internalize these statements about who they are and what they've done. And I'm also interested in the relative reasons why people make decisions. So why become a drug robber and not, say, a dope dealer? Why become a gun runner and not, say, I don't know. Name your other position that you could take up in, say, a "illicit economy."
Reuben Jonathan Miller: I think right now the moral landscape is changing. And this is part and parcel of my last set of comments. I think we've been fixated with questions of innocence and guilt, which is why there was so little progress when the AIDS epidemic, for example, first happened. What are the things that you did that brought this thing onto yourself? And I think there's a full-out rejection of respectability politics that was ushered in by the movement for black lives, and I think that's changing the moral landscape in the values that we assign to people and their actions, and our ability to allow for whether or not you've engaged in some process of redemption for people to be full participants in, say, a human community.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: So when you asked me what's the landscape right now, I think the landscape is changing. The politics of old are beginning to be eroded slowly. And the proof of that for me are the role that formerly incarcerated activists are playing in every social movement that we're seeing right now.
Paul Rand: John, you're nodding your head on that. What are your thoughts?
John Rappaport: Especially that last point. Before I was an academic, I was a public defender and came to know a lot of people who had been convicted of a lot of crimes, including a lot of murders, and they're just people, too. I think I'm the curmudgeon in this group, so I hadn't noticed this, but I think Reuben's exactly right that-
Paul Rand: You're too young to be a curmudgeon, John.
John Rappaport: Reuben's exactly right that the involvement of formerly incarcerated people, putting them not just involved, not just in the crowd, but out in front, and that, "This is a fact about my life, but this doesn't define me. And this doesn't allow you to marginalize my views and my voice." And of course this makes me think on a legal level of the voting rights issues that have been going on in Florida right now with re-enfranchising and then the fight against the re-enfranchisement of people who have been convicted of crimes. But I do, I agree with Reuben that that's really a significant development and that that's a healthy sign, I think, for our society if we can get to a place where people really can be reintegrated and that you can commit a crime, even a violent crime, you can serve time, if that's how our society needs to deal with it, and then you can re-enter and you're not permanently marginalized because of that. I think that's significant.
Paul Rand: Now, all three of you are professors at the University of Chicago. How do you see this conversation that we're having playing out on campus with your students?
John Rappaport: Well it's such an unusual time to have conversations at all. I haven't seen my students in the flesh in quite a long time, and though I see them online, the conversations are different from what they used to be. We can sense the change in our students, it's so rapid, from one year to the next. The understandings and the expectations that students bring in, especially just to the study of law, because you show up at law school and, especially in the first year of legal education, you are taught the way things have always been done. And you read a lot of old stuff and it's all about sort of slow change, incremental. In the last couple years, seems like the first year students have become more impatient with that and they say, "Well, why do it that way?" And we're like, "Well, because lots of really smart people before us have thought about it and they decided to do it this way." And they just don't accept that.
John Rappaport: And more concretely and more specifically, we've had conversations about how to handle protests at the Law School. There have been protests that get to a point where Law School staff feel like they're not sure they can handle it. Who do you call? And right now, in our society, you call the police. And if the police come, they're going to be bearing arms, and the students are pushing back on that hard. And they're demanding something that doesn't exist, which is you should call somebody who's going to show up but they're not going to be armed and they're going to be able to help the situation. Our reaction is: "Well, that's not a bad idea. In fact, that's a pretty good idea, but we don't exactly know how to pull it off right now." Literally, we're sitting here like, "Well, can we tell the police to leave their gun at the door? Can we leave it in the car? How does this work?"
John Rappaport: And this just all circles back to stuff we've been talking about this whole time about we have such a deficiency in non-police public safety services. We have no other option sometimes. And so, the students are really pushing us in a very concrete way to think about this and to come up with something better, to come up with something different.
Cathy Cohen: I think, when we think about our students, there is a way in which that question could be read as, "Look at all that's happening out on the world. How will you talk about that with your students?" And I want to say that, look at all that's happening at the University. You can't talk about universities these days without recognizing that I think it's 92% of colleges and universities have their own police force. And so I think there now has to be a conversation on campus about what does it mean to invest in policing through our campus police. What does it mean to study and reimagine what safety looks like independent or without the idea of policing as it's currently practiced? What is the role of the University in reproducing systemic racism?
Cathy Cohen: There is a way in which many of us who have a responsibility to our students and to the communities from which we come, black communities, to the South Side, which is right there, right at the door and the gates of the University, that we have to understand the role of the University in hoarding power, hoarding resources and labor for its benefit, in many ways disinvesting in those same communities. So now that we have a framework, what does it mean to disinvest in policing and invest in those communities, to invest in those students, to invest in employment? And I am sure the University would say they're already doing some of that, but I think we would want to begin to think about systemically what does that look like and what does a shift in power at the University where those issues are a priority, what does that look like.
Paul Rand: Reuben, anything to add into this?
Reuben Jonathan Miller: Yeah, just that our students are certainly pushing us to think in these ways. I'm thinking about what's happening, for example, at the Pozen Center for Human Rights, the mass incarceration working group. It is among the most popular things that I've seen. There was one of those midnight philosophy talks on policing. It was packed. Hundreds of people. Just very powerful. So our students are pushing us, hopefully forcing us to have conversations about broad-based social change at the University and certainly about the University's role in perpetuating these systemic forms of violence.
Paul Rand: It's easy to listen to this conversation saying, "We've got some huge challenges in front of us." And you guys have done a wonderful job articulating what some of those things are. Is there anything, starting with you, John, that as you think about this, maybe it's even thinking about this energy with some of our students and young people as a whole that is giving you a sense of hope?
John Rappaport: Yeah, I guess two things. One is I'd start where Reuben just ended and where the last exchanges just ended, which is with the students. The main reason I love being a professor and why I wanted to be a professor rather than a practicing attorney, which is what I was before, is this opportunity to work with people who never age. There are always new 22-, 23-year-olds coming in and bringing their new ideas in, and they're hopeful. And especially if you work in the legal world for long enough and you see how hard it is to make change, you get worn down and you get a certain degree of pessimism about the pace of change. And the students really, I think, energize us and push us. And so, just every year the influx of students and hearing from the students does make me hopeful. And that's, I think, overlaps with the population that we're seeing out in the protests right now.
John Rappaport: And then another thing is just that this is a really special moment and there are things that are on the table now that weren't on the table a couple weeks ago, in terms of policy changes, legal changes, cultural changes. We can debate all night about whether they're going to be significant enough changes or whether they're going to backfire or all these things, but the point is, the decision spaces is huge right now. And people have been talking about ending qualified immunity for decades, and it actually looks like it could happen. And all these other things that we've been writing about for decades, a lot of them could happen right now. And that's really, really exciting.
Paul Rand: Cathy?
Cathy Cohen: I would agree with John. This is an incredible moment and I want to say expanding moment. I don't think it's ending any time soon. We have an election coming up in November. I think even the discussion about voter suppression in ways that we haven't seen-
Paul Rand: I.e. Georgia, right?
Cathy Cohen: ... the idea of ... Well in Georgia and across the country. The possibility of vote by mail, the question of where does a voting strategy fit into a protest strategy. I think all of these things are being discussed in a serious way, and to John's point, not just by a small group of people on Twitter or not just by the left, if we want to call them that, but really by a larger public who is trying to figure out what the hell just happened and why did it happen. We start with this question: "How did this happen?" And I think we are watching a country struggle with its history of systemic racism and white supremacy in a way that I haven't seen in my lifetime.
Cathy Cohen: So I don't think we know where this ends, but I do always want to say there has to be some gratitude to young people who've been organizing without a lot of whens, who have built infrastructure in communities, who have talked to young people and engaged in political education, and who are now helping to mobilize people into the streets to demand attention and set an agenda. And I think however it ends, and I don't know if I'd say end, it really speaks to the possibility of what political participation in democracy should look like. And that makes me hopeful.
Paul Rand: Reuben, let's wrap this question up with you.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: So two things. Well, two groups of people make me very hopeful. So one is the role that formerly incarcerated activists are playing in the broader civic landscape. I think that people are seizing the moment and are seizing opportunities to not just participate in movements, as John and Cathy have pointed out, but to lead them. And that, to me, says a lot. It just speaks volumes.
Reuben Jonathan Miller: And then the second, I'm going to cheat and say the kids. The kids make me hopeful. And maybe calling them kids is pejorative and I don't mean to, but let me say the youth and young adults. I think the level of civic education that participating in a movement provides is high. And I think the level of civic education and civic action right now is high. We've just had sustained protest movements across 50 states. Every state participated. This is new. We have not seen this before. And I think watching young people, young adults specifically, find new ways to resist systemic oppression and violence, whether that be through songs and memes, dancing in the street, or breaking a car window or burning a police car, all these different expressions of resistance give me hope. Give me real hope.
Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the UChicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please give us a review and a rating. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp, with assistance from Alyssa Eads. Thanks for listening.
New book explores science of setting goals, achieving success and learning from failure
Academy Museum’s artistic leader examines how films help contextualize Black history
How immunotherapy is changing everything
Director of Crime Lab explains evidence behind community-based solutions to violent crime
Nobel-winning scientist examines the monster at the center of our galaxy—and how we got here
In new book, behavior geneticist debates the role genetics play in social inequality
Examining the 17 goals that could achieve a sustainable global future
UChicago-Argonne scientist explores more sustainable ways to make use of water
UChicago president discusses his field-defining research, how universities can support scientific discovery
Economist’s how-tos on changing behavior—from eating better, exercising more and saving money