Why racial justice requires more than defunding the police

UChicago scholars: Systemic racism must also be addressed in other public institutions

Last month, the Minneapolis City Council announced its intention to dismantle its police department and build a new model for public safety.

That news followed the killing of George Floyd by police, but Minneapolis does not face such questions alone. The deaths of Floyd and many other Black Americans have prompted calls to defund the police—especially in large cities where police department budgets have swelled over decades, even as crime has decreased.

Many activists say the money spent on police could better protect residents if it were invested in public services such as schools, mental health clinics and housing.

But according University of Chicago scholars Nicole Marwell and Jennifer Mosley, building a more racially just society requires more than “just moving money around.” In a recent op-ed, the School of Social Service Administration associate professors argued for the importance of addressing systemic racism in other public institutions as well, and to rethink how such programs should be accountable to the people whom they serve.

Marwell and Mosley—whose research focuses, respectively, on urban governance and nonprofit organizations—expand on their thoughts in the following Q&A:

What did you want to highlight as calls to “defund the police” became a more mainstream debate?

Mosley: We wanted to complicate the picture a little bit. A year ago, people were talking about how Chicago Public Schools are letting down Black communities. And historically, there have been a lot of issues with the Chicago Housing Authority. These other public services have not been completely insulated from the kind of racism and disinvestment in communities of color that we also see from police. While they may seem like good investments compared to the police, they are not blameless. We want to use what we know about policy implementation to talk about how we might rethink issues of accountability—for example, who gets to make decisions—and how different kinds of organizations and communities can collaborate with governments to create more equitable and responsive outcomes.

Why do we need to rethink accountability for these sorts of institutions and organizations?

Marwell: In the last 20 years, we have seen this drive toward data-driven management and fiscal accountability. What has become dominant is the notion that if you make organizations more fiscally accountable, that will improve their performance. There is also the idea of standardized programs, that there are certain kinds of evidence-based practices that are “proven” to achieve the outcomes that you want.

While there are certainly arguments to be made in favor of those kinds of programs, the experimental evidence is usually based on relatively small trials. They often don’t generalize beyond the population that the experiment was conducted with. We’re not trying to say that those experiments and evidence are always bad or wrong. We are trying to say that they’re just one tool in a much larger toolkit that needs to be brought to bear in terms of trying to understand what counts as an effective program.

Mosley: Often when we talk about these standardized programs, it feels similar to some of the conversations that happen when people say, “I’m colorblind. I don’t see race.” These programs are standardized as though every community or every family should respond to the same kind of programming in the same way. But that default is not necessarily geared toward the communities that are being served. It’s not a very good way of thinking about race and ethnicity and a diverse society like ours. We need to think about unique strengths, and different kinds of cultural backgrounds and different kinds of contextual features.

Why has fiscal discipline become so prevalent in the assessment of social service programs, especially in the past two decades? What are some of the problems this type of evaluation might create?

Marwell: I think this is all part of a larger effort to essentially call into question the effectiveness of government spending. People who have a political goal of shrinking government and of spending less government money have argued that: “Well, we’ve been spending all this money for all these years, but these problems aren’t solved yet. Therefore, that must mean that the things we’re spending the money on don’t work.”

That logic doesn’t allow for the fact that circumstances have changed. We’ve seen big structural transformations in the economy since 1970. Good-paying industrial jobs have disappeared and been outsourced, for example. Wages have stagnated. Workplaces that have career ladders so that people can move into better jobs are increasingly rare. These fundamental economic changes underlie the growing fragility of families and communities.

Mosley: We’ve seen a huge amount of growth in contracting with nonprofit providers. Governments don’t directly deliver many of the services that they fund. Through that contracting relationship, the government still has a responsibility to make sure that tax dollars aren’t being wasted. 

That aligns with goals that our society has in general. We want value. We want efficiency. We worry a lot about waste, especially when it comes to meeting the needs of the poor. That tells you something about the degree to which we value the lives of people who are poor. We worry constantly about people taking advantage of the system. We worry a lot less about those kinds of things when it comes to the kinds of social support for people who are more well-off—people who are white, and people who are less denigrated in society.

Marwell: When government cuts taxes, that means government is spending money on the people who are no longer paying those taxes. But we don’t think about that kind of government expenditure in the same way that we think about government expenditure on direct programs for the poor. Our tax system represents spending too; it’s not just the social welfare system that represents spending.

What are alternative ways to imagine these public services, and how might those actually become real?

Mosley: We’re talking about trusting our community partners. It’s really about developing a different kind of relationship that trusts and respects the expertise that they have on the ground, and asks for more back and forth rather than an entirely top-down procedure. Accountability is still important, but that can be achieved in ways that are more respectful and collaborative over time.

Marwell: It does seem clear that the level of discussion around these ideas has moved. We’re having this conversation at the national level. But the systems that we’re talking about are very hard to move. They are full of interests and institutional racism that will work against any meaningful change happening. Governance is not easy. It’s a long process to make these systems change.

What that means is that people need to be consistently talking about this—demanding accountability long after people are no longer protesting in the streets. That’s something that’s on us as researchers. It’s on people who work in government and philanthropy. We’re going to have to keep moving this ball down the field in a very significant and effortful way. How can we make the goals of that conversation real? It’s going to require a lot of hard work.