Racism, Cop Curriculum, and Campus Safety

Why don’t we train police officers in anti-racism?

PROPOSAL: Administration of Justice and Criminal Justice majors, which route numerous graduates into jobs as police officers and law enforcement officials, should be amended to enforce the following degree requirements. Community colleges that feature these majors should adhere to the following requirements as well:

  • Mandatory course in African American history or Black Studies, which must be passed with a recommending grade of A or B (colleges that do not offer such courses must create them);

  • Completion of an Independent Study with a professor outside their major, which should pertain to a current-day issue of systemic injustice and should culminate in a thesis project;

  • Thesis projects should engage in-depth and hands-on a current community concern; conventional academic essays and presentations are not encouraged;

  • Biannual policy panels addressing campus and community policing that are open to the public and that consist of Campus Safety, Criminal Justice/Administration of Justice faculty, and faculty and students of color;

  • Colleges should strongly consider incorporating a mandatory course in Psychology for all majors.

Whereas current requirements to become a police officer are too lax, would-be police officers should be required to complete one of these two AAs (along with police academy training).

Story: In a past life, I taught English at a community college in San Jose, California. The student body at my campus was roughly 95 percent people of color, and — though I have no official figures for this — I think that our faculty, administration, and staff were probably, as American parlance would have it, majority-minority, a mix of Mexican Americans, other Latinx groups, East and South Asian–descended persons, and a smattering of black people. While white people probably formed a plurality of faculty, administration, and staff, it was a very diverse campus by all indices. The two female chancellors whom I worked under were both Mexican American. The presidents of both our college and our sister college were black men. My dean was Jewish American. The college, progressive in its sloganeering, ranked as a Hispanic-serving institution, and hardly seemed the kind of place where one would dredge a deep well of racism.

What racial issues there were were subtle and systemic; for example, the college’s steadfast refusal to add African American literature to its list of required electives (British literature was apparently more integral to an American education) led to my having to visit the classrooms of more than 20 of my fellow professors to hawk my low-enrolled class on black writers like a sweat-stained wretch selling a product door to door. I was able to depersonalize the process, removing any self-regard from these pilgrimages, but I felt that there was an insult being done to Du Bois, to Dunbar, to Harriet Jacobs and Nella Larsen, to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

Occasional indignities aside, it was a good job, full of highly professional co-workers, well-paying enough to keep my head above water in a ravenous rental and housing market, well enough located that I got to see the South and East Bays in all their diversity on a daily basis.

I’m also a writer, obviously, and a promoter of literary things. In that latter role, I found myself promoting the annual Pasadena Literary Festival, and was perusing the social media spread of our advertising when I came across my Twitter account. “Keenan Norris, Evergreen Valley College English Professor,” I believe the handle read. Not much ambiguity there. I got a little excited. Maybe my fellow festival organizers had made Twitter accounts for the whole crew. I wasn’t on Twitter, had never sent a tweet. I didn’t know how the platform worked. For all I knew, making accounts for others in a particular network was precisely how it worked. People could create a profile or handle for you, and then off you went, posting content, commenting on society, promoting festivities.

I clicked on the icon and saw that this both was and was not the case: staring back at me, as the avatar for “Keenan Norris, Evergreen Valley College English Professor,” was the rapper A$AP Rocky, gold emblazoning his grill, his index fingers tugging the corners of his mouth apart in a coonish grin. I should say that I have nothing against brother A$AP. I had never listened to his music before students in my English 1B class (in a moment I’ll explain how I know the creators of this account were my students) caricatured me as him despite the fact that we look nothing alike: I’m more than 10 years his senior, and his gold teeth doubtless cost more than my entire wardrobe. What was disturbing about the caricature was not just the absurdity of the avatar, but the tweets that had been attributed to me. One marveled at a female student’s butt, calling her a “hoe” and saying her backside was the size of a boat. The other tweets were of similar style, their time stamps, combined with offhand mentions of various details of my 1B night class, giving clear evidence of their origin.

Shocked, I remembered a huddle of boys in the back of that class. They played on their phones during group work, giggled a lot, and had to be policed back to their assignments on a regular basis. The dots connected quickly, and thoughts of the festival fled from my mind.

I reported the racist Twitter account to the dean and college president. Both were disturbed by it. The Jewish American dean told me that something similar had been done to her by students when she was a teacher. Both officials advised me to report it to Campus Safety, the police force of the college. After a flurry of emails and phone calls, I finally ended up on the phone with a police officer. I remember sitting in my car in the school parking lot recounting the issue. He had seen the Twitter account and agreed that it was disrespectful. But, he informed me, campus police don’t control Twitter. Write to Twitter, he advised, and tell them to take it down.

This was in the days before Twitter’s self-policing was widely scrutinized. I had never even heard of a social media outfit policing its own content, let alone removing posts for any reason other than the commission of illegal acts. Racism, in most of its forms of expression, is perfectly legal in America, so I doubted that Twitter would help me. But, though I was disappointed, I had no real problem with the officer’s advice. Campus Safety is not omnipotent, after all. What I found disturbing was that, even though the link to the racist fake Twitter account had been provided to the officer and he had stated that he viewed it, he nevertheless questioned one of the two key premises of my complaint: not that it was a fake account created by my students to demean me, but that that diminution was racist in nature. “Is this racist?” he asked. “What about it is racist? Can you explain to me why this is racist?”

San Jose’s African American population hovers somewhere between two percent and three percent. Its primary populations are Latinx, white, and Asian. It is very different demographically from the East Bay, where I live, which features cities such as Oakland, Hayward, and Richmond, which boast large black populations, at least by West Coast standards. Young people in the San Jose public school district are generally taught American history through a lens that does not emphasize African American contributions. I imagine that the young officer was not familiar with anti-black racism as anything other than violent hate crimes such as a lynching. He did not seem familiar with the history of racist, anti-black iconography in the United States prior to the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Throughout Central and South America, such images remain prevalent and point to the persistence of anti-blackness.

But ignorance is no excuse. Racism against black people is not a minor issue. It is a major problem now and historically, nationally and globally. As I explained the rudiments of racist iconography to the officer, I found that what I actually wanted was to create for him a syllabus for an online class that would include a link to Public Enemy’s “Burn Hollywood Burn,” as well as a requirement to view Spike Lee’s 2000 film Bamboozled, with a focus on its montage of the sort of racist iconography that not just Hollywood but numerous American industries once trafficked in. I wanted to assign the officer a bit of off-line reading, too. Film historian Donald Bogle’s classic 1973 study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films was a good place to start. If the officer was going to make me explain how racist tropes worked, I wanted to provide more than my own opinion. I wanted him to understand the context of my complaint. I know that music and film touch people in a way that books too often do not, so I wanted him to watch Skip Gates’s perusal of racist figurines and advertisements in the 2011 PBS documentary Black in Latin America. Most US citizens are unaware of the racial divisions in Latin America, and learning about them might help young people understand the racial divisions above the border in places like California and Texas. Racism isn’t always black and white. The students who defamed me were not white; they were people of color, just not my color.

I wanted this man educated in the derisive, racist targeting of black academics, which has become widespread in an era of white-nationalist and proto-fascist online movements. But that curriculum did not and does not exist, so the case went cold as a police officer and a black professor agreed to disagree about racism. Shocking, I know.

I also know that I do not live in Germany: Americans did not lose World War II, were not bombed, occupied, and demonized for their racial crimes. As a result, American racism has never been criminalized. America has never been held to account by a power higher than itself for its treatment of minority populations. And most Americans are ignorant of the true horrors of black history, such as the race-based pogroms of the 1910s and ’20s. But the least we can do is to make new police officers, whose job it is to enforce our laws, aware of the histories, the current plight, and the threats faced by African Americans and other minorities.

At present, that is not the case. The AA in Administration of Justice (AJ) program in the California community college system requires only a single introductory course in sociology. No other general education course that would expand students’ cultural competence is required of them. No curriculum specific to the history and culture, or to the economic, political, and social situation, of black and brown people in America is required. A Community Relations class taught within the AJ department by an AJ professor — that is, a former law enforcement official — is the only other such major requirement. This course’s situation within the AJ department, however necessary it is for a specific type of law-enforcement education, does not address the broader knowledge base that we would ideally want in a public servant who must constantly interface with a vast diversity of people. Our police officers do not simply arrest law breakers; they interact as human beings with other human beings in a human, American community. In the academic setting, a training that sensitizes future officers to race, gender, sexual orientation, and economic differences, tensions, and histories is imperative.

In the wake of the police murders of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the protests against police brutality that spread not just across our nation but around the globe, the police chief of that community college system where I used to work issued an email to all faculty and staff. Because I still have an email account with the college, I received this missive. The chief made a point to call out the murder of George Floyd for what it was, which was commendable. The email also advised employees, in detail, on the steps they might take to actively avoid the protests for their own safety. One bullet-point tip advised that, if they saw a protest march headed toward them, they should walk the other way. I read the email the morning it was sent and continued about my day, but it stuck with me, and not in a good way. That afternoon, I returned to my laptop and reread it. My initial suspicion was enforced: the implicit message of the email was that employees would be best served by avoiding participation in the protests altogether.

That afternoon, I wrote the police chief thanking him for his words about George Floyd and reminding him of the right of school employees to free speech and freedom of assembly. The flip side of racism being legal in America is that law-abiding protest of all kinds is held sacrosanct. I told him that I did not think his email met that standard and that he should clarify it. I also told him about the racial insensitivity in his ranks and recommended that there be amendments to the Administration of Justice curriculum to educate future police officers. To his credit, the chief apologized for the ignorance of the officer who handled my case and affirmed that he wanted to work to understand all the communities that Campus Safety serves. His last email to me detailed the non-academic means that he’s undertaken in police academy training to achieve that, such as having students visit the local African American Heritage Museum.

(It is important to note that the curriculum of the AJ program and similar Criminal Justice programs is not determined by the head of Campus Safety at a college. Having written curriculum for online classes at the community college, and having seen said curriculum through the lengthy process to implementation in the course catalog, I know how difficult changing the structure of students’ education is. No one person can snap their fingers and change things overnight, not even the police chief.)

In the absence of systemic overhaul, which isn’t up to him, what could I expect the chief to do, beyond having future and current officers visit museums, listen to guest lecturers, and send out more carefully worded emails about protests? Nothing. The deficits in cop curriculum and training are not his fault, but in the seething cauldron that is 2020, shrugging our shoulders at systemic failure is not acceptable. Systemic change is clearly needed. Requiring that cops be better trained and better educated is a start.

Coda: As evidenced by nationwide calls to defund police departments, there suddenly seems to be the political will to achieve a revolutionary revamping of the public safety apparatus. Here, where I sit in Silicon Valley, the disruption of old-guard industries is fundamental to the Silicon Valley ethos. The billionaire titans of tech tell us that antiquated systems must adapt to the changing world or die, so get ready for the revolution or get ready to be removed. We will not abolish the police, of course, that is not desirable, but disruption as an ethos has reconfigured countless American industries. Why should the cops be sheltered from the social forces they police?


Keenan Norris is assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His novel Brother and the Dancer won the 2012 James D. Houston Award. His next novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane V, will be published in June 2021.


Featured image: "CCC OPS Department Patch" by Lt. Ralph Stacy, Jr., on behalf of the Cayuga Community College Office of Public Safety is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

Banner image: "Police wearing riot helmets fill the intersection of Bancroft and Telegraph" by Pax Ahimsa Gethen is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.

LARB Contributor

Keenan Norris is an assistant professor of American literature and creative writing at San Jose State University. His just-published novel, The Confession of Copeland Cane, explores issues of police brutality, over-sentencing, the surveillance state, and environmental injustice.


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