As Campuses Cut Ties to Police, Sociology Departments Must Do the Same

After beginning my Ph.D. in sociology at the University of Minnesota in 2011, it didn’t take long to realize that the department does more than produce knowledge — it also produces police. And my discipline is good at its job. So good, in fact, that Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, two of the officers implicated in George Floyd’s murder, graduated from the university’s Department of Sociology. As a recent alum of the department, I was troubled by its attempt to silence internal dissent by urging current graduate students to direct any media inquiries to the College of Liberal Arts. In a moment when protest and outcry is not only warranted, but necessary, silencing students is another example of sociology reproducing the problems it claims to study.

Now is not the time for silence. Now is the time for sociology to reckon with its role — and our role as students of sociology — in the production of a criminal legal system subsidized by Black captivity, dispossession, debt and death.

An inside joke among sociologists is that we enter the field hoping to save the world. What, then, is the purpose of learning about a system that needs not to be saved, but dismantled? You see, I am not a police apologist. I am a police and prison abolitionist. I want to live in a world without police, prisons, migrant jails and other destructive systems that have caused irreparable harm to my family and so many others. Any academic attempt to distinguish between “good policing” and “bad policing” or “overpolicing” and “underpolicing” makes policing itself not just theoretically possible, but legitimate. As a consequence, we must wrestle with our complicity in a system that is, rightly, being called out in this moment. The University of Minnesota has already committed to cutting ties with the Minneapolis Police Department. Now it and other sociology programs around the country must take the next step by canceling carceral curricula.

Gone are the days when criminologists can claim “second-class citizen” status within sociology. According to an American Sociological Association report, “criminology/delinquency” was the highest-ranked specialization sought by employers for both tenure-track and non-tenure-track jobs in 2019. Courses like “Deviant Behavior,” “Criminal Behavior and Social Control,” “Terrorist Networks and Counterterror Organizations” and “Juvenile Delinquency” not only legitimize state violence, but also employ academics.

As sociologists, we encourage our students to exercise their sociological imaginations to make the mundane matter and reveal what is hidden in plain sight. Seldom do we ask, however, how sociology, as a discipline, remains complicit hiding what is hidden. For example, sociologists fail to consider how “deviance,” “delinquency,” “criminal” and “terrorist” still conjure up racialized images that cops, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and white vigilantes used to attempt to justify the killing of people of color. Sociology faculty have profited off of Black people’s pain for far too long. Within our field, careers are established on investigating lackluster “reform” measures that amount to tinkering with a fundamentally flawed system. Critiques of policing, jails and prisons end up reifying and expanding state power, while denying any possible alternatives to systems of “crime and punishment.” It is not enough to study “felon disenfranchisement” and advocate for voting rights among prisoners when liberation and abolition are never on the ballot.

Sociology must come to terms with its role as a key architect of the university-to-police academy pipeline. Criminologists and sociologists build this destructive infrastructure hoping to have something to read, write and teach about. In fact, until the recent uprisings, the Department of Sociology at Minnesota was in the process of developing a policing minor. However, the department is far from the only institution implicated. Rather, what’s happening is symptomatic of a more pervasive problem in the discipline and in higher education more generally. Sociologists can no longer make a living off of life-taking systems. As demands to defund the police grow, there must be parallel calls to defund sociology departments invested in the production of police and greater state power. The sociology department at Minnesota should not struggle alone with this problem. All sociologists must find creative ways to spark students’ sociological imaginations and make the familiar (i.e. the criminal legal system) strange.

When I taught “American Race Relations” in the fall 2018 at the University of Minnesota, I knew I could not in good conscience become another assembly line worker in the cop shop that is sociology. Hence, the course syllabus included both learning and unlearning objectives. First, we (un)learned that “race relations” is predicated on assimilationist ideals of biological racism, a euphemism for racialized violence, and a concept that reduces racism to individual attitudes. As an expression of their reservations over a misleading title, my students organized a successful campaign by petitioning the department to change the course name. I went on to provide a counter-narrative to the department’s “Law, Crime and Deviance” track by assigning Andrea Ritchie’s book, Invisible No More. The text lays bare the incommensurable levels of violence against Black women, Indigenous women and women of color by local, state and federal authorities. We learned that violence is not anomalous to policing, but standard operating procedure, making “police brutality” redundant and “police-community relations” absurd. The graphic scene of Derek Chauvin using his knee to casually press the life out of George Floyd makes this exceptionally clear.

In the class I instructed, we also learned how sociologists and law enforcement cooperate to turn survival strategies into “criminal activity.” The transmutation of “sex work” into “crime,” for example, is a product of both state and intellectual anxieties over “sexual deviance” and “sexual deviants.” Scholars who pathologize sex workers in the classroom grant the state license to mete out gratuitous violence in the streets. Though most sociologists are not medical doctors, a select few remain poised to diagnose crime as an infection spreading throughout poor, urbanized space. For example, broken windows theory works to not only construct “crime,” but also “criminals.” But “crime” and “disorder” must first be constructed before they are studied, and any talk of “crime prevention” is meaningless if “crime construction” remains anomalous.

Within every absence is a presence. The absence of police and prisons gives us greater opportunities to implement new ways to keep each other safe. Healing through harm is not sustainable, but healing through abolition is. Abolition is not simply the absence of oppressive systems, but the presence of new ways of addressing harm such as transformative justice models, including mutual aid, healing justice collectives, and survivor support and accountability pods. Organizers, activists, and scholars in the Twin Cities and around the globe already rely on these systems, proving that a world without police is possible.

Sociologists need not feel threatened by the prospects of a police-free world. The likelihood that the end of policing may put some sociologists out of a job is real. But if linking “crime,” “pathology” and “social disorganization” to Black life is not grounds for termination, I’m not sure what is. We must halt all police production lines in sociology departments immediately. Criminologists and others who expect their students to save the world, while opposing transformative approaches to do so, must search for a new line of work. Many sociologists work without any end in sight, while abolitionists treat endings as opportunities for new beginnings. For many of us, the end of policing is both near and clear. It’s now time for sociology to catch up.

When I received my final course evaluations for “American Race Relations,” I expected a number of negative reviews, given how triggering abolition is to students aspiring to become cops or with personal ties to law enforcement. So you can imagine how surprised I was when a student said they entered the class intending to become a police officer, but decided not to after learning about the terror police unleash on Black people every day.

Maybe sociology can save lives after all.