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Jabari Asim on the Racist Roots of American Policing and Resisting Despair

A photo of Jabari Asim
Associate Professor Jabari Asim

Jabari Asim is an associate professor in the Writing, Literature and Publishing department, where he is program director of the Creative Writing program. He’s also the first Elma Lewis Distinguished Fellow in the Social Justice Center, and organizes Emerson’s annual Teach-In on Race, a daylong conference that brings together academics, activists, and students from within and outside the College.

Formerly an editor at the Washington Post and editor-in-chief of the NAACP’s The Crisis, Asim has written 17 books, including fiction, nonfiction, and children’s literature, and co-wrote the book and lyrics for Brother Nat, a musical about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies and the Art of Survival, his most recent collection of essays, was named a 2019 PEN America Literary Awards finalist, and an essay from the collection, “Getting it Twisted,” was included in the 2019 Best American Essays anthology. He has three books due out in 2020: Stop and Frisk, his first poetry collection; My Baby Loves Halloween; and Mighty Justice: The Untold Story of Civil Rights Trailblazer Dovey Johnson Roundtree.

As people across the country take to the streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, among many others, Emerson Today asked Asim about policing in the United States, his work, and what he thinks about this moment.

Read: President Pelton’s Message to the Community

ET: You’ve written and spoken about American police departments being beyond the point of reform. Can you talk a bit about that, and what do you see as the way forward?

Asim: The history of American policing is rooted in violent racism. Slave patrols, forerunners of modern police officers, emerged in South Carolina around 1704. They borrowed their structure from earlier efforts in Barbados, where the Act for the Better Ordering of Negroes gave any white person the right to stop, investigate, and punish any black person they considered suspicious. These earlier efforts at repression and restriction continue to resonate not only in the behavior of police, but in that of private citizens such as Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael, who hunted and killed Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper, who called 911 to neutralize a black birdwatcher in Central Park.

Read Asim’s essay: “How Slavery Lives on in the American Prison-Industrial Complex”

Because its roots are so bloody and its present is equally bloody, policing requires a substantial, comprehensive overhaul. In general terms, departments must be constructed with a built-in fundamental understanding that officers are employees of all American citizens, subject to their oversight and approval, that they are public servants for everybody, not just white people. Recent events have made clear to white people what black people have always known: Police abuse cannot be attributed to the violent misbehavior of a few “bad apples.” What should we call the other police who stand idly by while the George Floyds and Sandra Blands suffer so terribly under their colleagues’ knees and heels?

In specific terms, first steps should include:

  • Demilitarizing police. They should receive no military surplus from the federal government or any other source.
  • Prohibit “warrior” training, which often suggests that each traffic stop may require shooting a motorist.
  • Tighten police union contracts (don’t allow misconduct citations to be excised, etc.)
  • Make it harder to become a police officer (which will require higher salaries).
  • Use predictive analysis to determine which officers are most likely to abuse citizens.

Some activist groups have been working hard to come up with constructive suggestions. You can find some of them at

ET: Does anything about this moment in time feel different to you? Do you think history will point to now as an inflection point? 

Asim: This moment feels like yet another mark on the timeline of black protest against the brutalization of black bodies. Previous demonstrations include the NAACP’s silent march of 1917, for example, James Meredith’s March Against Fear in 1966, the Rodney King rebellion in 1992, and the Ferguson protests of 2016. In each instance, self-identified liberal white people responded with some combination of dismay, horror, shame, and a touch of resolve. Then most of them returned to their bubbles. I would be genuinely surprised if the result is any different this time.

The one thing I’m certain about is black people’s resiliency. We will continue to endure and resist. This is how Frederick Douglass put it in 1853: “Sir, I am not a hopeful man. I think I am apt even to undercalculate the benefits of the future. Yet, sir, in this seemingly desperate case, I do not despair for my people.” I agree with Fred.

ET: You’ve written about social justice, racism, and Blackness in America in just about every genre possible — fiction, nonfiction, theatre, children’s lit – and next month, your first book of poetry, Stop and Frisk, is due out. As both a writer and a reader, what makes you gravitate to one or the other at any particular time? 

Asim: I’ve never been able to develop a lasting preference, and I like to keep a lot of plates in the air. As a result, I’m never just working in one genre. I’m never not writing. 

ET: Related: What role does art play in protest? 

Asim: James Baldwin once declared, “artists are here to disturb the peace,” which makes sense to me. Artists are also here to offer comfort and illumination, which also makes sense to me. Much of what we know about the long history of police and vigilante brutalization of black people, we have learned from creative artists such as Sterling Brown, Billie Holiday, James Weldon Johnson, and Toni Morrison, to name just a handful. 

ET: If you were teaching a class this morning, what would you ask your students? 

Asim: I would ask them to avoid despair and pay careful attention.

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