“I made the decision to become a police officer because I was a victim of police brutality when I was 14. [I thought], ‘I’m going to try and stop those kinds of things from happening to anyone, regardless of who they were….’ I knew I had to do something to make a difference.” – Chief Williams*
*Participant names have been changed.
In the midst of the ongoing racial reckoning in the United States, many employees and managers are asking themselves how to combat racism, especially in the workplace. This is an important question because large organizations may constitute one of the primary mechanisms by which racism is perpetuated. But for many people, discerning which day-to-day behaviors at work line up with their internal values of anti-racism isn’t clear-cut.
Research by Darden Professor Melanie Prengler and co-authors Nitya Chawla, Angelica Leigh and Kristie M. Rogers explores what anti-racism at work looks like from the perspective of those living and working in one of the most racially charged organizations in the United States: Black police officers.
The findings of their paper, “Challenging Racism as a Black Police Officer: An Emergent Theory of Employee Anti-Racism,” come from analysis of more than 80 hours of interviews with 48 Black law-enforcement officers.
Identity Conflict or a Place of Intention?
When Prengler and her co-authors first embarked on this research, she thought the findings would center on identity conflict; i.e., that Black police officers would struggle to reconcile dual identities of being members of both the Black community and the law enforcement community — groups that are often in conflict.
But that wasn’t the case.
“They’d really come to a place of peace with intention about being Black and law-enforcement officers,” said Prengler. “They know that as Black police officers, they are well positioned to do anti-racism work because they are insiders in both the law enforcement community and the Black community.”
Spreading the Word
The first step of anti-racism work the officers reported was educating their co-workers about the Black community. Many interviewees attributed some racism to genuine ignorance; their white counterparts simply did not know or understand norms in the Black community.
Other officers described creating more formalized education within their departments when they rose high enough in the ranks to implement it. “I’ve taken out 40 hours of things that were not necessary and added 40 hours of cultural diversity training … [because] we need to figure out how to communicate and connect with people who are different from us,” said interviewee Lieutenant Allen.
In parallel, the officers in the study also described doing what they can to educate the Black community about the law-enforcement system, policies and procedures. For example: taking care to explain what they’re thinking as a police officer, what their job requirements are, expectations of both parties, what officers might be worried about, and how citizens can interact with them to avoid accidentally cueing the officer to think the situation might escalate in scenarios like traffic stops.
Strategy and Potential Ramifications
The most direct strategy officers reported was challenging racist behaviors exhibited by co-workers as they occur. In different scenarios, this could mean calling out bad behavior in the moment or speaking to supervisors about racialized patterns they observe.
Participants acknowledged that doing so does not come without potential negative consequences; an officer who combats racism is at risk of retaliation. Many officers Prengler’s team interviewed experienced professional backlash for their efforts, as well as serious personal strife. Officers described backlash in the form of social isolation by their co-workers, withholding of promotions, even slashed tires and threats.
Training Commander Stewart described the toll of facing backlash paired with personal trauma, citing depression, exhaustion and suicidal ideation.
Another officer recalled his experience the day George Floyd was killed: “I cried, because before I put on a piece of equipment, I’m a Black man. And to … see in video the career that I love to do being tarnished by that type of action was so disheartening …. Why are people scared of Black people? Why are we still having to fight the same fight for this same equality? My grandparents passed away fighting for something I’m still fighting for,” said Officer Edwards.
Flat Tires and a Trust Deposit
Despite the strife, officers describe persisting in their careers and anti-racism work because of the hope they get from seeing positive impact and using their positions to help their communities.
Interviewees saw going above and beyond in their capacity as police officers as an important part of anti-racism work, especially when it came to serving the Black community. For the officers interviewed, that meant showing kindness and respect to the community, even in situations like arrests and traffic stops. It also meant serving the community in ways that aren’t technically in their job description, like helping people with flat tires or getting a meal for someone who needs it.
Deputy Chief Taylor described this strategy as a trust deposit: “The trust deposit is [when] you start building relationships with your community stakeholders and building up your community before any critical incident. … You form these bonds and these bridges … when there’s a problem, you fix it, and you work together as a team. We make a trust deposit in pennies and nickels … when we make withdrawals of that trust bank, it’s in dollars.”
3 Behaviors We Can All Do
Drawing from the ways the officers interviewed engage in anti-racism work, Prengler and her co-authors outlined three important behaviors that any employee in any organization can do to engage in anti-racism at work.
Prengler emphasizes that these lessons are applicable to all employees. “We do not believe the takeaway is that it is the responsibility of racial minority community members to do all the educating, or to be at the forefront of combating racism in organizations,” she said. “The reality is that they are already doing that, which is why we are talking to them.”
1. Challenge racialized behavior: Don’t just let it slide.
“If you see colleagues being racist, hold them accountable. If you see colleagues who are ignorant of a racial minority community, take time and educate them about that community,” said Prengler.
2. Represent: Recruit and promote for minority representation.
“We know that representation isn’t everything,” said Prengler. “There also needs to be inclusion, but having representation of the minority racial community is an important first step.”
3. Build community: Become an ambassador.
“Anti-racism can extend beyond the walls of the organization to combat the effects of racism in the community,” said Prengler. “That community-building might mean demonstrating respect, communicating directly or exceeding expectations.”
In all, officers in Prengler’s study reported seeing glimpses of the positive outcomes of their efforts. “What you realize is that most people aren’t bad people … I’ve talked to people who were one way, and then [I see] a change … I’m telling you, when you see the light go on, it’s a wonderful thing,” said Deputy Chief Taylor.
Melanie Prengler co-authored “Challenging Racism as a Black Police Officer: An Emergent Theory of Employee Anti-Racism,” which appeared in the Journal of Applied Psychology, with Nitya Chawla of University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management, Angelica Leigh of Duke University Fuqua School of Business and Kristie Rogers of Marquette University College of Business Administration.