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Cedric Johnson on Public Goods and Inequality

Published

My introduction to Cedric Johnson and his work was an interview with Johnson on the Michael Brooks Show (R.I.P.) in June of 2020.

Afterward, I found a video of a guest lecture Johnson gave at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, Calif. on the topic of the policing crisis and what the scholar refers to as the “technological fix”. The video below was recorded in 2019:

“I want to argue that [these problems are] deeply connected to the type of society we have and we’re implicated in it...we benefit in some ways from that style of policing. Much of a lifestyle we enjoy – the class position that a lot of us enjoy – is based on this policing that’s happening in other places.”

Cedric Johnson is a professor of Black studies and political science at University of Illinois at Chicago. He's probed the topic of “humanitarian” design before, in an incisive paper inspired by his research studying his native Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina. In his talk at ArtCenter, Johnson engages with an audience of designers and architects, to discuss the underlying issues of inequality that has expanded the role of policing in our communities and envision what a better society without poverty and violence could look like.

Johnson returned to ArtCenter at the end of 2020 to record a follow-up with the Change Lab podcast, in a wide-ranging interview with Lorne Buchman, president of the college. The two discuss Johnson’s own education and background, his scholarship on policing, Louisiana after Katrina, and ways to make higher education more universal and accessibile.

“I think being aware of the context which you are working in and how particular design solutions might be adopted...Are they adopted in an ad hoc manner that excludes? Or will they be part of a solution carried out in way that has universal, or broad benefits?”

What I appreciate about Cedric Johnson’s analysis is the depths to which he interrogates history and social problems, and his rejection of anything reductive: simple answers, sloganeering, diversions from anything that gets to the root of a problem. In the months following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the protests and uprisings that followed throughout the country I have been engaging with Johnson’s work as well as the work of other scholars, writers, and organizers.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was an important book that helped many understand policing and mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. I'd also recommend reading James Forman, Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own as a work that complicates Alexander’s narrative. If you are interested in the problem from a Black police officer’s perspective, I thought Matthew Horace’s The Black and the Blue was beautifully written. And when it comes out, I am eagerly anticipating Cedric Johnson’s next book.