Carnegie Mellon University

Professor Marcia Chatelain talks Breonna Taylor, race, and police in America

November 10, 2020

Professor Marcia Chatelain talks Breonna Taylor, race, and police in America

By Bill Brink

Marcia Chatelain offered a great deal to the Carnegie Mellon University students with whom she spoke Monday evening. She offered criticism, she offered solutions, and she offered hope. But perhaps her most important offering, regarding the killing of Breonna Taylor, was perspective and context.

Chatelain, a History professor at Georgetown University, spoke about Taylor’s death and race relations in America during the latest Center for International Relations and Politics Policy Forum, hosted by the Institute for Politics and Strategy. During the virtual event, which IPS Director and Taube Professor Kiron Skinner led and roughly sixty students attended, Chatelain laid out the decisions decades ago that contributed to the death of Taylor, a 26-year-old Black medical worker who was shot and killed by police officers during a no-knock raid in Louisville in March.

“She was kind of at the nexus of a number of policy decisions that were made in the 1980s that we know have disproportionately affected African Americans,” Chatelain said.

In 1995, the Supreme Court ruled in Wilson v. Arkansas that announcing oneself as a police officer is a part of the Fourth-Amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure. The court also, Chatelain said, allowed that in some situations – such as when destruction of evidence is a concern, as it was in Wilson – a no-knock raid is constitutionally protected.

Chatelain tells her students to listen to President Ronald Reagan’s speech at the beginning of the war on drugs. “Drugs are menacing our society,” Reagan said in the speech. “They’re threatening our values and undercutting our institutions. They’re killing our children.” Fast forward to March, where officers received a warrant to search Taylor’s home even though it was her ex-boyfriend they were investigating.

“The idea that drug offenses, whether it’s low-level drug dealing or high-level drug cartels, are equally problematic for society and have to be equally pursued is something we saw in Breonna Taylor’s case,” Chatelain said.

Chatelain became interested in racial inequality at an early age. Raised in Chicago by Haitian immigrants, she remembered vividly the election of Harold Washington as the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. She remembered the riots in Los Angeles in 1992 and her disappointment that her all-white Catholic school wasn’t a place where she could talk about what was happening. She fell in love with student organizing at the University of Missouri and decided to enter academia.

“I think that my interest in race and inequality emanated from the fact that I very much still identify with the idea of the American dream, and I resented it so deeply, because I feel like it is constituted on luck and timing, which are not sustainable factors for someone’s survival,” Chatelain said.

Chatelain presented a tough-love assessment of the current efforts to address racial inequality and racism – “Everyone’s getting pretty close to an F” – and offered bold solutions to longstanding problems: forgiving student debt, free public college, Medicare for all, universal basic income. She hoped that the conversation about police reformation would cause people to look closer at police transparency and spending.

“The historical baggage that some, not all, black people have with policing is so strong that I think these things will only shift if there is really a national reckoning and reconciliation around the issue,” she said.