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Honors Thesis Spotlight: Students Examine Race and Policy

April 7, 2016

By Adam Beyer

The public policy honors thesis allows students the opportunity to dive deep into an area of their interest. This year, seniors Lauren Forman and Michael Pelle both chose to research the intersection of race and public policy, particularly in criminal justice. Their projects examined the language police departments use to discuss race and the varying support policies receive when people learn the policies affect different races disproportionately.

Differing Views on Police Protection

What does linguistics have to do with criminal justice?

Lauren Forman PPS’16 explored the intersection of those two fields in her senior honors thesis research. She analyzed the language used in New York Police Department documents as well as in materials from activist groups around the city to find out how the stories both sides were telling differed.

Watch a video about Lauren's project:



Since the mid-1990s, crime rates in New York City have been consistently dropping to dramatic lows, which many attribute to new police tactics linked to introduction of computerized crime statistics. Yet some policies, such as stop and frisk, as well as broader concerns about police use of force against communities of color provoked controversy. In 2013, New York City elected Mayor Bill de Blasio, who had campaigned on a platform calling for reform.

“One thing that has just started to gain momentum is the application of linguistic analysis techniques,” said Forman, who hails from nearby New Jersey. “I want to look more at that to see how it affects people’s lives.”Lauren Forman

Using narrative policy analysis, researchers can identify the stories players on both sides of an issue are telling. Forman studied the literature on the technique to learn how to employ the method. Each piece of source material had to be coded for various linguistic characteristics, such as whether it used passive or active voice and what adjectives it used to describe individuals. Forman studied the police’s press releases and other public statements, and juxtaposed them with activists’ statements and organizing materials.

She also compared the NYPD’s public communications to internal police training documents released in response to a subpoena. The documents shared evasive and obscure language, Forman found. Her investigation identified the competing narratives of both police and activists: competing narratives: police argue that their work keeps communities safe, while activists argue that, in fact, they need to be kept safe from the police.

“It was a completely incompatible blame game,” she said. “But, if you can find something to transcend that, you can start to move forward and have policy progress.”

She evaluated the process of regular dialogue between police and civilians that has been pushed by de Blasio, which she noted has a good chance of overcoming the impasse both side’s arguments created. The research highlighted the long-standing issues of racial equity in policing for Forman.

“It made me think that we need to take a closer look at things before they get to this point in a lot of policy areas,” she said. 

Now, Forman sees narrative patterns all around her. After noting similarities between her research and recent activism on Duke’s campus, she wrote an op-ed for The Chronicle in December titled “How language turns advocates into reformers.”

In Voting and Gun Ownership, Racial Prejudice Shows

Michael Pelle PPS’16 developed an interest in the influence of race on policy after his junior year of high school. As an intern for his local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Miami native sought to understand the origins of a policy that made nearly a third of his state’s black men ineligible to vote. 

Florida law strips felons of their voting rights for life. Kentucky is the only other state that bars felons for voting for life, regardless of the severity of their crime.  His research showed that white people became more likely to support these policies when they learned that it disproportionately affected black people.

“In a nutshell, telling white people that a law hurts black people increases white people’s support for that law,” Pelle said.

Michael PelleFlorida’s policy also bars felons from gun ownership, another area he found was affected by race. Only Republicans were more likely to support disenfranchisement when told the policy disproportionately affects blacks – Democrats showed the same level of support regardless of whether they were told about the law’s racial impact. However, once felon gun rights were added to the mix, Republicans and Democrats behaved nearly identically, with both showing greater support for rights restrictions when told the policies disproportionately affect blacks.

“The black person at the voting booth is less salient [to white people] than the stereotype of a black felon with a gun,” he noted as a possible explanation.

He used survey responses from 1,300 people nationwide to determine levels of support for the policies, with and without a statement explaining their effects on black people, finding statistically significant differences.

However, Black Americans’ support for the policy remained unchanged after they were told it disproportionately affects their community.

Sanford Assistant Professor Deondra Rose served as his advisor and guided his survey design.

“Michael worked diligently to develop a research question that could yield valuable contributions to the scholarly discourse on voting rights and democracy,” she said. “At the same time, he developed a study that could also have an impact on the broader, societal discourse on race and democracy.”

Pelle said his work demonstrates the contradictions and difficulties in policy advocacy against racism.

“We want to live in a world where we can be fully honest about our motives, but if we’re talking about criminal justice reform it might be easier to fight for a more racially just society without talking about race, which is frustrating,” he said. “You’re not going to change people’s minds on racial issues but you are going to be more likely to achieve your policy objectives.”

Future Plans

Both Forman and Pelle say their research experience changed their post-graduation plans. After completing her thesis, Forman wrote an editorial about it for the Duke student newspaper, the Chronicle. Soon after, she joined their staff as a columnist. She explores language in her column, and is now pursuing graduate programs in linguistics. She is particularly interested in how the field can be relevant to policy work.

She encouraged students interested in doing research to seek topics they know they have a deep interest in—reflecting on what news stories you gravitate towards is a good way to identify the policy area that most captures your attention.

Pelle wants to continue this line of research and political advocacy in a future career.