LGBT people of color and their experiences with law enforcement explored

Brandi Blessett is a researcher at Rutgers-Camden
Brandi Blessett is a researcher at Rutgers-Camden

In 2011, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report on law enforcement in New Orleans that focused primarily on racial bias and discriminatory practices. Nestled in the report, Brandi Blessett at Rutgers University —  Camden noticed an overlooked subsection. It dealt with the intimidation, harassment, and targeting of LGBT people of color by law enforcement officers.

“This was an eye-opening discovery for me and my research colleague,” recalls Blessett, an assistant professor of public policy and administration at Rutgers. “We were well aware of the patterns of practice that disproportionately harmed black people, but neither of us understood the adverse experiences that people with intersecting identities – being black, LGBTQ, a man or woman, or poor — have had with law enforcement.”

So Blessett and Marist College researcher Tia Sherèe Gaynor decided to dig a little deeper.

This summer, the pair will conduct a study in New Orleans, speaking with LGBT people of color and supplementing existing knowledge about the experiences that this population has had interacting with public institutions in general, and law enforcement officers and agencies specifically.

The groundbreaking, two-year project, “Intersectional Subjection and Law Enforcement: Examining Perceptions Held by LGBTQ People of Color in New Orleans, La.,” is funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice’s W.E.B. DuBois Fellowship Program of Research on Race and Crime. The program seeks to further the U.S. Department of Justice’s mission to advance knowledge regarding the confluence of crime, violence, and the administration of justice in diverse cultural contexts in the United States.

“This project seeks to amplify the lived experiences of people of color and to proactively interrogate the way race and crime is discussed and acted upon in the national dialogue,” says Blessett, a Piscataway, NJ resident.

The Rutgers–Camden scholar’s latest project continues her prodigious career addressing systematic injustices in various urban settings. She formerly worked in Orlando and Miami to study felon disenfranchisement; then in Detroit, where she worked with youth whose parents were incarcerated; and later in Baltimore, where she focused on studying urban redevelopment.

New Orleans is a new setting she says. But as an urban center, its challenges are very similar to those experienced in other cities across the United States. While urban communities are often plagued by unemployment, crime, violence, and unemployment, her lens focuses on the role of public policies and the discretion used by public administrations to facilitate and sustain this disadvantage.

“Many people blame urban residents for declines, but there are larger macro-level policies and decisions that intentionally isolate urban communities and its residents from opportunity,” she says. “My research examines the institutional and structural forces that perpetuate disparity, rather than a shortsighted focus on individual experiences or community realities.”

Over the course of four weeks this summer, Blessett and Gaynor will meet with people of color who are over 18 and identify as LGBTQ and will encourage them to share their experiences with law enforcement in New Orleans.

“Using narrative interviews, we will allow these participants to tell their story,” says Blessett.

Blessett says that she is not sure what impact — if any — these stories will have on law enforcement, but she believes it is important to share the experiences of LGBT people of color because it validates their feelings, perceptions, and realities.

“These stories have the potential to bring about awareness to the broader community, especially the short and long-term consequences of interacting with law enforcement,” she says. “More than anything, this research will help supplement the ongoing work being done by LGBTQ advocates and serve as an opportunity to validate these realities for the empowerment of this community specifically.”