Enforcing Racial Formations in the United States
Saturday, June 4th 4:45-6:30 PM
NOLA Marriott Balcony M (4th floor)
The widespread protests that followed the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Maryland in 2015 capture the controversial nature of policing in ethnically and racially marginalized communities, in the United States and abroad. These panels bring together scholars in the emerging subfield of “critical police studies.” CPS scholars use qualitative methods and draw on a range of data sources to interrogate the past and present role of police in U.S. society, and critically examine the dynamics of race and class in the administration of law enforcement. We seek to interrogate the role police play in maintaining a system of racialized oppression in cooperation with formal and informal institutions. We examine the historical and ongoing processes of racialization; how police have become a core, even dominant, element of local government; police violence in urban areas; and how police and the criminal justice system have created and maintained a dense network of surveillance and punishment around communities of color that has direct implications for the ongoing problem of racially disparate criminal justice outcomes in the U.S. Using a variety of methods, including ethnographic interviews, these panels explore both practically and theoretically the complexities of state sponsored policing in several different communities of color. Panelists draw from rich data sources from residents’ interviews in a wide variety of communities: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Bloomington, Indiana: Los Angeles, California and São Paulo’s, Brazil. Particular attention will be paid to the structural roots of the disparities in the policing of minorities.
Chair, Discussant: Luis Daniel Gascón, University of San Francisco
Papers: Malcolm Holmes, Luis Daniel Gascón, Charles Epp, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Marisa Omori, Aaron Roussell
Police Brutality: Paradigms, Patterns, and Policies
Malcolm Holmes, University of Wyoming
In this paper, I explicate two theoretical paradigms, review the empirical findings regarding patterns of police brutality, and consider the implications of the findings for current policies that aim to alleviate the problem. Police brutality (excessive force) causes significant physical and psychological harm to victims, entails considerable financial costs to communities, and undermines the legitimacy of the institution of policing. The victims of police brutality in the United States are disproportionately Black or Hispanic. Attempts to explain the relationship of race/ethnicity to police brutality have relied on two distinct theoretical approaches. Traditional perspectives locate the causes of police brutality primarily in the institution of policing, whereas conflict perspectives maintain that police brutality reflects racial/ethnic divisions of the larger society. Recommendations to reduce police brutality have focused on changing police agencies and practices in line with the traditional approach. According to the conflict argument, broader social changes that alleviate the socioeconomic disadvantages experienced by many Black and Hispanic citizens will be necessary to mitigate the problem. Although positing different causal mechanisms, both the traditional and conflict perspectives predict that racial/ethnic minorities will be disproportionately targeted for excessive force. Research generally supports that prediction, indicating that Blacks and Hispanics experience a disproportionate incidence of excessive force. There is, however, little empirical support for the hypotheses of the traditional theoretical approach beyond the fact that minority citizens are disproportionately targeted by the police.Research testing conflict theory arguments find that cities with relatively large minority populations have an especially high incidence of excessive force, and that the presence of highly segregated Black populations may substantially increase its incidence.The presence (actual or perceived) of relatively large minority populations may intensify fear/perceived risk of crime victimization among Whites. Given their shared concerns about minority threat, White citizens and police authorities in cities with relatively large Black and Hispanic populations may attempt to use their political influence to promote coercive mechanisms of social control. It appears, then, that the ultimate cause of police brutality is located in the interaction of ordinary social psychological processes and social-structural context. In light of that conclusion, we must ask: What policies may ameliorate the problem of the police use of excessive force in disadvantaged neighborhoods? Professionalism initiatives of the past century have increased the educational levels of police officers, improved the process of screening prospective officers, and enhanced the training of officers. Unquestionably the various reforms have helped open historically closed police agencies and improved policing in important ways. Despite the many benefits accruing to the various reform initiatives, it appears that they do not offer a panacea for the problem of police brutality. Conspicuously ignored in most popular and scholarly discourse about police-minority relations is the fundamental reality that organizational changes in police departments cannot ameliorate the larger problems experienced by disadvantaged minority communities.Although police brutality poses a significant social problem in its own right, it is symptomatic of a much larger pattern of racial and ethnic inequality in the United States. Meaningfully addressing the problems of police-minority relations, as well as the many other afflictions of poverty, will require a broad commitment to alleviating the immense disadvantages experienced in many inner-city neighborhoods.
“Straight for the gun”: Understanding gang violence and space policing in South Los Angeles
Luis Daniel Gascón, University of San Francisco
This work draws on interviews with police, prosecutors, and interventionists, and I ask: What is the nature of gang violence in South Los Angeles? What spatial strategies are currently in use? And how do these impact the community? I find that formal and informal agents in some ways agree on the various motivations for gang violence, but disagree on the utility formal social controls strategies. Further, I show how official knowledge about gang violence is out of step with the underlying logic of spatialized control. Strategies based on dominance over space do not fully address the varied causes of gang violence, and only respond to a narrow set of motivators. These findings suggest that a more comprehensive response may be needed to address the root causes of gang violence. Many know Los Angeles as the gang capital of the world given the high concentration of identified gang members throughout the city and county. South Los Angeles is considered the birthplace of modern gangs, with the decades-long feud between the Bloods and Crips being a primary example of contemporary gang violence. “Space policing” has been a principal strategy in addressing gang violence in Los Angeles since the late 1970s. The 1960s and 70s marked a turn in gang scholarship and criminal justice policy. Gang research since then has focused on understanding the nature and scope of gangs and gang violence, but very little of this research focuses considers the ways social control agents perceive of and rationalize responses to gang violence. Meanwhile, a principal means of police gang control today is spatially targeted enforcement. Contemporary gang control strategies involve saturation policing in urban spaces, which disproportionately target and criminalize youth of color. Racialization scholars draw parallels between contemporary regimes of control and early colonial institutions that worked to restrict the social and spatial mobility of slaves. Sociolegal scholars problematize state responses to gang activity and argue there is a “gap” between the knowledge and practice of police enforcement. These critics suggest that many gang control policies do not reflect the objective realities of gang violence, and instead work to obfuscate the harms they cause, while remaining blind to root causes of urban violence. Police, prosecutors, and interventionists all agree that gang violence is a multifaceted phenomenon. However, spatial gang control strategies are based on the assumption that gangs are a spatial problem, that they “take over” community spaces and the only way to rid communities of gangs and gang violence is to restrict use of public spaces to legitimate users and to incarcerate those formally identified as illegitimate. An orderly community to state officials is one in which gang members are out of sight, if not completely absent. Officials believe that the very presence of gangs in a community is a threat to public social order. Banishment and displacement, as well as incarceration and incapacitation, are suitable means of disappearing gangs from community spaces.
Building the Policing State: Investments in City Police Departments, 1957-2012
Charles Epp, University of Kansas
This paper aims to illuminate how and why so many problems and issues in contemporary American cities, among them the use of illegal drugs, integration of new immigrants into the civic fabric, the challenges of concentrated poverty and joblessness, and order in public schools, to name a few, are assigned to the police. Asking the police to address a problem has direct implications for how the problem and its solutions are conceptualized. It also contributes to making the police an increasingly important element of the state. Making the police a core, even dominant, element of the local state has direct implications for the ongoing problem of racial disparities in policing. My analysis of these issues has two parts. The first is to bring the police into theories of the American state. Theories of the state observe that its American manifestation is less “state-like” than states elsewhere: it is not only more fragmented and institutionally divided (an old observation) but it also relies more heavily on state-society linkages, consisting of tax incentives and authorization of private enforcement regimes, to accomplish its purposes. Although this “submerged state,” as some have called it, is largely hidden it is no less extensive and influential than the more-visible and unified state structures that are common elsewhere. This increasingly accepted conception of the American state-fragmented, largely hidden, but still influential-is not so much incorrect as it is incomplete. It fails to take into account the core agency of the municipal state: the police. In particular cities, the police are not fragmented into competing institutional structures, are not generally hidden from public view, and do not act mainly through hidden incentives or authorization of others to enforce the law: the police precisely fit the classic conception of the centralized state that is organizationally unified and employs force to accomplish its purposes. The second thing that I will do in this paper is to begin to apply this revised understanding of the American state through an empirical study of trends over time in city police department budgets in comparison to the budgets of competitor municipal agencies. Here, my question is: where, and how much, has city spending on the police increased? As police department budgets have grown, what agencies or functions of local government have suffered in the struggle for resources? When-in what historical periods or political contexts-have significant shifts in the allocation of city resources occurred? Data for this analysis come from a comprehensive data base on municipal expenditures in various city departments from 1957 through 2012, for all U.S. cities with a population of 50,000 or more. I conclude the paper by discussing the implications of my analysis for understanding the role of police departments as agents of the local state, and as entrepreneurial actors in directing the character and projects of that state. In some places, the police are simply one among many consequential arms of the local government. In other places, the police are among the most significant and prominent elements of local government; in these places they consume the lion’s share of the local government’s budget and other important functions have suffered. These patterns have direct implications for how local populations are served–or surveilled and policed–by local government.
Race and Policing: A Contemporary Look at the Impact of Historical Racialization
Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Indiana University
Social scientists have devoted considerable effort to understanding Black Americans’ relationship with the police over the last half century. Yet despite the voluminous research produced, there remains no consensus over what causes Blacks to be disproportionately stopped, searched, processed and in some cases killed by law enforcement agencies. In this paper, I examine the ways in which race and policing are historically intertwined. In doing so, I trace in detail, the historical emergence of the concept of race and its significance in modern policing. I argue that the debate over underlying causes – whether increased participation in crime on the part of African Americans or racial discrimination on the part of police officers and police agencies – persists because scholars have largely failed to recognize that these are mutually reinforcing phenomena both rooted in the history of American race-relations. As a result we continue to debate the relative importance of either factor, thus impeding the advancement of knowledge. Following Wacquant (2002), I take an historical approach to examine African Americans’ contemporary experiences with crime and criminal justice, taking the police as my main point of focus in investigating the ongoing processes of racialization. The recent deaths of unarmed Black men at the hands of the police and the social unrest that has followed have propelled issues of race, justice and policing to the forefront of the American conscience in a manner not seen since the beating of the late Rodney King by the LAPD in the early 1990s. Undoubtedly, the coercive role that law enforcement has played in the lives of Black people in America over the past two centuries is well-documented and well-remembered. Beyond documentation, however, social science has been integral in shaping modern conceptions of race, and by linking Blackness with crime, has constituted the former as an important marker of oppression in present day American society. Indeed, as social scientists many of us have failed to exercise reflexivity and to consider how our research is implicated in the maintenance of racial schemas associating race and crime, in fueling racialized crime fears that justify stop-and-frisk tactics, the school to prison pipeline and public support for punitive policies. In accounting for the over-representation of Blacks in police and other justice statistics, and in attempting to uncover racial bias, we have also largely failed to pay attention to what Ward describes as “slow violence,” the structural violence of deprivation that serves to establish and maintain relations of racial domination and subordination. A major barrier to explaining the complexities of racial disparity and racial discrimination within the justice system is a general acceptance of race and racial categories as fixed and immutable. There exists a serious lack of consideration about how race is conceptualized in the literature and a related absence of debate over the theoretical foundations upon which most studies on race in criminology are based. Such research reifies the fallacious notion that race is a biological phenomenon rather than constructively identifying its contemporary influence over social, political and economic relations.
Colorblind Progress: Continuing the Racial Logic of the War on Drugs
Marisa Omori, University of Miami
Aaron Roussell, Washington State University
Scholars have demonstrated the racial implications that the War on Drugs has had for Black and other non-White communities, but have largely neglected the emerging liberal trends in U.S. drug policy and the implications for the racial politics of drug law enforcement. The focus on these newer trends, such as liberalization of White drug use, such as precursor regulation for methamphetamine, regulation and treatment of prescription drug use, and marijuana legalization represent continued public policies of anti-Blackness, protect drug-using Whites, and enhance White capital investment. The logic of these liberal initiatives uses the same fear of the Black subject that was the centerpiece of the War on Drugs. Specifically, all of these arguments are articulated in a “colorblind” manner that imply 1) what drug users look like, 2) where drug use is located, 3) what a drug is and how safe it is, and/or 4) who should profit from drug sales. In other words, these campaigns build their success on anti-Black arguments. we suggest that the impending rollback on the War on Drugs is a matter of interest convergence between libertarians, free market advocates, business interests, and those who see racial injustice as a bug in the criminal legal system.In this paper, we suggest that the impending rollback on the War on Drugs is a matter of interest convergence between libertarians, free market advocates, business interests, and those who see racial injustice as a bug in the criminal legal system. The racial project that is emerging valorizes Whiteness and leaves the anti-Black effects of the War on Drugs largely untouched. Policy and law regarding methamphetamine and opioid abuse ave emphasized an almost exclusive public health strategy rather than criminalization. Successful marijuana legalization campaigns have built on the idea that its ubiquitous use by White college students and hipsters has demonstrated its safety, in contrast to other dangerous (“hard”) drugs. The movement successfully articulated harms to these groups as a direct result of the prohibition regime. Indeed, the medical movement spread based on the sympathetic presentations of (White) cancer and AIDS patients in the 1990s, providing a platform upon which the current movement has built. These groups were seen as collateral damage in a war that was not aimed at them. The current legalization regimes in Washington and Colorado have unfolded in ways that have not advantaged dealing distribution networks in disadvantaged communities, but rather centralized and channeled drug consumption dollars into a multimillion-dollar industry financed by venture capitalists. In contrast, there have been modest parallel gains in reversing the harsh excesses of the War on Drugs policies that disproportionately affect Black and Brown people, such as federal non-enforcement of mandatory minimums, crack-cocaine sentencing reductions, and softening of three strikes laws. However, these have been made with little fanfare and are largely symbolic gestures. Aimed at only a fraction of the people affected, additional efforts to make these policies retroactive to restore normal citizenship to those who have been devastated by the War has been an uphill battle. This is due, in part, to the savage effectiveness of the criminal justice system in permanently disenfranchising a large subset of Black and Brown people through mass incarceration. With a disenfranchised Black population, draconian drug policies can fall away with having little impact on an economy no longer structured around the need for controlling Black labor. The War on Drugs seems to be concluding under the policy consensus that it has done its job in creating a permanent lumpen class-challenges to Drug War injustices can thus be sustained without empowering impoverished Black and Brown people.