“Countering the Rise of White Nationalism”

Thanks to Inside Higher Ed for publishing my op-ed. Please check it out here:


To supplement the 3 recommendations in this op-ed, I created a page of resources to support each recommendation: Resources on Addressing White Nationalism. I also created a page Historical context: How did we get here? for an overview of white nationalism in the US.

This work is based on my Fall 2022 sabbatical project. I also participated in a workshop run by The OpEd Project that helped me develop the op-ed.

-Karen Gaffney

White Supremacy and Jan. 6, 2021

Yesterday’s attack on the Capitol was yet another reminder of the power of white supremacy. What more will it take before we decide to end white supremacy once and for all?

Yesterday was perhaps one of the clearest displays of the stark difference between how white people and Black people are treated by the police. Just last summer, when Black people and their allies were peacefully protesting against police violence, the police presence was extreme and militant, and the police often interrupted such peaceful protests with violent responses that included teargas and rubber bullets.

Furthermore, yesterday, we did not see “protestors.” Protestors march in the street. They do not break into and take over a Federal building, threaten elected officials, and interrupt the certification of a presidential election. This was something else entirely. These were domestic terrorists.

The police preparation for yesterday’s event and the police reaction to the event both reveal the power of white supremacy. The scant police presence to begin with reveals that those who plan how many police are stationed did not perceive those who were attending Trump’s rally to be a threat. Why would they? Trump’s supporters are predominantly white. In the US, for centuries, white equals good, innocent, well-meaning, and non-violent, and Black equals bad, guilty, dangerous, and criminal. One might ask, well how should the police have anticipated that rally attendees would go and do something like this? Well, they didn’t need to look far. There was ample evidence for such plans. It was not a random, spontaneous action. After all, some were wearing shirts saying “Civil War” with yesterday’s date on it. Others had shirts supporting Nazis. Let’s not forget that in recent years, the FBI has quietly acknowledged that white domestic terrorists are the most serious threat to national security.

The whiteness of the terrorists protected them from being identified before their violent actions. And then their whiteness protected them after they stormed and seized the Capitol. Footage from yesterday makes it clear that some police officers opened barricades allowing the domestic terrorists to enter Capitol grounds, and once inside the Capitol, some police officers took selfies with them.

Furthermore, it should be abundantly clear that any group of people who is not predominantly white would have been physically stopped from entering the Capitol, stopped at all costs, even with bullets. Then, finally, once the National Guard was called in and the terrorists were leaving, what happened to them? Many of them just simply walked away! How is it that every single person who entered the Capitol was not immediately arrested on the spot? Their whiteness shielded them from that. Instead of mass arrests, there is footage of a police officer assisting someone down the Capitol steps.

Some are saying, well yesterday was bad, a “stain” on our democracy, but everything will be ok after the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Will I breathe a sigh of relief, once that inauguration happens? Yes, of course. And yes, Congress did eventually certify the results of the presidential election, during today’s early hours. And in the midst of yesterday’s chaos, we even found out both Democrats running for Senate in Georgia won their election, shifting the Senate to the Democrats with Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. And yes, some Republicans who originally intended to object to the election results changed their mind and acknowledged such a step would make things worse. However, let’s keep in mind the drastic events that had to occur in order for that to happen, and that was still not enough to stop some Republicans from continuing to object. This is not going to go away.

Trump incited an insurrection and then told the terrorists that he “loved” them. Even though he only has less than 13 days left, that is 13 too many. Will this finally be the tipping point to carry out the 25th Amendment? It seems unlikely. As he has said all along, he can get away with anything. And that is not just about him, it’s really about white supremacy. And that’s what we need to end, once and for all. White supremacy is an invention. It is an idea that was created to control, to protect the elite and the status quo, and to divide and conquer the masses. It was not a concept that existed for the majority of human history. But once it was invented a few centuries ago, it has held on, tightly. Let us loosen its grip and destroy it, once and for all.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer

Black Lives Matter in Somerville, NJ

I am so appreciative that my local Black Lives Matter group (Ville NJ BLM) asked me to speak at their two most recent protests. I’m sharing my comments here. While the media has chosen to stop covering the protests, they continue!

June 28, 2020

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak here. I am very grateful for the opportunity. As a Somerville resident, I have been so proud of the residents of this town and nearby towns for organizing Black Lives Matter protests week after week. Thank you to all of the organizers and all of the people who have been coming out to say Black Lives Matter!

I would like to speak about 3 things in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement: white people, NJ, and defunding the police.

As a white person, I would like to say a few things to my fellow white people. I am glad you are here. Protest is important, but don’t stop here. We need to stay in this work until white supremacy is eradicated. We cannot move onto another issue next month. This is the issue that demands our attention until Black lives matter in every school, every workplace, every family, every town, every state.

I know that white people can get frustrated, offended, confused, and angry about these protests. That’s no surprise considering that most white people did not learn about race and racism in their formal education, unless they sought it out. I teach a class on race at RVCC (Raritan Valley Community College) and when we discuss basic concepts of race and racism and fundamental aspects of this history, many of my students ask why didn’t I learn this before? I have been teaching this class for more than 10 years, and every year, they ask the same question. Why didn’t I learn this before? We live in a society where education purposefully does not teach about race and racism. That makes it easier for myths to take hold, myths of anti-Blackness, myths about white and Black people being biologically different from each other, myths about white people being good and innocent and Black people being criminal, and so much more. We need to demand more of our education. We need to demand an education that supports Black liberation. It is only when the most marginalized are free that we are all free.

Fellow white people, we need to get educated about what we were purposefully not taught. Read Toni Morrison. Read James Baldwin. Read Angela Davis. Read Angie Thomas. Read Ibram Kendi. Read Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Read Nikole Hannah-Jones. Learn the painful truth about our country’s history. Continuing to deny our history or whitewash it will only perpetuate white supremacy. We must demand the truth if we want change.

And that truth starts here in NJ.

As a white person who grew up in nearby Hillsborough here in Somerset County in the 1970s and 1980s, I never learned that there was slavery in the North. I never learned that there was slavery in NJ. I never learned that NJ had slavery longer than any other state in the North. I never learned that slavery existed right here in Somerset County. Instead, I was taught to direct blame for racism elsewhere – to the South, to somebody’s racist uncle, to the KKK, to those few bad apple police officers. But racism is not just someplace far away or in a few individuals. Racism is in me, too. As a white person living in the US, I cannot help but breathe in the air of white supremacy – every day. And so every day, I must fight it – I must create and strengthen my antiracist mindset so that I see the racism in the air we breathe, so I can see the racism perpetuated by laws, policies, actions, behaviors, comments, culture, and more. And so I can take action to stop the perpetuation of systemic racism.

In NJ, white people pat ourselves on the back for living in a diverse state, but that diversity is segregated, making NJ one of the most racially segregated states in the US with one of the most racially segregated school systems in the entire country. NJ also has one of the biggest racial wealth gaps in the entire country. White NJ residents rarely acknowledge the systemic racism that exists right here.

Follow the work of the NJ Institute for Social Justice to understand this, raise awareness, and take action in their campaigns. Here is a statement from their website: “New Jersey has the worst Black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in the nation, with a Black child 21 times more likely to be locked up than a white child—even though Black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates. And this racialized system is also expensive: New Jersey spends $300,000 to incarcerate each child in a state youth prison each year. Urge your local legislators to introduce legislation to close youth prisons. The New Jersey Legislature has introduced the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act, which would close New Jersey’s youth prisons and invest funds into community-based youth programming and services.” Again, those are the words of the NJ Institute for Social Justice, so please check them out for more information.

Finally, I’d like to turn to the movement to defund the police. Just a month ago, many people had not even heard of this idea, even though Black feminist scholars and activists like Angela Davis and Ruth Wilson Gilmore have been leading this work for over 20 years. With so many people engaging in this movement now, we may have reached a tipping point. Do not let that slip by. I’ve seen how people, especially white people, get caught up in thinking about their family member who is a police officer, their friend who is a “good cop.” We need to stop focusing on individual officers and shift to looking at the larger system. Michelle Alexander, the author of The New Jim Crow, talks about how when we look at the history of policing, we see a system designed for what she calls “social control” and “racial control.” As a country we spend more than $100 billion dollars a year on this system of “social control” and “racial control.” Is that really what we want? Does that really support the public good? Shouldn’t our town and city budgets reflect values of the public good? Of the collective good? “Social control” and “racial control” are not values that uplift the public good – social control and racial control do just the opposite – they oppress.

Let’s use our radical imaginations to envision a different way. Let’s use our radical imaginations to build a system that provides affordable and safe housing, food, education, healthcare, job training, youth programs, and more, for everyone. Look at your town’s budget. Does it reflect your values? If not, then take action. Go to your town or city’s council meeting and speak up, even if it’s in a virtual setting right now.

If the motto of the police is “protect and serve,” who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost? As a white person, I was taught that if I needed help, I could call the police. I learned that if the police pulled me over, I might get a ticket, but my life would not be in danger. I want to defund a system that was intended to protect white people like me at the expense of Black people and other people of color.

Furthermore, Black transgender people experience police violence at disproportionate rates, making it clear that the police are targeting them. Again, this system of social control and racial control is unacceptable and must be stopped.

If people find “defund the police” to be extreme then when they hear the word “abolition” they likely think that’s even more extreme. But let’s consider what would actually be abolished. Ruth Wilson Gilmore says, “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.”

If you want to learn more, follow the work of 8 to abolition.

Let us imagine another way, a way that does not perpetuate harm, trauma, and violence. If we don’t imagine another way, another world, then we can’t create one, so let’s get started.

Let’s follow and support and donate to Black-led organizations like Black Lives Matter, Movement for Black Lives, Color of Change, NJ Institute for Social Justice, All of Us or None of Northern NJ, and more.

Next weekend is the 4th of July, and it’s an opportunity to rethink our relationship with this country. We are taught that this country was founded on the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence almost 244 years ago. But this country was built on stolen land, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the kidnapping and enslaving of Africans. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness were not intended to be for everyone.

With this in mind, I’ll conclude with the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones in today’s Sunday NY Times Magazine feature article, “What Is Owed.” Nikole Hannah-Jones is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and creator of the 1619 Project.

She writes, “If we are truly at the precipice of a transformative moment, the most tragic of outcomes would be that the demand be too timid and the resolution too small. If we are indeed serious about creating a more just society, we must go much further than that. We must get to the root of it. . . . It took Congress just a matter of weeks to pass a $2.2 trillion stimulus bill to help families and businesses struggling from the Covid-19 shutdowns. When, then, will this nation pass a stimulus package to finally respond to the singularity of black suffering? . . . If Black lives are to truly matter in America, this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism. Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just. It is time for this country to pay its debt. It is time for reparations.”

July 12, 2020

Thank you so much for inviting me back to speak here again. I am very grateful for the opportunity. As a Somerville resident, I am so proud that the Somerville Black Lives Matter group continues to protest. Follow them in social media at Ville NJ BLM.

We are here to honor George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Tiffany Mofield, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, Elijah McClain, Michelle Cusseaux, Sandra Bland, and so many more.

Justice does not just happen on its own – it happens only when we fight for it.

I want to say to white people in particular, now that there is momentum in learning about the history of racism in the US, in protesting, in demanding change, we cannot stop. White people have a responsibility to disrupt and dismantle the system of white supremacy that we benefit from, even if we didn’t personally create it. We inherited it, and no matter where we live in the US, no matter whether our family goes back many generations or we arrived here recently, white people, rich and poor, benefit from the unearned advantages of white privilege, even if we’re not aware of it. We have a responsibility to resist this inheritance of white supremacy. This resistance means always learning and always working for justice – we will never know enough or be woke enough to say we’re done.

I would like to speak today about 3 things in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement: the 4th of July, the “New Jim Crow,” and the role of divide and conquer.

Since our last protest here, the 4th of July occurred. When we learn about the American colonists rebelling against an oppressive England, we tend to avoid the oppression that the American colonists were carrying out themselves. American history school textbooks celebrate these colonists as heroes and tend to avoid how this country was built on stolen land, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the kidnapping and enslaving of Africans. School textbooks avoid the fact that the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness were never intended to be for everyone. The rebelling colonists only intended these ideals to be for the people they saw as fully human. They refused to see Black people and indigenous people as fully human because such a recognition would mean that they were enslaving their fellow human beings and stealing land from their fellow human beings, a direct contradiction to the ideals of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

So rather than create a nation that actually lived up to its ideals, they made the choice to create a nation where the first citizenship law said that only white people could be citizens, where enslaved Black people were property with no rights, where indigenous people were forcibly removed from their land. Two hundred and forty four years later, after the writing of the Declaration of Independence, we still live with the choice the founders made – they chose to create an ideal that only white people would have access to. But we can make a different choice today.

On July 3, a little over 2 weeks ago, President Trump chose to hold a rally at Mt. Rushmore. While many Americans think of Mt. Rushmore as an innocent tourist attraction, this symbol is far from innocent. The land is sacred to indigenous peoples, and in the 1800s, the US government promised that land indefinitely to the Sioux peoples. The US government then broke that treaty as soon as that land was considered desirable because of gold. Later, a mountain on this sacred land was desecrated in order to carve the faces of four US presidents, four presidents who all upheld white supremacy.

Upholding white supremacy is a choice – it was a choice when this country’s founders did it, it was a choice when the US government passed law after law and made court decision after court decision protecting the rights of enslavers, it was a choice every time the US government broke a treaty with indigenous peoples, and it is a choice our own president makes every day.

But we can make a different choice today.

Last year, Ava DuVernay shared on Netflix her 4 episode series called When They See Us, about the five Black teenagers wrongfully arrested and wrongfully imprisoned for the rape and assault of a white woman in Central Park in 1989. It took many painful years for these five men to be exonerated. I remember being in high school when they were arrested, and I also remember not even questioning their guilt. I took their guilt for granted because I thought the criminal justice system was fair. As a white girl, the world recognized my humanity and the humanity of the white Central Park jogger. She was “good” and “innocent” – like me. The teenagers who became known as the “Central Park Five” were never seen as good or innocent – they were seen as guilty, as criminal, simply because of their skin color. And this is after the civil rights movement, after racism was supposed to have ended. Yet racism simply took a new form.

Legal scholar Michelle Alexander explains that one form that racism took in the 1980s was what she called, in her book of this title, “the new Jim Crow.” In it, she talks about how a War on Drugs was waged even though drug use was not a significant problem. She shows how the War on Drugs targeted Black and brown people even though drug use was consistent across racial groups. This war was not actually about drugs. It was actually about what she calls “racial control.”

She writes, “if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success. In less than two decades, the prison population quadrupled, and large majorities of poor people of color in urban areas throughout the United States were placed under the control of the criminal justice system or saddled with criminal records for life. Almost overnight, huge segments of . . . communities were permanently relegated to a second-class status, disenfranchised, and subjected to perpetual surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement agencies. One could argue this result is a tragic, unforeseeable mistake, and that the goal was always crime control, not the creation of a racial undercaste. But judging by the political rhetoric and the legal rules employed in the War on Drugs, this result is no freak accident” (237-238).

If the civil rights legislation of the 1960s mandated that it was now illegal to discriminate on the basis of race, then new ways of maintaining white supremacy had to be developed. Today, when we hear calls to “defund the police,” it goes directly back to these issues. The police and the criminal justice system at large have received increasing funding for decades, to maintain “racial control,” while funding for education, healthcare, youth programs, and social services has all been drastically cut.

But we can make a different choice today.

During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, interracial coalitions fought for justice. Black people, white people, indigenous people, Latinx people, Asian American people came together in solidarity. And that solidarity was a dangerous threat to the white elite who wanted to maintain the status quo. The US government, especially through the FBI, targeted civil rights leaders to discredit them and tried to drive a wedge between civil rights groups in order to split up their coalitions.

A few years ago the FBI used the term “black identity extremist” in order to discredit Black Lives Matter activists, and even though the FBI stated last year that they are no longer using that designation, the vilification of Black activists in particular, who fight for racial justice, continues.

Earlier this month, President Trump said that painting “Black Lives Matter” on Fifth Avenue would be a “symbol of hate.” It is hardly hateful to insist that Black Lives Matter, that Black people are people, that Black people are human beings.

Demonizing the Black Lives Matter movement is a divide and conquer strategy that seeks to undermine the coalitions that have been emerging in the fight for social justice. Derogatory representations of Black Lives Matter work in the same way as derogatory stereotypes of Black people as criminals or as welfare queens. Welfare fraud is not a thing, yet white people in particular were taught that such fraud was a widespread problem, so the power of the stereotype of Black women as welfare queens rationalized massive cuts to social services. Likewise, voter fraud is also not a thing, yet white people in particular are taught that voter fraud is a widespread problem, leading to massive levels of voter suppression. Maintaining the status quo of white supremacy means that those who are deemed as a threat are identified as likely to commit fraud, when there is no evidence to support this, leading directly to cuts to social services and limits to voting rights.

At the same time as Black people have been dehumanized over the past few decades through the stereotypes of welfare queens and criminals, other stereotypes that also serve to divide and conquer have targeted other racial groups. For example, starting in 1966, exactly when the Black Power movement was on the rise the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority” emerged in major national newspapers. This stereotype became very popular, especially with white people, because it told a story they wanted to hear: a story that the American Dream is available to anyone who works hard, that racism is a thing of the past, and that Black and brown people need to stop complaining about civil rights and just work harder to be successful. While the stereotype of Asian Americans as the “model minority” might be seen as a compliment, it is not – it is a dangerous stereotype whose purpose is to divide and conquer and uphold white supremacy.

We have also seen a divide and conquer stereotype of those who identify as Latinx or Hispanic – this stereotype focuses on being “illegal” of not being a “real American,” of not belonging here. Just like the other divide and conquer stereotypes, the purpose of this negative portrayal is to maintain the status quo of white supremacy.

It might be easy to get pulled into believing these divide and conquer stereotypes – after all, we hear them echoed in social media, the news media, and the White House.

But we can make a different choice today.

We can refuse to be divided so that we do not become conquered.

I will end with a poem called “A Small Needful Act” by Ross Gay, published in 2015. Before I turn there, I want to again thank the organizers of Ville NJ BLM. I appreciate your time.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer.

For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Using Our Radical Imagination To See What Defunding the Police Could Mean (Part 4 of 4)

My first three blog posts in this series (scroll down in this link to start with Part 1) attempted to lay some groundwork for taking more seriously the idea of “defunding the police.” I addressed the early history and the more recent history of policing to show where we are today when it comes to the police’s role in “social control” and “racial control.”

In my second blog post, I showed how for decades funding to police departments has grown exorbitantly. What exactly do we get with that huge investment? This month, the Washington Post reported that “A review of spending on state and local police over the past 60 years, though, shows no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.” In 2018, the state and local governments spent $137 billion on police. The popular narrative we’ve been taught for years is that we need police to stop crime, but if we have spent a lot on policing, and it doesn’t seem to have any effect on crime, then why are we continuing to spend this money? Furthermore, what do we really mean by “crime” anyway? A police officer killed George Floyd because of $20. Michelle Alexander would say we are not spending $137 billion to reduce crime but rather to have “social control” and “racial control.” I don’t want my tax dollars supporting “social control” and “racial control” – do you? I’d rather have my tax dollars supporting justice. Let’s consider New York City.

In a recent episode of the podcast Social Distance about defunding the police, hosted by the Atlantic, the three speakers highlighted the following points specific to New York City, where the “NYPD budget is $6 billion.” That budget is “More than the Department of Health, the Department of Homeless Services, the Department of Youth Services, and the Department of Employment Services combined.” Also, “It’s larger than the World Health Organization” and “larger than the GDP of 50 countries around the world.” Furthermore, this is “the biggest police budget in the country,” and due to the pandemic, it’s getting cut by .39 percent, “whereas the Department of Youth and Community Development, which funds after-school programs, literacy services, and summer youth-work programs, is losing 32 percent of its budget.”

If budgets should reflect values, then what does this show? Why is so little spent on public good and so much spent on “social control” and “racial control”? An exorbitant budget on policing might be our current status quo, but it wasn’t always this way, and it doesn’t have to be this way. Many racial justice organizations have recently been promoting various plans to defund the police and to shift that funding to affordable housing, education, mental health services, homeless services, after-school programs, jobs training, and other types of programs that have been purposefully underfunded for decades, as I discussed in my second blog post.

For example, I’ve noticed that a lot of people are recommending Campaign Zero and its campaign #8Can’tWait that focuses on eight major recommendations. Recognizing this work is important, but let’s not stop there. Let’s also understand that while “defunding the police” is a phrase that appeared to hit the mainstream media only very recently, it has actually been around for years and is connected to the larger project of prison abolition. For example, Black feminists and prison abolitionists Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Angela Davis have been working on these issues for decades.

Gilmore’s introductory explanation of abolition has been circulating in social media recently, and I have found it quite powerful: “Abolition is about abolishing the conditions under which prison became the solution to problems rather than abolishing the buildings we call prisons.” If we “abolish the conditions” then we are focusing on justice in all of our systems, whether it is housing, education, healthcare, or other aspects of the public good.

When people say “defund the police,” some people mean take part of the policing budget away and put it to social services but leave the policing system intact. Other people mean defund current policing entirely and create something new, something that would support public safety, something that would focus on the public good rather than “social control” and “racial control.”

Last year, the New York Times Magazine ran a feature article on Ruth Wilson Gilmore and explained her work as follows: “Prison abolition, as a movement, sounds provocative and absolute, but what it is as a practice requires subtler understanding. For Gilmore, who has been active in the movement for more than 30 years, it’s both a long-term goal and a practical policy program, calling for government investment in jobs, education, housing, health care — all the elements that are required for a productive and violence-free life. Abolition means not just the closing of prisons but the presence, instead, of vital systems of support that many communities lack. Instead of asking how, in a future without prisons, we will deal with so-called violent people, abolitionists ask how we resolve inequalities and get people the resources they need long before the hypothetical moment when, as Gilmore puts it, they ‘mess up.’”

I know many people have a gut reaction to the phrase “defund the police,” and it’s not a positive reaction. The phrase “prison abolition” or “abolish the police” likely produces even more negative reactions. I get it. It is very hard to imagine a world where prisons or the police would not be necessary. One might wonder, what about calling 911, or what about a serial killer? However, if we get stuck because we cannot use our imagination, then we’ll never address racism. But, if we can use our radical imagination—where we imagine a world that does not yet exist—then we need to be open to all kinds of possibilities. We have taken for granted that the status quo of prisons and police are just the way our society needs to be, even though other countries we like to compare ourselves to have very different relationships with prisons and policing.

I have found the campaign by the organization #8toAbolition to be especially powerful in helping me exercise my radical imagination.

They are raising concerns about measures that are merely reforms, meaning changes that do not ultimately change the structure or the system. In other words, reflecting on my earlier blogs, if policing’s purpose is for “social control” and “racial control” then why reform this system, which will allow “social control” and “racial control” to continue? Don’t we need something else, something that we can only envision if we use, once again, our radical imagination? As #8ToAbolition writes on their website, “we hope to build toward a society without police or prisons, where communities are equipped to provide for their safety and wellbeing.” If communities can have safety and wellbeing without the police and without prisons, then why not?

To conclude, I want to return to the questions I posed in my first blog. If the motto of the police is “protect and serve,” who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost? Let us imagine another way, a way that does not perpetuate harm, trauma, and violence. If we don’t imagine another way, another world, then we can’t create one, so let’s get started.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk About What Makes It So Hard To Address Police Accountability and Systemic Racism (Part 3 of 4)

In my first and second blog posts in this series, I urged us to step back from focusing on individual police officers and instead to look at the larger system, which means getting a sense of the history of policing, both its origins (addressed in my first blog post) and the changes that occurred more recently (addressed in my second blog post). Now, I want to build on that by continuing to focus on the system and turning to the current challenges we face in creating change. Despite all of the attention to police violence over the past several years and despite changes made (like implicit bias training, the use of body cameras, and bans on chokeholds), George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black people were still murdered by the police. Why does this keep happening?

There are several factors that spin into a vicious cycle, which reinforce policing’s role in “social control” and “racial control” discussed in my second blog post.

For one, given the history discussed in my second blog post, the police in the US have at their disposal overwhelming access to weapons, and they use them. As sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in The End of Policing, “There is no question that American police use their weapons more than police in any other developed democracy (12). Furthermore, there is abundant evidence that police officers use force disproportionately against Black people. For example, the New York Times recently ran an investigative article with the headline “Minneapolis Police Use Force Against Black People at 7 Times the Rate of Whites.”

Why can’t measures be put into place to hold police accountable? This, without more systemic measures, is a challenge. For example, police unions have been, as the New York Times recently reported, “one of the most significant roadblocks to change.” To be clear, I am a proud faculty union member, and I generally support unions, but when they “derail efforts to increase accountability” that is a serious problem.

In tandem with the power of police unions, there emerged a “Blue Lives Matter” movement over the past several years to defend the police from accusations of racism, and supporters sought legislation to make killing a law enforcement officer a federal hate crime, shifting the narrative so that the focus becomes about protecting the police, not holding them accountable. As part of this movement, the image of an American flag in black and white with a blue line across it became a widespread symbol to support the police, from flags on front porches to stickers on cars to t-shirts. Some towns in 2016 painted a blue line down the middle of the street in front of police departments, especially in my state of New Jersey, to support “Blue Lives Matter” and to “support the police.” All of this made it even more challenging to address police violence.

In 2017, historian Matthew Guariglia wrote in a Washington Post article: “The ‘Blue Lives Matter’ movement and its corresponding legislation are just the latest chapter in the evolving notion of what it means to be a police officer, one that dates back over 150 years. The subsequent history shows that, at least for white officers, this strong sense of identity and camaraderie — of police-hood — often supersedes an ability to empathize with civilians of color.”

There is a police culture of resistance to accountability and of silence that makes it almost impossible for individual officers who want to see change to speak up, and new officers are encouraged to participate in this toxic culture. If they don’t, their future on the police force is at stake. Even when police chiefs want change, it is very difficult. Mayor of Atlanta Keisha Lance Bottoms echoed these challenges in her op-ed, “The Police Report To Me, But I Knew I Couldn’t Protect My Son.”

Derek Chauvin, the officer who has now been arrested for murdering George Floyd, had already faced 17 complaints of misconduct. That didn’t stop him from being out on patrol, from detaining and killing George Floyd, all for $20. Furthermore, two of the officers who witnessed the murder were rookies under the supervision of Derek Chauvin, who was the “training officer.” Not only was Derek Chauvin allowed to continue to serve as an officer, but he was also responsible for new officers. What kind of message does that send to rookies? If the murder of George Floyd had not been recorded by a brave young bystander, it seems likely that Derek Chauvin would still be a police officer out on patrol and the rookies would have learned that his violent behavior was acceptable and encouraged.

Even when officers leave a police department after killing someone, they can still be hired by another police department. For example, in 2014, officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, and he was still hired by another police department.

We also need to recognize that while police officers can find unarmed Black people threatening, they do not appear to be threatened by white people, including armed white people. Even if they might feel threatened, they do not act on it the way they often do with Black people. For example, in April, armed white protesters demanding that stay-at-home orders be lifted confronted the police in cities like Lansing, Michigan, where “Police allowed several hundred protesters to peacefully enter the capitol building around 1pm, where they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder near the entrance to legislative chambers.” Armed white people with no masks in a pandemic, inches from the police, are “allowed” to confront the police while unarmed Black protestors who want justice are tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets? Or worse? This disparity reinforces the history and purpose of the police I discussed earlier: the role of “social control” and “racial control.” The armed white protesters didn’t need to be “controlled” like Black protestors.

Vitale describes another group of people who don’t need to be “controlled” when he writes, “the criminal justice system excuses and ignores crimes of the rich that produce profound social harms while intensely criminalizing the behaviors of the poor and nonwhite, including those behaviors that produce few social harms” (107).

Finally, one reason that it is so difficult to challenge systemic racism within policing is the way in which the “good guy” police officer has been normalized in the overwhelming number of TV police procedurals over the past few decades. We have been taught to cheer for many of the police characters in these shows, and the shows often affirm a faith we want to have in the fairness of the criminal justice system. The organization Color of Change released a report a few months ago called “Normalizing Injustice,” where they studied hundreds of episodes from more than two dozen scripted crime shows.

The report concludes “that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.”

When we think about challenges to ending police violence, we might not often think about popular culture, but this study helps us understand how we got here. It explains how we can be so easily indoctrinated into a belief that focuses on the police as the “good guy” and in need of support and protection.

I focused most of this piece on the system because in my observations, that is often the thing that people, especially white people, have the hardest time seeing. We, as white people, have been conditioned to focus on individuals and not to see systems and not to see the racism built into systems. At the same time, we have been taught to believe that the police are inherently good and any problems are the result of a few “bad apples.”

However, if we can start to see the problem is systemic, then hopefully we can see the solution must be systemic as well, as I consider in my final blog post in this series.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk About What Happened to Policing After the Civil Rights Movement (Part 2 of 4)

In my first blog post in this series, I urged you to consider the larger system of policing rather than focus on individual police officers who you may know and to recognize how policing was originally created for “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.” We can now turn to how policing evolved after the civil rights movement at the same time as it kept focusing on these goals.

In the late 1960s and after, there was a backlash to the civil rights movement and US Presidents from both parties, like Nixon and later Clinton and now Trump, championed “law and order” rhetoric in order to win elections and build support to avoid a “soft on crime” accusation. This heightened rhetoric on crime had its foundation under the Johnson administration, even though he was also the president who declared a “War on Poverty” in 1964 and supported the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1965, Johnson declared a “War on Crime.” That year, the Law Enforcement Assistance Act “first established a direct role for the federal government in local police operations, court systems, and state prisons” (Hinton). This legislation set the stage for a massive increase in funding and support for police departments and the distribution of “purchased bulletproof vests, helicopters, tanks, rifles, gas masks and other military-grade hardware for police departments” (Hinton).

The increased attention to crime and the increased funding for the militarization of the police were not in isolation. Starting in the 1970s, neoliberalism grew, which focused on the individual and privatization rather than the collective, public service, and the public good. When it came to policing, the public was convinced to support its expansion at the same time as the public was convinced to support cuts to social services.

Black feminist and prison abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore explains that in the 1970s and 1980s, a narrative became popular that the reason “people are suffering from this general economic misfortune is because too much goes to taxes” so elected officials focused on cutting support for social services. At the same time, she says, a parallel narrative focused on crime as the main problem that needed to be addressed, even though it was not a growing problem. In other words, the public, especially the white public, became convinced that their taxes should not go to social services, education, affordable housing, mental healthcare, summer programs, jobs programs, and other pillars of the public good. Instead, policing and prisons expanded, still in keeping with policing’s historical goals of “labor control” and the preservation of a “social hierarchy.”

In addition, legal scholar Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow explains that as part of the backlash to the civil rights movement, the Reagan Administration announced a War on Drugs in the 1980s even though “illegal drug use was on the decline” (6) and when illegal drug use was comparable across races, not higher among African Americans (7). The War on Drugs was always intended to maintain a racial hierarchy. Furthermore, Alexander adds, “The resistance within law enforcement to the drug war created something of a dilemma for the Reagan administration. . . . Huge cash grants were made to those law enforcement agencies that were willing to make drug-law enforcement a top priority” (73). Then, she explains, “By the late 1990s, the overwhelming majority of state and local police forces in the country had availed themselves of the newly available resources and added a significant military component to buttress their drug-war operations” (74). Funding for police departments increased significantly, and police departments had unprecedented access to military weapons. Media representations of Black people as criminals and the similar rhetoric of politicians served to rationalize this funding.

Furthermore, police officers were encouraged to use racial profiling tactics, like stop-and-frisk, and were rewarded for increasing their arrest rate. This pattern led to Black people being disproportionately targeted, surveilled, arrested, and incarcerated, the “new Jim Crow” of Alexander’s title. She describes the criminal justice system as a system of “social control” and “racial control” (237), which echoes the history of policing I described earlier as a method of “labor control” and as a method to preserve the “social hierarchy.”

In 2014, white police officer Darren Wilson murdered unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Wilson was not indicted. In the investigations that followed, it became clear that Ferguson had become financially dependent on the disproportionate targeting of Black residents. As legal scholar Justin Hansford explains, “the Justice Department reported that Ferguson’s officers targeted residents as ‘sources of revenue,’ a practice disproportionately aimed at African-Americans.”

While the widespread media attention on Ferguson in 2014 and 2015 and the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests provided a real opportunity for systemic change in policing, that did not happen, which explains how we arrived where we are, in June 2020. Hansford writes, “We had just one year of progress on police violence before the backlash kicked in.” In particular, he says, “Consent decrees with police departments in Baltimore, Chicago and even Ferguson followed groundbreaking, scathing federal investigations of racism and other misconduct by officers. . . . But then the backlash came. The federal government retreated from reform. A conservative Supreme Court continued to uphold and protect racialized policing and the use of unnecessary violence even after the federal investigations reinforced the complaints of community members. The Trump Justice Department largely limited oversight of police departments, and that played a significant role in erasing the short-lived push toward accountability.” Furthermore, in Ferguson, “the number of killings by the police in 2017 and 2018 rose to earlier rates.”

Now, with the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, there is clearly a resurgence of mainstream media attention on policing and on Black Lives Matter protests speaking out against systemic racism. There is an opportunity for change now. However, the obstacles to change have been growing over the past few years, which my next blog post will consider.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police, Let’s Talk about Systems (Part 1 of 4)

For those who say, we need to support the police. For those who say, but there are good cops…

Let’s start with systems.

I want to step back from thinking about individual police officers you may know and love and look at the larger system. All systems in the US reinforce systemic racism, regardless of the intentions of the individual members of that system, whether the system is the media, real estate, education, or the criminal justice system. That’s how structural or institutional racism works. Racism is embedded in the structures of these systems going back centuries.

When we consider the system of policing in particular, many white people are taught from an early age to think of a police officer as someone you go to if you need help. That’s certainly what I was taught, along with the idea that the only people who need to fear the police are criminals. As adults, it’s not a surprise that many white people would keep that mentality and focus on the need to “support the police.” After all, why would we question a system whose motto is “to protect and serve”?

But we must ask ourselves: Who is being protected? Who is being served? At what cost?

Even if we know individual officers who are “good” and trying to do the right thing, we still need to step back and look at the larger system in order to answer these questions.

In thinking about the system of policing, we need to consider its history. Professor Chenjerai Kumanyika, from Rutgers University, said recently on NPR: “there were also laws going all the way back to the 17th century that empowered all white people to catch slaves. But I think it’s too simple to say that policing only evolved from slave patrols. Police really evolved around a lot – what I would call labor control. And so in the South, that was controlling slaves. But in the North, that actually had to do with controlling any inconvenient population, especially labor. And so the institution of policing is very much connected to the enactment of violence against strikers and union-breaking.” Understanding this context helps us recognize that, as Kumanyika also says, “modern policing was invented to make sure that that social hierarchy remained intact.”

The very concept of “labor control” means that the “labor” needs to be kept under “control” in order to maintain the status quo of the elite. Likewise, a “social hierarchy” is preserved in order to preserve the position of the elite at the top. This hierarchy is one of white supremacy.

Sociologist Alex S. Vitale explains in The End of Policing that after the Civil War, the “new and more professional forms of policing” targeted formerly enslaved people for “subservient economic and political roles” (98), again maintaining the hierarchy. Of course, the police did not act in isolation, and many other systems simultaneously maintained this hierarchy as well, including housing, voting, education, laws, healthcare, the media, and more.

During the civil rights movement, Vitale describes how police in the South became more “repressive” when they “beat demonstrators” and “made discriminatory arrests” in order to “preserve a system of formal racial discrimination and economic exploitation” (101). Understanding this history helps us see that the police maintained the social hierarchy of white supremacy.

We might like to think that after the civil rights movement ended, policing shifted away from this repressive approach that focused on preserving this hierarchy, but as I will explore in my next blog post, policing did change but not for the better.

-by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer, which includes a four-part series “For Those Who Say, How Can We Defund the Police” and a new resource page on Policing & Racism.

From One Karen to Another

Yes, my name really is Karen. And it’s not a surprise: I am white and middle aged. I grew up in suburban, segregated New Jersey (a state that likes to pretend it’s not segregated, when it’s one of the most). I didn’t learn about race and racism in K-12. I didn’t learn that race is a social construct, much less that whiteness is an invention. I didn’t learn that I, as a white person, was benefitting from advantages that I did not earn but rather were built into our systems. I didn’t learn any of that because it was not taught. I graduated near the top of my high school class without that knowledge. Also, though I wouldn’t have wanted to admit it at the time, I had also learned several false racial myths: that black men are dangerous and that white women need to be protected from black men. While these myths might not have been overtly taught in school, they were everywhere in the very air we breathed. I’m thinking especially of the news coverage during my junior year of high school in 1989 of the young black men who the media identified as the “Central Park Five,” whose guilt I took for granted.

I am Karen, and I am a Karen. While part of me wants to insist #NotAllWhitePeople, that reaction is simply unacceptable. The truth is #YesAllWhitePeople. Rather than distance myself from Amy Cooper, Travis and Gregory McMichael, and Derek Chauvin, I need to confront what we have in common. While I may never have called the police on a black birdwatcher, killed a black jogger, or forced my knee into the back of a black man as he died in the street, my very whiteness is a weapon, a weapon I deploy without always being aware of it. As a white professor, when have I deployed my whiteness in the classroom? Or in the grocery store? Or walking around my town?

Fellow Karens, Amys, Travises, Gregorys, and Dereks, we must begin by acknowledging the racial truths that we were not taught and the racial myths that we were taught. If we are too defensive to even be willing to begin to recognize and learn about those truths and myths, then we are going to cause more racial violence. We must learn the truth, debunk the myths, develop an antiracist perspective, and carry out that antiracist perspective. That is our responsibility.

by Karen Gaffney, author of Dismantling the Racism Machine: A Manual and Toolbox (Routledge) and creator of the website Divided No Longer