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.
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