The Seductive Logic of White Supremacy, Part 1

So, it’s been kinda light on the posting in 2013 and 2014. No sense in lying and saying that I’m definitely gonna do better. We’ll just have to see. Lately though, I’ve been thinking a good deal about so-called “broken windows” policing, mass incarceration, and white supremacy. I needed a place to put my thinking on wax, so to speak, and remembered, “Oh yeah. I started a blog about a year ago.”

***Broken Windows Policing***

In a 1982 Atlantic Monthly essay, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling introduce their “broken windows” approach to policing. It is not a very complicated argument. It’s more of a thin intellectual veneer for collective punishment than well-developed criminology. In fact, Wilson and Kelling openly acknowledge that broken windows policing likely has no direct effect on crime but has other important merits. For them “Law & Order” is more properly “law” & ORDER. Big emphasis on order. Grant police a wide berth to establish order, the thinking goes, and crime takes care of itself.

Why don’t you let Nick Nolte ‘splain it to you in this clip from the insanely underrated 1990 film Q&A. Nolte co-stars as Detective Mike Brennan and provides the cliff’s notes version of broken windows. He’s being investigated by internal affairs (played by a youthful looking Timothy Dalton) for murdering several criminals.

It’s no secret. I believe in kickin’ ass… but things got better when I was there… If we lose control over this fuckin’ jungle we’re finished… So I break a couple a heads? You know what we’re fighting out there, and they know it.

Brennan’s language is less polite than Wilson and Kelling’s, but that’s about the only difference. Broken windows is perhaps the best contemporary example of the seductive logic of white supremacy. It generates fear of the other and offers their subjugation to whites as a palliative. Of course, white supremacy can only offer subjugation–and nothing else. Shockingly, that never works for very long. The fear of the subjugated other eventually returns. Unfortunately, white America routinely double down on subjugation. Kickin’ ass is the answer to every question. It cannot fail. It can only be failed.

Jamelle Bouie over at Slate has done a nice piece about doubling down on subjugation. Hit the link. [Seriously. Go read it now and come back. I’ll wait…] What I like about Bouie’s piece is that it doesn’t pander to the white liberal fantasy about racial hostility and xenophobia being limited to NASCAR dads and the small town rabble. Nah. Bouie’s not having that. He cites academic literature that makes a strong case that anti-black attitudes are common among whites in the US and they fuel support for racially punitive policies. Let me be clear: anti-black attitudes are NOT universal, but neither are they rare. They are widely diffused throughout the population, even among the highly educated in liberal bulwarks like San Francisco and New York. Bouie forces the reader to acknowledge that blackness in the white racial imaginary is mostly negative and strongly associated with crime, an association often made below the level of conscious awareness.

If it was just about attitudes I wouldn’t be writing this post. Unfortunately anti-black attitudes constitute the microfoundations of much American policy, to paraphrase social-psychologist Lawrence Bobo. As it concerns crime policy specifically, we can see the dynamics between anti-black attitudes, policing, and mass incarceration. From Bouie:

Tell people that blacks are overpoliced and over-represented in prison, and it triggers thoughts of crime, which leads to fear, which causes a backfire effect as people follow their fear and embrace the status quo of unfair, overly punitive punishments.

These “thoughts of crime” tend to be insensitive to actual crime, persisting even where crime is declining. In their snap judgments the mere presence of black people generates the fear response in whites; not a dispassionate empirical estimate of their likelihood of criminal victimization. Whites then–again, collectively–demand that assuaging their fears be the central objective of public policy.

As a consequence, data on racial (and other) disparities that should indicate obvious and fundamental unfairness instead indicates that the systems designed to assuage their fears are doing just that. At least for a little while.

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6 thoughts on “The Seductive Logic of White Supremacy, Part 1

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