While most cops – as so many contend in the USA these days – may not be racists (let’s say, for the sake of argument, that they aren’t), it is nevertheless still the case that the police, as an institution, is racist through and through.
This is because, among other things, as an institution, the police is an appendage of the larger institution of property. The police serves property. And property – in the US at the very least – is inextricable from racist dispossessions of wealth. Property is racist.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that the term private (found in the designation private property) derives from the verb ‘to deprive.’ And these deprivations, from the late eighteenth century on, and the creation of both personal property (slaves, for instance) and real property (land) were justified and enabled by racist ideologies.This relationship – between race, property and police – appears in the very creation of the institution of the police department. In the US, as Kristian Williams and others have noted, the first police departments were specifically instituted to hunt runaway slaves – that is, to retrieve and secure runaway chattels, also known as personal property, or personalty. And slaves’ status as property was determined by the idea of race.
Related to personalty is the concept of realty. Realty, or real property, refers to fixed property – land. And, just as it is with the case of slavery, the modern anointment of the world as so many pieces of property (dominated by owners and secured by contracts, the courts, police, etc.) is inextricable from the racist ideologies and practices fundamental to the European and US conquest of the planet. Whether public property or private property, real property (like a particular lot of land) or personal property (like the cotton extracted from it), property is simultaneously the manifestation of wealth and power (political and economic), and the objective, concrete manifestation of historical racism. This is not to say that property is exclusively racist. However, in the US property is thoroughly imbued with and inseparable from racism.
Just look at where real property (to say nothing of personal property, or wealth in general) comes from. In the US virtually all real property was taken, by force and in violation of legally binding treaties, from Native Americans. And more often than not the rationale for forcefully taking these lands derived from racist narratives. Depicting Native Americans as essentially nomadic (in stark contrast to the evidence of the practices of the Cherokee Nation, for example, or to the presence of the ruins of the city of Cahokia – which, when discovered in the early 1800s by European-Americans, near present day St. Louis, was larger than the contemporaneous city of Washington D.C.), the racist narrative of an essential nature was necessary to the ethnic cleansing of North America and the concomitant transformation of the land into so much property.At the same time, the development of wealth and property in the US was inextricable from a slave economy underpinned by racist ideologies and practices. Even after the Civil War, the exception to the 13th Amendment – which allowed slavery in the case of punishment – enabled the continuation of systemic slave labor to flourish. More often than not, this practice was deeply racialized. In addition to significantly contributing to the industrialization of the South, this racist prison labor system continues to operate, controlling overwhelmingly black and brown ‘surplus populations’ and generally maintaining property values throughout the country as well. This fundamental relationship between race and property is not by any means limited to the 19th century, however, or to the prison-industrial complex that Michelle Alexander persuasively refers to as “the new Jim Crow.”
In the 20th century racist practices such as blockbusting, redlining, and urban renewal destroyed neighborhoods and enriched others across the US. These policies and practices ensured that some people (like pundit Bill O’Reilly’s family, who lived in racially restricted Levittown, New York) would benefit economically and politically from owning property, and others (such as people of color living in areas that were being deformed into ghettos by these same policies) would not. The brutal effects of these policies continue to reverberate throughout the US today in the form of poverty, inequality, incarceration, and police violence (the patent expression of the latent relations of domination and subordination). The deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, among so many others, are the entirely foreseeable outcome of these relations.
In spite of the prevalence of its brutality, though, in the end the institution of the police is but an extension of the more deeply rooted institution of property – which, in turn, is the manifestation of wealth and economic power (which, in a capitalist society, translates to political power as well).
In light of this, in confronting racism it is insufficient (though nevertheless still crucial) to focus our efforts on the brutality of the police. The police is but the tip of the racist iceberg – or, if you prefer, the toxic icing on the racist cake. As the icing, it primarily conforms to, and reflects, the underlying contours of the cake.
Meaningfully dismantling racism, then, not to mention inequality and poverty, requires dismantling not the police so much as it requires dismantling property relations. This, in turn, requires dismantling property as such – not the concrete objects that are presently regarded as property so much as the very concept of property – and what this implies, the right to dominate in the first place.
Elliot Sperber is a writer, attorney, and teacher. He lives in New York City, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @elliot_sperber