Policing and the structure of racialization

(The Militarization of the Police– Part 3)

This series of articles on police militarization was initiated in response to the government (Dept. of Defense) policy of providing military equipment to local police departments. We have evaluated this policy in the context of social violence, under which term we have included both civilian violence against persons and property and police violence against civilians. Though a false separation between these two forms of violence has been created by labeling only one of them “criminality,” that is a distinction that has been rejected here. It is false insofar as police violence serves as a role model for civilian violence. And police deployment of military equipment (assault rifles, tear gas, armored vehicles, etc.) implies or even admits to a comparability of enactment.

At the core of police militarization resides their power to command civilians with an expectation of immediate obedience (as in the army, thus imposing induction on civilians into military organization without consent). To the role played by police violence, their presumption to punish disobedience by beating or handcuffing to shooting people must be added, as if the role of judge and jury could also be played, but with the omission of due process. They complete the portrait of “police state” that this outlines by often approaching civilians with guns drawn, as an expression of “gun-nationalism.”

Do all police act within such militarized intention? Some may comport themselves differently. But all wear the same uniform as those who fully adopt the stance of “gun-nationalism,” and thus carry the dress and insignia of those who enact it. It happens in Berkeley as well as in Chicago, or Minneapolis, or on highways.

Two political aspects contextualize the police-state reference. In most cities, civilians are essentially excluded from policy-making, and thus from democratic participation in police policies. People are granted “input,” but not a seat at the table on policy that will affect them. And second, civilian life has in general become ever more expensive, stressful, and beyond budgeting control. The militarization of social control abandons them to their stress and insecurity, and thus exacerbates precisely the tendencies toward social violence that ooze out from under political and economic constraints.

State government seems (in some cases) to have recognized this paradox. In California, a bill (AB481) has been passed that requires the police to go through City Council monitoring and decision-making before gaining access to military weaponry. It provides for people’s forums at which civilian thinking as well as choices can be expressed. But even so, what community residents will propose for making their streets safer will differ significantly from police opinion since the latter will of necessity omit inclusion of their own activity as a source of social violence. In effect, the pretense to “make society safer” becomes mere rhetoric. And the unbalanced interaction between public thinking as “input” and police thinking as “expert” will simply sweep aside the central problem of “race” and racialization with respect to policing.

Racializing militarism or militarizing racialization?

“Militarization” and “racialization” are the same kind of word. They refer to processes, not things. Well in advance of Dept. of Defense enhancement of police militarism, the command and obedience paradigm is in full militarist effect. And racially biased law enforcement, even in the face of prohibitory ordinances, memos, and regulations, the concept of racialization as an operating principle emerges precisely from police “gun-nationalism.” The guns are pulled more routinely on people of color than on whites. And the media focuses its “crime-stories” more on people of color than on whites. And this exercise of racial bias occurs in the context of on-going redlining of black communities, inferior health care and education, a statistically significant greater number of people in communities of color succumbing to disease under the pandemic than white people.

And we may ask, is it perhaps in anticipation of some anger by those subjected to marginalization by racialized hierarchy that the government is issuing military equipment to the police? After all, tear gas, riot gear, drones, and armored vehicles are designed for crowd control (when not in a war). And for US cities, given US structures of racialization, mere exhibition of such weaponry could even be used to escalate demonstrations into riots.

The historic relation between these two terms is clear. While police brutality has grown over the last few decades, it takes its precedence from the white response to black emancipation from enslavement. As standard Jim Crow procedure, the police (typically in the south) would raid black communities and arrest a few people off the street, charging them with vagrancy (a catch-all misdemeanor that focused on the impoverished). By levying fines for simply having been arrested, a “debt” was created for which the captive (aka prisoner) could be contracted to local farmers and plantations to work it off.

The structure is roughly the same as contemporary policing. An official encounters a black person, imposes a condition (command) on that person’s existence (color), captures or harms the person, and transports them from their own social space to an enslaving space where they are made to work for nothing for members of an alien social economy (white restricted social framework in the case of Jim Crow, imprisonment in the largest prison system in the world in the case of today’s policing). Even the very origin of whiteness, white supremacy, and race deployed this structure. People in Africa were encountered by officials (European), captured, transported (by ship to a different continent), and tortured into providing free labor for an alien society. In its present form, the cop commands and charges disobedience, the mode of transportation is a police car or an ambulance, and one is removed from one’s social space to an alien space in which one serves as the socio-political “resource” for a white-nationalist economic structure.

In present practices, the labor performed by the captive is sometimes drug trafficking, sometime information gathering about social justice movements, and sometimes producing items for the state while in prison. There are cops who pad their income using teenagers (of color) to sell drugs for them, demanding the return of a pre-established amount of money each month (Cf. Video: “One Who Survived,” by Thalia Drori). Failure to accede to the cop’s demands will ultimately lead to death. This is one of the on-going details of that totally corrupt campaign known as “the war on drugs.”

In 2012, the black toll of police killings in the US was around 315, or roughly one every 28 hours (Cf. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement). By 2015, that number was up to around 1100, or roughly three a day. In response, the cry went up that “Black Lives Matter.” Many people attempted to shrug at the implications of that slogan by corrupting or counter-appropriating it (“blue lives matter,” “white lives matter,” etc.), as if it were just a philosophical statement. But it isn’t; it’s a demand: “Stop Killing Black People.”

The latest police attempt to kill a black person in Berkeley is instructive. Vincent Bryant, a homeless man (or rather, “houseless” if his community of the “unhoused” is his actual “home”), got so hungry one day, he had to take a sandwich from a Walgreens, for which he left a dollar. When cornered two blocks away by the police, while eating his sandwich, he was ordered to lie down on the ground. He refused and remained standing. A cop shot him from 50 feet, hitting him in the jaw. The cop had to be aiming for his head in order to do that; and that means he intended on killing him. This happened in 2019.

Many black people get guns to defend themselves – in part, perhaps, because the blue uniform does not cover the white sheet hiding underneath it. Few, however, get desperate enough to actually use the gun. To defend oneself in public against the police, for instance, is to call down upon oneself a massive battalion-strength counter-attack. The example of Lovelle Mixon comes to mind. He shot two cops whom he logically concluded were following him to kill him (Oakland, March 21, 2009). The cops claim it was a “routine traffic stop,” but the cops, who were on motorcycles, had followed him home from his parole officer’s office. Forty cops then descended on the scene, cornering him and shooting him dead.

For people living in a situation controlled by an army of occupation, perhaps it becomes easier to turn the guns on each other. The police can then speak about black-on-black crime, exonerating themselves from any causal links to social violence, while militarizing themselves in order to benefit from the impunity provided by that exoneration. Their super-patrolling communities of color, however, effectively remove many residents by means of arrests (many due to disobedience), and leave big holes in the community’s social fabric. Thus, the police add their efforts to the destructive aspects attending gentrification, poor medical services, and rent-gouging.

Government was not originally constituted (as a text) to kill its own people. After the massive demonstrations of 2020 that shut down whole cities for weeks on end, and were themselves defenses against a militarized police, many people concluded that society does not need that kind of policing. Perhaps policing needs to be replaced by something more democratic and lawful. But the efforts of the federal government seem to be aimed at beefing up police violence. How are we to arrive at a resolution to social violence when we have to constantly wade through the government’s own masking of its own causal relation to it?

Is de-racialization the solution to the problem of social violence? If the police are focused on race in their comportment toward the people, and the police are the role model for social violence, then their othering of the non-white races is one of its driving forces. We must conclude that giving military equipment to the police is precisely a refusal to resolve the problem of social violence.

What does the term “racialization” mean?

To ask about racialization with respect to the early colonies is to inquire into the political and social content of colonialism. Upon encountering the inhabitants (peoples of color) of three continents, Europeans set themselves in supremacy and superiority by force, both political and military. It was not yet a racial supremacy; the modern concept of “race” had not been invented yet. But the concept of supremacy evolved from a certain evangelistic form of Christianity (seen even in Columbus’s diaries). It was in the Virginia Colony that the modern concept of race first emerged. During the first half of the 17th century, the English did not identify themselves as culturally white; only chromatically white. They developed a cultural identity of whiteness only after codifying the enslavement of Africans in 1682.

The concept of race was invented in Europe in the wake of that first emergence of a white cultural identity. The Africans, the Indigenous, the Asians were then identified as races by Europeans after the Virginians had produced a supremacy of whiteness. (Cf. Steve Martinot, “The Rule of Racialization”). In sum, racialization refers to the cultural structure by which a society creates “race” and lives according to the existence of the racial categories it invents for itself.

Like militarization, racialization refers to a process. Militarization refers to what a community or a nation is doing when it militarizes territories by putting them under military command. Racialization refers to what a community or nation does when it invents racial categories for people – and different communities or nations invent their hierarchies of race differently. Militarizing an area is something that people (those with military power) do to it. The verb is “to militarize.” And similarly, racializing people is something that some people (those with racializing power) do to other people. The verb is “to racialize.” To racialize a group of people as “black” is something that people who do not see themselves as black do to others.

In short, “race” is a verb; it is something that one group of people does to others. As a verb, the concept named by the word “race” is transformed from a characteristic of a person into something produced at the level of cultural enactment, in the context of a society that allows that to happen. In Brazil, in Mexico, in the early English Virginia Colony, the structures of racialization were all different; what was the same in each case was a hierarchy with white people on top, and a context of colonialism and enslavement.

The logical implication of this is that (in the US) black people are not born black; they are made black by white supremacist society. Indigenous people are not born indigenous; they are made indigenous by white people who come from elsewhere, take control the land, and call the people they find there “indigenous.” And white people are not born white. They are made white by white supremacist society; that is, they are made white by other white people enacting that whiteness as the process of racializing others.

With respect to white people, a small difference accrues. While black people are racialized as black, and become “black” because so racialized, white people, who are racialized as white, do not become white because so racialized; they become white by becoming racializers. Racialized society is a system of cultural classes divided between the racializers and the racialized.

Like all class divisions, it has its specific grammatical distinctions. The racializers occupy the subject position of the verb while the racialized occupy the object position (like “owners” occupy the subject position of capitalist production as people while the workers who work for them are known by their skills trades – machinists, welders, etc.). We see this even among white liberals who strongly object to racism, to enslavement, to white supremacy and all its tactics of segregation, and still find it difficult to stop objectifying black or brown people. “We know what you want. We can speak for you.” And thus, they reserve the subject position for themselves.

Part of the substance of racialization is the ability of the racializers to invent whatever characteristics or qualities they decide they want, and to tell whatever stories they like about those they racialize. And they make those characteristics real by reducing the racialized, as objects of their process of racialization, to a condition in which those invented characteristics take on the aspect of an “objective” reality. That is, the process of racialization is not only the inferiorization and abrogation of the humanity of the racialized by the racializers; it completes itself as a structure of power by means of torture, labor, impoverishment, and endless disparagement or derogation deemed to confirm that the chosen character of the racialized is real. In other words, those characteristics that become socially known as valid generalizations about the racialized are conditions invented and produced by the racializers. All generalizations of people are invented by others; people don’t generalize themselves. But in the case of racialization, it is a version of the command and obedience power that the racializers have that imposes their invented stories as generalizations (black-on-black crime, for instance), and thus imbues them with a validity.

The police inferiorize persons by giving them a superiorized command that is humiliating, a command designed to reduce the social and political standing of a person to subordinate status – handcuffing, for instance, or the command to lie on the ground face down. It is given without caring whether the commanded persons see themselves as free and self-respecting. What the cop relies on is a refusal of the humiliation. The cop has the power to do this because of his militarization, because he can enforce his command and obedience paradigm whenever he wishes. When the cops specifically focus this attitude on black people, they are enacting the process of racializing black people in general.

Police militarization is thus a dimension of the structure of racialization in US society. In that light, the government is thus enhanced and aggravating that structure by granting military equipment to the police. But similarly, the structure of racialization is a dimension of police militarization, the inner logic of which operates through the command and obedience paradigm. The initials for “Command and Obedience Paradigm” are C.O.P. It is the symbol for both militarism and racialization.

Steve Martinot is Instructor Emeritus at the Center for Interdisciplinary Programs at San Francisco State University. He is the author of The Rule of Racialization: Class, Identity, Governance, Forms in the Abyss: a Philosophical Bridge between Sartre and Derrida (both Temple) and The Machinery of Whiteness. He is also the editor of two previous books, and translator of Racism by Albert Memmi. He has written extensively on the structures of racism and white supremacy in the United States, as well as on corporate culture and economics, and leads seminars on these subjects in the Bay Area.