Memo to police: No, you’re not making us feel safe!
Racial profiling and stop-and-frisk are meant to make black and brown people feel safe? Here's what it really does
By Brittney Cooper
This weekend, “The Butler,” a film about race and the American presidency, made a splash at the box office. But in Silver Spring, Md., moviegoers in this largely African-American suburb were subjected to watching the movie at a Regal Cinema with armed police officers present. I went to see the movie over the weekend where I live, and nothing about it says public safety hazard. Those police were not there to protect or to serve. They were there to maintain order, because apparently middle-class African-American moviegoers are always out of order and cannot be trusted to watch a film about race without misbehaving.
We should be outraged when citizens are profiled, intimidated and treated in this manner. But we have come to believe this is how things have to be.
America is a culture of law and order junkies. Myself included. I am personally addicted to the show “Law & Order,” although just about any crime procedural will do, and it seems there is a “Law & Order” rerun or marathon playing at any hour of the day. I’ve even taken a gander at “Law & Order: UK.” I love watching because at the most basic level, the good guys win and the bad guys get what’s coming to them. But somehow, I know our national, almost pornographic obsession with these shows, both scripted and reality-based versions, feeds an unhealthy narrative that there is someone there, lurking in the shadows ready to do us harm. We believe this, even though violent crime started falling in the early 1990s, long before Bill Clinton and the GOP-led Congress engineered the makings of the Prison Industrial Complex.
These shows about the ever-present threat of violent crime have helped to feed a culture of fear. White people fear black and brown people. The police, no matter their color, treat us as a credible threat not only to white people, but to them, and to each other. Therefore, black and brown people fear the police. These fears are only exacerbated by neoliberal economic policies, a shrinking middle class, declining global reverence for American imperialism, and the global policing of brown people through the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare. These shows point us away from this broader set of logic and make us believe that we are in a simple cops-and-robbers fantasy. Every time we see the bad guys go down, we believe a little more in upholding the law and miss the ways that this has become about maintaining order.
The obsession with order is precisely why Mayor Bloomberg and police commissioner Ray Kelly can almost explicitly advocate for racial profiling in the use of stop-and-frisk, predominantly toward black and brown men. Black and brown people moving freely through public space upsets the order of things. Profiling them is viewed as a necessary evil that leads to the greater good of safety for all some. The same logic is used to profile Muslim Americans. Even though such practices are unconstitutional, they are indebted to this insidious logic of order, one in which criminals constitute a permanent underclass, and everyone needs to know and stay in their place. And of course, race determines place.