Academic journal article Social Justice

Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions

Academic journal article Social Justice

Policing Space, Policing Race: Social Control Imperatives and Police Discretionary Decisions

Article excerpt

THE TENUOUS AND OFTEN CONTENTIOUS RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN RACIAL MINORIties and the police is a perennial concern of scholars, policymakers, and the public. Despite the centrality of race in the historical development of the police, as well as in contemporary criminal justice policies and police practices, there are few scholarly attempts to develop a construct for understanding this relationship. This essay discusses the interactive relationship between race, space, and policing in U.S. history. These three factors have been central in forwarding race-based social control and have been intertwined in public policy and police practices since the earliest days of this country's history. Despite the demise of de jure segregation and discrimination, de facto discriminatory policies and practices perpetuate a substantially authoritarian, regulatory, and punitive relationship between racial minorities and the police. Drug-war related, quality of life, and zero tolerance policing are integral to the social control imp erative in the contemporary policing of racial minorities. This essay concludes with a discussion of avenues for change that could improve policing in a multicultural democracy.

The interactive relationship between race, space, and policing has been of social and political significance since the earliest days of American history, Monitoring the movement of slaves was a central concern for plantation masters and slave patrollers. The desire to regulate and subjugate the behavior of newly manumitted slaves was the primary impetus for creating new legal rules against vagrancy and loitering in the post-antebellum South. The rise of Jim Crow and the location and construction of urban ghettos and public housing were deliberate efforts to promote social control and isolation through racial containment. For the better part of our history, race has been a central determinant in the definition, construction, and regulation of public spaces. Some authors have even used the analogy of internal colonization to describe the relationship between African-American communities, the state, and the police (see Staples, 2001; Blauner, 1969).

Although the experiences of African Americans and the police are widely known and documented, history shows that the relationship between race, space, and social control also holds for other racial minorities. For example, in the 19th century, Chinese immigrants were harshly and legally discriminated against in California. Forced to live in ethnic enclaves, "Chinatowns" became a central feature on the West Coast. Soon, local municipalities created special Chinatown police squads to police Chinese workers. Divorced from "polite" society, the rule of law seemed to have limited bearing over police activities in various Chinatowns, and blatant police corruption was common (see, e.g., Friedman, 1981). A contemporary example of differential treatment for racially identified spaces is illustrated in one author's contention that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) consciously sacrificed Koreatown during the L.A. uprisings in order to concentrate limited police resources on more affluent Anglo neighborhoods on t he periphery (Cho, 1993).

The history of Latinos in the U.S. indicates a similar pattern of separation and social control. Edward Escobar's (1999) excellent history of the relationship between Mexican Americans and the LAPD argues that the emergence of a race-based political consciousness among Mexican Americans in Los Angeles was largely due to egregious police practices in Mexican-American barrios. The "Zoot Suit" riots and the "Sleepy Lagoon Murder Trial" are the best-known examples of discriminatory police actions against Latinos (Mirande, 1987; Escobar, 1999). Indeed, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission held hearings to discuss tensions between Mexican Americans and the police. The following excerpt illustrates the similarity of experience between Mexican Americans and African Americans with respect to policing:

[The Commission] heard frequent allegations that law enforcement officers discriminated against Mexican-Americans. …

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