I’m writing this because Tr*mp issued 3 executive orders related to law enforcement yesterday. These orders increase penalties against those found guilty of assaulting officers, increase information sharing between law enforcement agencies to fight “drug cartels,” and create a task force (under the Attorney General) to address drug trafficking, illegal immigration, and violent crime. These orders seek to empower racist law enforcement and intimidate opposition to racist law enforcement agendas. The president’s reasoning (and the reasoning of all “law and order” legislators who are “tough on crime”) is that there is a lot of crime and that increasing the power of law enforcement and punishment will lower levels of crime.
This belief isn’t true, and what I’m about to write about it has already been said many times by scholars and activists; they have said it better and longer. This is just a philosophical introduction to why crime is a bad way to measure morality and why, therefore, we should not be using crime rates as justification to further criminalize poor bodies of color.
First, crime is created by law. Without law, there is no crime. This doesn’t mean having no laws is desirable, necessarily. Just that, theoretically, a crime doesn’t exist until a law defines an action as a crime. The definitions of many crimes have changed drastically throughout history, and some actions have be de- and re-criminalized multiple times.
Second, in this sociocultural reality of the United States in 2017, laws are created not by nature, by gods, nor by “the masses,” but by small numbers of people in formal and informal positions of power. This means that laws are not necessarily moral or good. For an obvious example, slavery was legal. That doesn’t make it right. (FUCKING OBVIOUSLY.)
Third, there exists structural and cultural racism and classism in this country (and there are other systems of oppression, but when it comes to crime, race and class are, I would argue, the most relevant). Racism and classism shape our discourses about crime and punishment. Since the inception of “the United States,” people of color have been denied access to material wealth and have been criminalized. It was necessary to criminalize and dehumanize people of color and poor people to create the United States because it was necessary to justify slavery, indentured servitude, and genocide while also arguing for freedom and democracy. Additionally, we have now been criminalizing and punish people of color more harshly than white people for hundreds of years, which makes it very difficult for the collective United States to stop imagining people of color as criminals who deserve what they get. So not only are crimes created by human-made laws, but the humans who make those laws are shaped by this racist and classist history. Lawmakers are not superhuman. They are just as susceptible to being racist and classist as anyone else. In fact, they may be more susceptible because the majority of lawmakers on both the federal and local level are wealthy and white (and people’s social circles are generally a reflection of them, so they have very few opportunities to disrupt the stereotypes and prejudices they hold of poor people and people of color). That means that many laws related to crime and punishment are racist. For example, stop-and-frisk laws and different penalties for possession/distribution of crack cocaine and powder cocaine are both well-established as racist both in theory and in practice.
Fourth, the enforcement of these laws is up to imperfect humans who are subject to those same racist and classist proclivities that affect lawmakers. Some law enforcement officers are overtly racist, and actively target people of color, particularly black people, but even law enforcement officers who are not overtly racist are subject to implicit bias and unconscious racism. Unequal enforcement of the law, combined with racist laws, leads to skewed and inaccurate crime statistics.
Altogether, these facts can tell us that legislators and law enforcement officers are flawed (just like the rest of us), actions are criminalized in unequal and racist ways, laws are enforced in unequal and racist ways, and that, therefore, crime rates shouldn’t be used to justify the increased scope of and militarization of law enforcement.
If you are curious to know more about why I think the way I do, here are a few resources on law enforcement, crime, the prison industrial complex, and white supremacy that have changed me:
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture by Angela Davis
- 13th, a documentary by Ava DuVarnay
- The Color of Violence: The Incite! Anthology
Here is an incredible list of books on the topic of crime, prisons, and prison abolition that I have not yet read but hope to read in the future: http://www.aaihs.org/prison-abolition-syllabus/