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Dissecting policies and practices, offering solutions informed by scholarship and lived experience.

Call ‘tough on crime’ what it is: a tool of racial oligarchy

Concentrated power among the wealthy and racist is no way to live. We don’t have to.

The New York Police Department graduating class of 2016 salutes during a ceremony at Madison Square Garden, July 1, 2016.TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

On May 25, 2020, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin tortured George Floyd to death, leading to the largest protests in U.S. history and demonstrations across the globe in solidarity with the fallen father and the premise that Black lives matter. These protests also led to proclamations of a “racial reckoning.”

Two years later, that reckoning appears to have been an exaggeration.

Polling suggests that support for Black Lives Matter and police reform has ebbed, and the conditions that made Floyd’s murder more likely have not changed. Police killings continue while Black Americans struggle with economic inequities centuries in the making and deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Not only have conditions remained unchanged, but demands for change have been met with backlash. This includes the resurgence of “tough on crime” politics, right-wing commentary and news coverage, and other efforts to discredit and roll back criminal legal reforms. Progressive prosecutors trying to curb mass incarceration and police violence have been blamed for a spike in crime during the pandemic. San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled in June, for example.

Bail reform has also become a convenient scapegoat for concerns about crime. Some places are returning to crackdowns on low-level crimes, targeting the unhoused, and putting more dollars into policing. Unlike backlash efforts primarily driven by conservatives such as political violence, voter suppression, or election interference, the comeback of “tough on crime” includes those who identify as liberal. It is part of the same backlash, advancing a common political project.

“Tough on crime” is racial oligarchy reasserting itself. Racial oligarchy is rule based on wealth and racism. It works through a number of mechanisms, what the womanist poet and civil rights activist Audre Lorde might have called “the master’s tools.” These include structural, ideological, moral, cultural, psychological, and historical mechanisms.

Structurally, racial oligarchy operates through systemic and interpersonal forms of abuse and neglect, such as discrimination and segregation. Police violence and criminalization fall into this category. Police have responded to protests against brutality with more brutality, and demonstrations have been targeted for criminalization. At least 100 “anti-riot” bills in 33 states were proposed between June 2020 and March 2021, according to PEN America.

Systemic and interpersonal forms of abuse and neglect are justified through ideas that make them appear rational. One example is “police nationalism.” The concept is rooted in conservative ideas of law and order, expressed these days in the rhetoric of Blue Lives Matter, but it has also been sustained by decades of liberal police reform. The right sees the police as the “thin blue line” between order, stability, and security, and illegitimate violence, chaos, and anarchy. Liberals, instead, emphasize the “law” in “law and order,” appealing to proceduralism and increased professionalism as mechanisms of accountability to be strengthened so police can serve the public good.

Assigning value to people based on racial categories makes abuse and neglect appear moral, and renders harsh treatment permissible and in some cases, obligatory. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King observed about notions of Black inferiority: “So long as the lie was believed, the brutality and criminality of conduct toward the Negro was easy for the conscience to bear. The twisted logic ran if the Black man was inferior he was not oppressed … .”

This “twisted logic” is a root of moral panics about crime. Repression is excused as necessary to defend against “those people” and the dangers “they” represent. Culture normalizes racial oligarchy through narratives that mask its existence and operations. Disinformation, misleading media coverage, and “copaganda” are examples. Each has misshaped perceptions, created support for repressive policies and fanned the flames of backlash.

Examples of copaganda are all over our TV screens. This illustration shows police portrayed as heroes in “Criminal Minds,” “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” “Blue Bloods,” “The Rookie: Feds,” “Paw Patrol,” and “NCIS.”Illustration by Alex LaSalvia

Exposure to racial oligarchy causes disadvantaged groups to experience trauma, chronic stress, self-hatred, despair and anxiety while advantaged groups experience resentment, aggression, and insecurity. Research has linked police violence to poor mental health outcomes among Black Americans. These outcomes render minds and bodies more vulnerable to manipulation and exploitation.

From structures to psyches, racial oligarchy draws power from accumulated harms of history and the tendency to repeat the past rather than learn from it. The backlash to the Floyd protests not only compounds intergenerational injuries, it also recycles tactics and logics from previous eras. Scholars and journalists have noted parallels between the current moment and reactions to Reconstruction and the mid-century civil rights movement.

The mechanisms of racial oligarchy operate globally and through what the Combahee River Collective, a collective of Black feminists, referred to as “interlocking systems of oppression,” such as heteropatriarchy and ableism. For instance, scholar Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò has argued that police violence will be used to manage the consequences of climate apartheid. The #SayHerName campaign has drawn attention to the impact of police violence on Black women, including those who are queer, transgender, or living with disabilities.

Whether driven by conservatives or liberals, we must block the backlash and out-organize racial oligarchy. This requires dismantling structures that oppress and replacing them with structures that liberate. Belief and value systems and narratives that rationalize and normalize racial oligarchy must be exposed and countered. Minds and bodies have to heal. The lessons of history should be harnessed to create a better future.

As we struggle, we can gain inspiration and insight from others doing this work. Organizations and individuals are identifying and creating alternatives to policing and incarceration. Groups and publications are fighting disinformation and challenging misleading media coverage and copaganda. Healers are drawing on culture and embodied techniques to promote well-being and solidarity.

Phillipe Copeland is a clinical associate professor at Boston University’s School of Social Work and assistant director of narrative at the BU Center for Antiracist Research. Follow him on Twitter @PTheeEducator.