Exploring the Kyriarchy: The Criminalization of Race and Use of Force

In the past several weeks we’ve seen multiple examples of white people calling the police or security on black people doing nothing wrong. Here are some highlights.

A white woman asked the airline to call police on a black woman after they exchanged words about space during a flight on a small plane. The black woman tweeted: “The cops were called on me for flying while fat & Black.”

A white woman called security on a dark-skinned man walking his light-skinned son in a park.

A white woman called police on a black family setting up for a BBQ in a public park.

A manager - a white woman - called police on two black men for sitting in a coffee shop without ordering. This incident resulted in the arrests of the two men, which later resulted in a settlement.

A white woman called police on three black people who were checking out of an AirBNB and taking their luggage to the car. The woman thought they were stealing, and the responding sergeant didn’t know what AirBNB was.

A white woman called police, while on a college tour with her child, on two Native American students, also on the tour, because they were wearing black clothing and their behavior made her nervous.

A white woman called police on a black student for napping in a common area of a dorm on a college campus.

A white man, the owner of a golf course, called police on five black women who were playing too slowly, although witnesses say that the women weren’t holding up any other group.

Staff at a gym called police after asking two black men to leave for not paying, although the manager had already seen their passes.

A white woman called police on a black real estate investor for being in her neighborhood, even though he had documents granting him permission to be there.

To be clear, this is not a new phenomenon. Just like incidents of police violence, it is now more common for these incidents of racial profiling to be documented by cell phone cameras. Also, a more socially aware white audience is consuming these stories, so these incidents are more likely to make national news. 

One aspect that most of these cases have in common is that the caller is a white woman. This isn’t an anomaly, but an aspect of our social structure. White men are more likely to enact their racism in violent ways, such as lynching (yes, in 2018), or in mass shootings, or aggressive intimidation. White women are more likely to use white men to enact their racism. As we’ve discussed in a pervious essay, police departments are traditionally male organizations. For example, a recently published book explores the “boys’ club” of police culture, and acknowledges that female officers face barriers in recruitment, but also in retention as they may be to subject to sexual harassment and discrimination. The largely white, male police departments use traditionally male tactics, like violence and intimidation. A former sergeant wrote about how the culture of policing - which includes characteristics like authoritarianism, the need for control, and entitlement - can lead to domestic violence in their own families. These characteristics can also put police at odds with the communities they serve. Examples of excessive force have become more widely reported, which has led to a movement to address police violence.

Policing in the US has a long history of abuse, corruption, and targeting poor people and people of color. By some historical accounts, modern policing - especially in the south - evolved from militias created to collect runaway slaves. While racial profiling is illegal under federal law, it is still a widely used tactic. Research using public data in a Tennessee city found that in a year police stops of black drivers exceeded the number of black people who live in that city. 

White women know that police are likely to trust their interpretation of events, and use mostly white police departments (79% of police officers are white) to enforce their white supremacy. And there’s reason to be concerned about the whiteness of American police departments. The FBI has been investigating and warning about white supremacists infiltrating police departments for years. Further, a recent UN report found that racial disparities exist at every level of the criminal justice system in the US, including interactions with police, sentencing, and parole.

The racism of American policing and our criminal justice system has widespread effects on communities. The war on drugs disproportionately affects black and Hispanic people, and prosecutors play a role in exacerbating this discrimination. After sentencing, mass incarceration breaks up black families. And prison makes healthy people sick, and sick people sicker, which may be a factor in the lower life expectancy of black men. 

As some communities and neighborhoods become richer - and more white - newer residents call the police on long time neighbors of color, which contributes both to police violence and mass incarceration. The perception of public safety is white. The perceptions that white women have about their black neighbors and others in public spaces are likely to be believed by police officers. White women know that, and use it to enforce their ideas about what public spaces should look like: white.