Hattery, A. J., & Smith, E. (2017). Policing Black bodies: How Black lives are surveilled and how to work for change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 284 p., $34.00, ISBN: 978-1442276956
Reviewed by: Caroline M. Bailey, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives Are Surveilled and How to Work for Change by Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith challenges the ways in which we consider the imposition of control mechanisms on people of color in the United States, particularly African Americans. Using several theoretical perspectives—theory of color-blind racism and intersectional theory—the authors interrogate the policing of Black bodies by various institutions in America through the lens of the criminal justice system. Specifically, the authors assert that intersectionality is a theoretical paradigm that exposes how several systems within the United States coalesce to create power that produces both privilege and oppression. Further, they demonstrate how color-blind racism is used as a mechanism to diminish the existence of actual racism, thus creating an environment for racist practices to go on unrecognized. As such, these authors provide an in-depth examination of the various mechanisms of formal and informal social control that contributes to the ways in which African American bodies are viewed and treated in America. Central to their argument, they suggest that America is stratified in a manner that disadvantages African Americans.
The authors structure the book to demonstrate how Black bodies have been policed historically through practices such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, and lynchings. Additionally, they assert that these historical practices are consequential for the contemporaneous experiences of many African Americans. In other words, because of the legacy of oppression and discrimination endured by African Americans, they have not been able to break trends that have caused them to lag behind their White counterparts in many areas of life, such as employment and schooling opportunities. In fact, the authors suggest that the very mechanisms that have constrained much of African Americans’ success have also catapulted them to the forefront of the criminal justice system.
Hattery and Smith highlight policies and practices—for example, the “War on Drugs” which targeted and criminalized African Americans for minor drug possession—that have had disparate impacts on communities of color. The authors also emphasize the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of Black students and the collateral consequences for their future life opportunities. This uneven administration of control and surveillance subsequently establishes pathways that propel many Blacks, particularly men, into the criminal justice system. Once in the criminal justice system, a number of factors can ensnare Blacks and exacerbate the disadvantages caused by incarceration. For example, poverty inhibits Blacks in the criminal justice system from escaping by increasing their inability to pay legal fees/fines and/or procure a competent lawyer.
Certainly, the entanglement in the criminal justice system has a direct effect on the individual, but it also has implications for the individual’s family and community. As such, the authors provide discussions about the consequential effects of incarceration for the individual, family, and community. While incarcerated, many parents are unable to provide for their families, which can lead to their children being funneled into the foster care system. Once in the foster care system, Black children are more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system themselves because of the instability and negative coping mechanisms due to the loss of a parent. Parents who are fortunate enough to be released from prison continue to be policed by often being unable to regain custody of their children after their release. Unfortunately, these are not the only challenges incarcerated individuals face after release. Even after release, Blacks continue to be policed through the deliberate loss of many privileges, such as legitimate job opportunities, welfare benefits, and the right to vote. According to the authors, the lack of these privileges leaves Blacks even more vulnerable to greater surveillance and thus, rearrest.
Hattery and Smith also spend time discussing all of the implications of being involved with the criminal justice system which is often overlooked. To situate their analysis, the authors advance a theory of intersectionality to highlight the broad ways systems come together to disadvantage Blacks. Although much of the focus of the book is on race, the authors assess how additional characteristics such as age and gender interact with race in order to further disadvantage an individual. To this extent, the authors spend a considerable amount of time focusing on young Black men in the system because of their disproportionate representation. And, despite the aim of their book, Hattery and Smith do provide a fair assessment of the experiences of other demographic groups within the criminal justice system. For example, the authors provide a balanced discussion of how Black juveniles, women, and transsexuals are policed.
Throughout the book, several themes emerge. The first major theme is that there are structural mechanisms at play that systematically disadvantage Blacks in America. Second, these disadvantages place Blacks in a position to be policed more closely. Next, the authors suggest the policing of Black bodies comes in a variety of forms— notably, urban riots and protest, mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, the prison–industrial complex, the policing of Black women’s and transsexual’s bodies, the police killings of unarmed Black men, and exonerations. Finally, the author’s assert that policing of this magnitude is detrimental to the individual, the individual’s family, and the individual’s community.
The book concludes by reinforcing the main themes of intersectional theory and color-blind racism, such as the targeting and harassment of Black men by the criminal justice system due to unjust policies and practices. Additionally, the authors provide a brief discussion of recommendations moving forward. Hattery and Smith, for example, suggest dismantling the structure that continues to disadvantage Blacks. Furthermore, they suggest that we should render the term color-blind useless and instead focus on the ways in which race continues to drive status and structure in America. In all, Policing Black Bodies sheds light on how the criminal justice system is a well-oiled machine that was built and will continue to “thrive” on the backs of African Americans unless major changes are made to the ways in which we view and police Black bodies.
The book is well organized and the chapter labels provide clarity on exactly what will be discussed. This format makes the book easy to follow, read, and understand. Additionally, Policing Black Bodies has several unique contributions. First, the authors use theoretical and empirical work to frame, support, and evaluate their argument that Black bodies are disproportionately and unfairly policed. Next, the authors situate the problems that Blacks have experienced in the criminal justice system within a broader racialized context. Thus, the work sheds greater light on how society is structured and the ways in which this structure can negatively and disproportionately affect African Americans.
The authors also employ a mixed-method approach to advance their arguments. The combination of quantitative statistics that illuminate who is being most affected by the criminal justice system with qualitative evidence that demonstrates the experiences of people who have come into contact with the criminal justice system provides a thorough explication and assessment of how control and surveillance is visited upon people of color. This nuanced discussion highlighted by personal accounts produces an easy, enjoyable read.
While the authors do conclude with policy recommendations, these recommendations receive very little attention in comparison to the claims made and the effects of those claims. The authors could devote more time addressing ways to in which some of these structural conditions that disproportionally affect African Americans can be dismantled. While I recognize it is a challenging and discouraging task, a more in-depth discussion of relevant policy recommendations is warranted.
The major takeaway(s) from this book is that, although a major contributing factor, the criminal justice system is not the only form of control and surveillance imposed on African Americans, particularly young, Black males. There are structural barriers in place that prevent many African Americans from achieving the same level of success as their White counterparts. This work is multidisciplinary and contributes to several fields, including sociology, criminal justice, Africana studies, and gender studies. It is a comprehensive read that challenges the ways in which we view America, a society that is supposed to be free and equal to all but has not always lived up that creed. In sum, Policing Black Bodies highlights the knife’s edge that African Americans are forced to balance upon and how even the slightest involvement with the criminal justice system has far-reaching implications for numerous outcomes throughout the life course.