Kenneth H. Kolb
First published: 07 June 2022
Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change (Updated Edition) By Hattery, Angela J. and Smith, Earl ( Rowman and Littlefield, 2021)
In the updated edition of Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change, authors Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith offer both substantive and theoretical contributions to their 2018 original.
In the first edition, the authors survey the racialized dimensions of the criminal justice in America. As to be expected, the new edition includes fresh examples from the tumultuous summer of 2020, when protests against police violence raged across the country. However, the updated edition adds more than just new data. It places a greater emphasis on trans bodies and introduces a new area of inquiry— Black athletes—that adds more depth and analytic rigor to their argument. These new additions allow Hattery and Smith to expand and refine the theoretical underpinnings of their most impressive contribution from the prior edition: the concept of “policing,” in both its material and ideological forms, as a purportedly “color-blind” tool of oppression.
Like the original edition, Hattery and Smith walk the reader through the various ways the American legal system restricts and constrains Black people. From the days of outright slavery to the Jim Crow era to the Civil Rights victories that followed, the authors show in painstaking detail how outlawing de jure racism in this country only enabled a more insidious and “color-blind” de facto version to take its place. The most glaring example being the Nixon administration’s declaration of a “War on Drugs,” which the authors cite throughout the book as the primary culprit for the disproportionate imprisonment of Black men in the United States today. Once set in motion, this so called “war” led to harsher prison sentences, increased police funding, and the growth of the “prison-industrial complex.”
In the updated edition, we learn how the “policing” of trans bodies has followed a similar path. Trans bodies face constant observation, enforcement, confinement, and restriction. Take, for example, the stiff resistance trans individuals face when they are processed by police stations, jails, and prisons. These entities are ill equipped to handle anything non-binary. Like other institutions (e.g., medicine, education), the legal system operates as a sorting mechanism: those with male genitalia are sent to one building, female genitalia to another. No matter how loudly trans inmates plead for accommodation, wardens and guards use their own criteria to assign and define “difficult” bodies.
The inclusion of Black athletes in this edition also adds relevant and new data to the study of policing as a tool of oppression. Unsurprisingly, the authors’ review the treatment of Colin Kaepernick, a clear-cut case of how engaging in the symbolic act of taking a knee to protest police brutality led to his “color-blind” banishment from the National Football League. Yet, as an analytic device, Kaepernick presents almost too easy of a case. He is a “perfect victim,” both innocent and blameless. For a concept like “policing” to have a lasting scholarly impact, it must withstand the test of more nuanced and complex scenarios. The authors subtly acknowledge this, and consequently take on a much greater challenge: the treatment of O.J. Simpson.
In 1995, O.J. Simpson—a Black man and former star athlete—was found innocent of the charges that he murdered his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ron Goldman (both white). The question of Simpson’s guilt or innocence has long been a heated topic of debate in the United States, and public opinion regarding the verdict is still divided along racial lines. A later civil case found Simpson responsible for the deaths, but he has avoided paying the bulk of his required penalty.
Simpson’s case is not as cut and dry as Kaepernick’s. Even those who believe he was criminally guilty of murder need not look far into America’s past to find other examples of other Black men unjustly convicted of harming white women. Of those still convinced of Simpson’s guilt, perhaps they can acknowledge some irregularities in the 33-year prison sentence Simpson received in 2007 on unrelated charges (when found guilty of breaking into a hotel room, threatening violence, and taking memorabilia items). Such a hefty sentence, delivered to a person without a criminal record (because of his 1995 acquittal), should invite questions as to how the legal system treated Simpson. As Hattery and Smith argue, to understand the ways Simpson was “policed” before and after both of his criminal trials, we need to look beyond the facts and evidence presented in court.
For decades, Simpson had successfully navigated white spaces; his wealth and fame enabled him to clear racial hurdles that other Black men could not. He had seemingly broken through boundaries of both race and class, and for these transgressions he paid a price. Even though the criminal justice system failed to convict him in 1995, the severity of his punishment in his 2007 trial serves as an example of how he was “overpoliced” to make up for lost time.
The inclusion of Simpson’s case in the updated edition of Policing Black Bodies will challenge readers. It stirs up old debates over the relative salience of gender and race in America and puts the intersectionalist perspective adopted throughout the book to the test. How would the debate over Simpson’s guilt or innocence have been different if he had been white, or his victim Black? While we cannot know for sure, we can look for answers in the way the criminal justice system treats Black bodies and trans bodies. As Hattery and Smith demonstrate in painstaking detail, the concept of policing offers a powerful theoretical device to unpack the ways all our institutions maintain systems of inequality. From this updated edition, we learn how policing Black and trans bodies can take both material and ideological forms, how it can include incarceration as well as social ostracism, and how it applies to both perfect victims (innocent and blameless) and those whose cases are not so cut and dry.
- Kenneth H. Kolb is Professor and Chair of the Sociology Department at Furman University. He is the author of Moral Wages: The Emotional Dilemmas of Victim Advocacy and Counseling (2014) and Retail Inequality: Reframing the Food Desert Debate (2022), both published by the University of California Press.