Law enforcement functions largely to protect property, of which the rich have a lot, and of which the poor have very little; and therefore the rich, whose needs are largely satisfied, against the poor, whose needs are not. It is why you see a disproportionately large police presence in wealthy communities. And it is why you so rarely see police in poor communities and then mostly when something awful has happened.
I will never forget that day I was walking down Jones Street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and observed a San Francisco Police Department cruiser cruising down the center lane (it’s a one way street there with three lanes) with a small U.S. flag flying from an antenna. Inside were two officers, their gaze fixed firmly forward, even as all the usual shit was happening on the streets around them.
I also notice the stark discrepancy between how often I have been stopped on pretext in older model vehicles that made me look poor and how often I am pulled over now that I drive newer vehicles, vehicles that I keep scrupulously washed and waxed and that make me look middle class. In one case, as I was traversing Campbell, California, on the way to a friend’s house, a cop lied—yes lied—about a taillight being out. In another, when I was approaching the hotel for a Saybrook University residential conference in my Ph.D. program, he lied even about what year it was. I am almost never pulled over today; it’s been most of two decades since I was last cited for a moving violation.
If I sometimes seem unduly focused on appearing reasonably well off, it is not simply because I crave creature comfort. It is also because I am afraid. I fear police contact because I know who has the power in that relationship and I know, all too well, the limits of my ability to defend myself against that power. I know the high price of being poor.
Given the correlation between whiteness and wealth, a correlation explained in significant part by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the power relationship between wealth and poverty that, even as a white, I myself have experienced in multiple forms, the police function is thus inherently white and wealth supremacist. Which is seen in whom the police suspect, whom the police investigate, whom district attorneys charge, whom they try, whom the courts convict, and whom judges sentence how severely. It is seen in the alarming discrepancy between that disproportionate emphasis on the poor and people of color from how even more serious—in terms of injuries, deaths, and property damage—transgressions of the rich and powerful are handled, which we can attribute in significant part to the gender, race, and class of those who enact the law.
So of course the Federal Bureau of Investigation cares little about white nationalism. Yes, there are all these other explanations, including that “[w]e, the FBI, don’t investigate ideology, no matter how repugnant,” but the problem lies in the very DNA of criminal injustice.
- Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).↩
- Melvin L. Oliver and Thomas M. Shapiro, “Black Wealth/White Wealth,” in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 251-263; Marta Tienda and Haya Stier, “The Wages of Race: Color and Employment Opportunity in Chicago’s Inner City,” in in Great Divides: Readings in Social Inequality in the United States, ed. Thomas M. Shapiro, 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2005), 224-234.↩
- Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” Atlantic, June 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/06/the-case-for-reparations/361631/↩
- Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004).↩
- Devlin Barrett, “FBI faces skepticism over its efforts against domestic terrorism,” Washington Post, August 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/fbi-faces-skepticism-over-its-anti-domestic-terror-efforts/2019/08/04/c9c928bc-b6e0-11e9-b3b4-2bb69e8c4e39_story.html↩
- Christopher Wray, quoted in Devlin Barrett, “FBI faces skepticism over its efforts against domestic terrorism,” Washington Post, August 5, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/fbi-faces-skepticism-over-its-anti-domestic-terror-efforts/2019/08/04/c9c928bc-b6e0-11e9-b3b4-2bb69e8c4e39_story.html↩