Book Review: The Black Police: Policing Our Own
L. Song Richardson and Devon W. Carbado, Book Review: The Black Police: Policing Our Own, 131 Harv. L. Rev. 1979 (2018).
The problem of police violence against African Americans is a salient feature of nationwide discussions about race. Separate from whether racialized policing against African Americans is, in fact, a social phenomenon, is the contestable question about solutions: Assuming that African Americans are indeed the victims of overpolicing, what can we do about it? The answers range from abolishing police officers altogether, to training them, to diversifying police departments. We focus on the diversification of police departments in this essay. Drawing on empirical, historical, and theoretical literatures, we examine how, if at all, black police officers’ race might shape how they police other African Americans. Our point of departure is a review of James Foreman’s Locking up Our Own, a book that is fundamentally about how, if at all, African American identity shapes how black people govern—as city officials, mayors, prosecutors, and police officers.
Fundamental to our analysis of black police officers is a Du Boisian conceptualization of race and professional identity — namely, that African American police officers have to negotiate and reconcile two historically distinct strivings — the strivings to be “blue” and the strivings to be “black” — in one “dark body.” As we explain, how they perform that negotiation and reconciliation is not simply a matter of individual choice, individual agency, and individual commitment. Structural factors are at play as well, in much the same way that structural factors shaped, though certainly did not fully determine, how the black leaders James Forman describes in Locking Up Our Own mobilized various dimensions of the criminal justice apparatus to address the proliferation of crime and drug usage in African American communities. In this essay, we show that the very factors — including Fourth Amendment law, explicit and implicit biases, and racial anxiety — that explain why white police officers might systematically overpolice and deploy violence against African Americans arguably implicate black police officers as well. Moreover, the pressures black police officers likely experience to fit into their departments potentially compound the problem. We conclude by suggesting that just as the pursuit of diversity in the context of higher education has not eradicated the racial dimensions of educational inequality, the pursuit of diversity in the context of policing will not, without more, fundamentally change how African Americans experience the police.