Review of Sidney L. Harring, Policing a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865–1915, second edition (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017) (Part Three) — Stuart Schrader

Contemporary Debates

Thus, the debates that Harring entered had basically concluded by the time the book came out. Harring originally situated his critical history of policing in the shared context of Watergate and the US war in Vietnam, as well as the “law and order” aftermath of the rebellions of the 1960s. In his new introduction, he points out that he was also inspired by the massive expenditures for the “war on crime” by the LEAA, which gave the bulk of its billions of dollars in federal assistance to police forces. (Harring’s title referred to a prominent, though now forgotten, 1977 book about the democratic imperative of police reform called Policing a Free Society, by Herman Goldstein, which was partly funded by the LEAA.) With the end of the 1970s and the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, however, that agency would be shuttered and eventually replaced by new initiatives. Increasingly, resources were dedicated to securing determinate prison sentences for those charged with crimes, not simply to facilitating arrests by police. Meanwhile, a pendulum shift within LEAA expenditures toward prisons had already begun, and, as scholars like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Elizabeth Hinton, and Naomi Murakawa have recently shown, the foundations for mass incarceration were laid. In addition to those works, new historical scholarship on US policing is beginning to emerge today. In general, this work focuses on shifts in the police institution itself or on the relationship of policing and racism.

Other vibrant work on policing over the past decade has emerged among a cluster of scholars working in dialogue with Critical Legal Studies under a set of labels: new police science, anti-security, and pacification theory (or, as I prefer, critique of pacification). Although Marxist theorists, including Poulantzas, are important among these thinkers, so too are Foucault, Weber, Norbert Elias, and others. In general, these scholars exhibit openness to a range of critical approaches. Counted among the key authors are Mark Neocleous, George Rigakos, and Tyler Wall. For Neocleous, the relationship between policing and capitalism is found in the form of order that police “fabricate”: it is a specifically capitalist form of order, marked by private property and wage labor, anterior to shop-floor disputes or strike actions. With this simple but generative analytic move, Neocleous shows that many of the distinctions at the heart of disagreements between Harring and his liberal reviewers were false: there was only one kind of order to be maintained. And, importantly, the answers to the “how” and “why” questions of policing are one and the same. The control of drunkenness and working-class recreation that Harring analyzed was at the core of the type of behavioral modification for purposes of fabricating social order that the pacification analytic centers. Moreover, what Harring intuited, namely that political policing and everyday policing were linked, needs to be at the core of any critique of policing. For Neocleous, there is no non-political policing because the social order that police aspire to enshrine and protect is class-differentiated. Still, the mechanics of this linkage remain imperfectly understood and difficult to research.

With the pacification analytic, Neocleous and others have been able to link the long history of the police power and the institution of the police to the rise of capitalism, empire and colonialism, and war and counterinsurgency. Rather than treating these as distinct domains of research, such work attempts to link them. As theory, it often blows my mind. But as history, the connections drawn across time and space can sometimes feel tenuous and forced. Still, the question remains: if Harring basically prefigured some of this robust, sophisticated, and wide-ranging analysis, how far has the analysis of policing actually advanced since the late 1970s? And a corollary question would be: how unique is the case of the United States, then and now?

Looking for Race

Neocleous and his collaborators would never dismiss the importance of race and racism, but the specificity of the United States is not a key focus of their approach. What is useful about this outlook is how it allows us to see continuities and mutual conditioning between, for instance, migration control in Europe and the United States, or pacification in Africa by French colonial forces and Latin America by US-trained forces. But it has limits. As noted, Harring did not engage with theories derived from the European Marxist context, but what is peculiar is that the unique features of US political development–its history of settler racial genocide, racial slavery, racial segregation, racial liberalism, and racial revanchism–also did not shape his account.

Harring’s new introduction admits the importance of racism, ostensibly undeniable in the Black Lives Matter era. And he now regrets overlooking it. His justification is that Black people were not numerous enough in this period to be a central part of the story. He argues, of Milwaukee, Chicago, and Buffalo, that “[w]hile racism clearly was an issue in these northern cities after 1865, it didn’t emerge as a critical issue in structuring urban policing at that time. It was several decades later that the massive Black migration to the North, creating large Black communities in each of these cities, began with the labor demands of the First World War, pushed by southern racism and Jim Crow laws.” Now, even if there were no Black people in these cities–which was, of course, not true–that does not mean race was absent, or that it didn’t structure policing. According to W. Marvin Dulaney, Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Detroit all had Black police officers already by 1872, 1975, and 1890, respectively. The only way to explain the advent of Black police officers is through reference to racism. If the presence of Black officers could not mitigate white officers’ bigotry, nor confer legitimacy on the police force among Black people, then city leaders hoped it could at least distract from racial inequality, while offering a modest reward from the political machine for Black votes.

A different answer to the empirical question of the presence of Black people in these cities, though, would not have modified Harring’s framework. He recognized race (or ethnicity or religion) to be “intermingled” with class, but his analysis still required a separation between the two. Harring concluded the book by observing, in reference to the 1980s, that “complaints” about police activity by Black people, “who constitute a large segment of the unskilled working class, roughly parallel those of the immigrants of the 1880s” (257). To make sense of recent complaints of Black people about unfair and violent policing, it was necessary to compare them to similar complaints a century ago, which did not issue from a racialized group but from a class group. What bothers me about this relatively modest claim is the implication that race is a fixed substance, not a political relation. Race could be layered upon the foundational substrate of class but never displace it. Class, in turn, could exist without race. The two could then be compared. This sort of analogizing leads to analytic confusion.

Harring seems to believe that race is an immutable property that precedes racism. Yet on my reading, much of what he considered class identification and the process of class management, to use Monkkonen’s term, was racial. I would reverse the dictum Stuart Hall first developed in Policing the Crisis: in the historical situation of policing a class society 140 years ago, class was the medium through which race was lived. Such thinking could undermine the specificity of racism as an analytic frame, but the benefit of collapsing other fetishized forms of social distinction into race would be to show the constant work that went into producing and reproducing race, and its voracious adhesiveness to emergent social and cultural elements in a rapidly changing industrial order. The science of studying and predicting crime was crucial.

Police and criminologists must be at the center of the history of race-making because the stabilization of racial demarcations relied on crime statistics, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad shows in his magnificent 2010 The Condemnation of Blackness (about northern cities in the period Harring analyzes). The statistical corralling of white ethnic minority groups for purposes of measuring crime incidence, and thus generating racial distinction from Blackness, depended on the drawing of novel, arbitrary lines of inclusion and promotion of redress within them. The purported criminal propensity of Irish, Italian, or other immigrant groups would be erased as they became white, in contrast to that of Black people. Newly whitened, the socially abject in immigrant communities demanded remediation, for their whitening process evidenced susceptibility to social uplift. In contrast, the equation of Blackness and criminality signaled imperviousness to uplift and the heritability of criminal propensity. Its echoes remain audible today. It is impossible to understand this process, and more importantly to resist it, if race remains a fixed, discrete substance in one’s analysis. Instead, race-making has to be understood as a relational process. Although a relational and process-based way of thinking is not the exclusive property of Marxism, it is one of the most important aspects of a Marxian epistemology.

Moreover, this mode of analysis could help to explain why class and race continue to intermingle even as the political economy of their intermingling has shifted. Where the production of a ready industrial labor force was once a goal of policing a class society, today the management of structurally surplus populations is key. In the context of a discussion of policing, therefore, it is useful to take note of racialization as ongoing. Doing so helps us understand how shifts in political economy, and related shifts in the institution of the police, both shift and hold constant the relationship of racism and policing in the United States. Without this sort of analytic flexibility, even for antiracist purposes, reference to a fixed and essential racial substance, which is also at the core of racist discourse, substitutes for explanation. At times, even with his emphasis on class struggle, class begins to take on the same leaden fixity in Harring’s account, such as in descriptions of what the “working class” thought or desired. Further, Harring seems to validate some of the very distinctions his historical actors made between a more virtuous working class and a criminally predisposed “lumpenproletariat” trying to suck workers into its ranks. These were distinctions through which race was made.

The problem with such substantialist understandings of class, which transform it into an ontology, is that they ultimately interfere with explaining the shifting role of police within a changing complex of state, political-economic, and geopolitical formations. As Harring showed, some corrupt police forces were being replaced by more professionalized ones already by the time of the First World War. The first era of professionalization peaked in the next decade, as renovated institutions and new luminaries of policing emerged, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and International Association of Chiefs of Police, J. Edgar Hoover and August Vollmer. By the next postwar moment, the urgency to professionalize policing intensified. Superpower confrontation now structured the world situation–and the one was winning adherents around the globe through reference to the other’s brutal, racist police forces. This movement was concluding by the time Harring wrote his book. He even made positive references to a text by George L. Kelling (of “Broken Windows” fame) that was foundational to the repudiation of the professionalization movement, because, like Kelling, he disapproved of the Taylorization of policing. Future histories of policing since the 1970s will surely evaluate this disapproval differently. That class critique may not hold.

Beyond putting racism at the center, histories of recent decades will have to contend, as Harring did, with limitations of available archival records. To apply Harring’s approach rigorously could be fruitful, but it would require recognition that class struggle looks a lot different today. Chiefs’ annual reports no longer tout their success in controlling strikes. If Harring’s book showed how integral police once were to capital accumulation, then a book about the present, sympathetic to his approach, would have deal with dramatic transformations in how accumulation occurs today. Yes, there are still exploited workers, and cities are still enacting analogs to the “tramp laws” instituted over a century ago. But labor’s strength is paltry, in part due to repression dating all the way back to the period Harring studied. Secular increases in labor surpluses mark the present. The role of cops today is not what it once was. And cops’ political power is very different as well. As Harring, to his credit, concluded, radical critiques must also shift.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Tony Platt, Umut Özsu, and Jenna Loyd for assistance, as well as to students in my History of Policing class, who engaged with Policing a Class Society and helped me clarify my own thinking on this book.

Stuart Schrader is a Fellow in Crime and Punishment at the Charles Warren Center for Studies in American History at Harvard University and the author of a forthcoming book from University of California Press on the relationship between US counterinsurgency efforts overseas and domestic policing during the Cold War.