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Law Enforcement as White Inheritance


 Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday talked about the “Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” when speaking to law enforcement officials.

Speaking to the National Sheriffs’ Association, Sessions said he wanted to “thank every sheriff in America.”

“Since our founding, the independently elected sheriff has been the people’s protector, who keeps law enforcement close to and accountable to people through the elected process,” he said, according to CNN.

“The office of sheriff is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement.”

Sessions added that “we must never erode this historical office.”

On the one hand, this really isn’t surprising. To paraphrase Dennis Green, Jeff Sessions is who we thought he is — a racist neo-Confederate with appalling views on pretty much everything. More generally, the idea that law enforcement is the province of good white people has been a subtext of varying volume undergirding the ideology of the right for years. As has its obverse: the idea that those who are ruining/imperiling America are bad nonwhite people. The centrality of these intertwined ideas to right-wing ideology is obvious in the era of Black Lives Matter, but it really stretches back much further than that: at least to the 1960s, when police organizations like the Fraternal Order of Police were endorsing explicit white supremacists like George Wallace for high office and railing against the “anarchy” of black urbanites. For men like Jeff Sessions and others who believe in the notion of the police as the “thin blue line” between “civilization” and “anarchy” (as the term was originally deployed in the 1950s), the very notions of civilization and anarchy are color-coded. So the police, as defenders of “civilization,” are color-coded, too.

At the same time, regarding the whole “Anglo-American heritage thing,” I think Melanie Newport, a fantastic scholar of jails, bail, and other criminal justice policy issues at UConn, is also correct here:

It makes sense to me that Sessions thinks of the sheriff (and other law enforcement) as being part of a historical criminal justice continuum that stretches back to pre-Revolutionary British colonial America. Indeed, to the extent that the majority of Americans know anything at all about the history of policing in this country, they likely think that its lineage flows from our roots as a British colony that imported British law enforcement traditions.

The reality is that American police forces actually have very specific roots as organizations of repression — roots that usually correlated with specific local issues that elites wanted addressed. Numerous scholars have suggested that southern policing originated with slave patrols in the 1700 and 1800s. And police forces in northern cities like Chicago (the city that I research and write about) were founded (and financed largely by private capital) during the 1800s to crack down on labor radicalism and control the nominal immorality of immigrant populations. (See Sam Mitrani’s book for more on this.)

So the upshot is that Jeff Sessions’ comment today is probably best explained by a combination of two factors: 1) he’s racist, and 2) he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, historically speaking.

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