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Gendering Police Repression

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On Monday I noted that the African American Intellectual History Society is hosting a week-long roundtable on my book.

I forgot to post a link to yesterday’s contribution, so here it is. It’s written by Anne Gray Fischer, who teaches at UT-Dallas and has a book forthcoming on the same press and series as mine that will go a long ways toward showing how the intersections of race and gender have shaped American policing.

Gender analysis is one of the things my book doesn’t do. I know that and say as much in the introduction. I’m glad to have Fischer here help to fill us all in on why we need to look at gender as well as race in understanding this history.

Balto and I both rewind to the 1920s because this period reveals the preconditions for mass incarceration, which were rooted in nascent policies to contain and corrode Black neighborhoods. Chapter One highlights the complicity of police and politicians in producing a racist Prohibition-era geography of vice that transformed Black neighborhoods into zones of “‘immunity’” for Chicago’s underworld (39). This Prohibition-era policy, Balto notes in his moving Prologue, was modeled on an earlier twentieth-century program: the relocation of red-light districts to racially mixed and, later, rigidly segregated Black neighborhoods. When our perspective shifts from men in traditionally male forms of vice (e.g., liquor or gambling) and centers sexually profiled women, this moment — the relocation of red-light districts and their afterlife in Black neighborhoods — becomes a key turning point. The sexual policing of women emerges as a crucial driver of the intertwined developments of racial segregation, gender construction, and modern police practices.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the downtown fixture of red-light districts served an important political function: the graft they generated funded election campaigns and sealed political loyalties. Against this backdrop, a tidal wave of moral reformism crested in cities to abolish “white slavery,” which reformers saw as a grave threat to civic and domestic purity. This campaign wore its racial priorities on its face. It was a project to reclaim white women who, as the standard narrative went, had been sexually exploited by predatory men of color. The moral reclamation of white womanhood (and, by extension, the white city) required the shutdown of red-light districts. Police and politicians could not quell this massive reform drive, but they were loath to relinquish their lucrative source of shared pay-offs from red-light districts. As a result, the celebrated “closures” of red-light districts during the Progressive era merely amounted to a relocation of so-called vice districts to communities with the least amount of urban political power: neighborhoods with growing populations of Black refugees from the Jim Crow South. Police deployed their discretionary power to control an urban faucet, allowing the inundation of white men into predominantly Black neighborhoods while selectively targeting white and Black women for morals arrests (or withholding arrest for a price) in vice districts that police helped to erect. By “purifying” white downtown space at the expense of Black neighborhoods, authorities inaugurated the enduring zero-sum police logic of white protection and Black degradation that Balto discusses in Chapter Four on postwar battles for open housing.

This spatial reordering of vice and race was explicitly connected with the establishment of racial segregation in cities outside the Jim Crow South. (In Southern cities, red-light districts historically had been sited in Black neighborhoods; the relocation of red-light districts in cities outside of the South, then, marked a Southernization of policing practices nationwide.) Kevin Mumford and Mara Keire have both noted that the meaning of segregation changed during this period: early twentieth-century “segregated districts” had been synonymous with red-light districts. After the Progressive-era relocation, segregation assumed its racially specific connotation. In this way, race and vice were fused together, a powerful core in what Balto calls the “bedrock of fictions” that justified and produced Black criminalization (45).

The relocation of red-light districts ignited a defining characteristic of law enforcement in the urban U.S., what Joe William Trotter has called the overpolicing and underprotection of Black lives. Police practiced violent neglect by permitting and profiting from vice in Black neighborhoods. This neglect broadcast to the city that Black neighborhoods were sites of sexual deviance and lawlessness, which in turn provoked violent action — aggressive, disproportionate morals policing that was as erratic in these early years as it was brutal. The enduring preoccupation with white female purity heightened Black men and women’s exposure to arrest, while leaving Black women profoundly unprotected from the depredations of white men free to exploit the city’s vice playground.

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