In the Journals

In the Journals – Policing and Discrimination

George Floyd protest signs at the Ottawa Courthouse by Janderson L. via wikimedia

Welcome back to In the Journals! This ongoing series aims to bridge conversations that are often siloed by discipline, geographical region, language, and race. One of our goals is to make sure that the diverse voices currently reporting their research on policing, crime, law, security, and punishment are presented here. We are continuing our catch-up to develop article collections around different questions and themes. This post brings together article from throughout 2019 and 2020 to identify experiences and impacts of police discrimination, as well as to understand police socialization and training which instills discriminatory and racialized biases in practice.

In “The Jungle Academy: Molding White Supremacy in American Police Recruits,” included in American Anthropologist’s March 2020 issue, Aisha M. Beliso-De Jesús uses ethnography in a police academy to argue that through militaristic training, officers mold recruits by inciting fear and teaching racist jungle metaphors of the streets and citizens they are patrolling, even in cultural diversity training. The training sculpts impressionable recruits to be uniform in action and mentality, forcing them to naturalize the jungle logic depiction of ghettos as urban jungles, and their inhabitants as animals, as well as the biases that logic entails. Beliso-De Jesús argues that these logics dehumanize and other Black, Indigenous, and people of colour while reinforcing narratives of white supremacy, and that their use is crucial in the creation of a “jungle academy” which reshapes young citizens into police officers that embody and maintain the white governance and supremacy of the state through racialized state violence. Beliso-De Jesús identifies the training program as idolizing and cultivating in every way possible the large and athletic white man who is docile yet commands respect, militant, and has an alpha male mentality, and operates on the basis of fear, control and submission when policing. This image and the article produce a clear understanding of the way in which the training of police officers creates racial discrimination and biases that uphold white superiority and non-white inferiority, and why donning a police uniform both allows and causes officers to act on that training.

Criminology and Criminal Justice included Mie Birk Haller et al.’s article, “Minor harassments: Ethnic minority youth in the Nordic countries and their perceptions of the police” in their February 2020 issue, which utilizes semi-structured interviews with ethnic minority youth in Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark, to understand their experiences with police. Haller et al. identify subtle provocations and intimidations by police on ethnic minority youth, arguing that these constant interactions negatively impact their experiences of procedural justice, as well as their compliance with law enforcement. Interviewees indicated that police attitudes were often negative when dealing with them, and police language was often discriminatory and patronizing, making them feel inferior, insecure and scared, and decreasing their trust in police. The authors argue that this racialization of ethnic minorities not only upholds existing discrimination and instills feelings of inadequacy, inferiority, discomfort, humiliation and lack of belonging amongst youth, but has also led to a lack of desire and willingness to comply with law enforcement, a distrust in police desire and ability to protect and keep them safe, and has encouraged them to engage in criminal activities and self-protective behaviour.

In April 2020, Transforming Anthropology published an article entitled, “Contentious Bodies: The Place, Race, and Gender of Victimhood in Colombia” by Dani R. Merriman. In this article, Merriman explores ethnographic accounts of police discrimination of Afro-Colombian rural farmers in María la Baja over sixty years of war and interspersed peacetime, but also how individuals use what she deems “contentious bodies” to resist state attempts at labelling them violent guerilla combatants. With violence of guerilla groups in the early 1960s claiming to be the voice of the landless peasant, Merriman identifies black farmers in María la Baja as being used as reasoning for insurgent movements claiming to protect them, yet also experiencing unprovoked, violent and torture-based killing by those same groups seeking to dehumanize and other them. Not only have black farmers experienced decades of violence because of guerillas claiming to act on their behalf, they have also been targets of racialization, police discrimination and state labelling of them as violent and guerillas. With no viable recourse or proof that they were not guerillas, black famers staved off police discrimination and racialization by using their contentious bodies, calloused and broken from farm work and not insurgent activity, to prove their innocence and victimization, not perpetration.

May 2020’s issue of BMC International Health and Human Rights included the article, “‘An ethnographic exploration of factors that drive policing of street-based female sex workers in a U.S. setting – identifying opportunities for intervention” by Katherine H. A. Footer et al. Using ethnography mixed with police observation and interviews involving 64 officers, Footer et al. identify factors at the individual, community, structural and organizational levels as key to shaping the harmful behaviour and practices of police officers towards cisgender female sex workers. They argue that police behaviour reinforces stigmatization and spatial limitations of sex workers while honouring community demands to police sex work, particularly in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Proximity to violent crime led to arrests of female sex workers as police searched for information, and community opposition to sex work caused the forced displacement of female sex workers to more marginalized areas with less complaints, policing and patrolling, even when it risked the health and safety of the sex workers. Officers used dehumanizing language to depict female sex workers, and painted an image of them as unworthy of police protection despite their acknowledged vulnerability to crime and assault. Footer et al. call for the decriminalization of sex work, policy reforms regarding police practices, as well as a shift in community and police cultural landscapes to improve the safety and health of female sex workers.

Northwestern University Law Review published I. India Thusi’s “On Beauty and Policing” in March 2020, identifying the impact of police officers’ perceptions of beauty on their policing of different classes of sex workers in Johannesburg, South Africa. Through ethnographic fieldwork, Thusi identifies that police officers’ perceptions and policing of sex workers produces and reinforces a hierarchy of desirable and valuable bodies and preserves racial and gender subordination. Thusi asks critical questions regarding who the police are protecting and serving, as their intended function identifies, when they are not only neglecting but also harming the lives of already vulnerable and marginalized black female sex workers in their choices to surveil and protect white sex workers perceived as beautiful. Not only does the study indicate that blacker bodies are under-policed for protection reasons, it also identifies the police as more aggressive in those interactions than with whiter bodies. Their actions reinforce the white supremacy and black inferiority ideologies on which South Africa was previously based, as well as who is worthy and important to society based on perceived beauty by police officers. Police are not protecting and serving vulnerable communities and populations, Thusi argues, they are protecting and preserving society’s biases by perpetuating them through their actions.

In May 2019, Jaime Amparo Alves’s article on discriminatory policing practices and resistance strategies in Colombia, “Refusing to Be Governed: Urban Policing, Gang Violence, and the Politics of Evilness in an Afro-Colombian Shantytown,” was featured in the Political and Legal Anthropology Review. Alves argues that policing in El Guayacán, Colombia is Foucauldian in its governing nature, as it enforces boundaries of space based on race through the targeting of black bodies and places, which both allows a spatial solution for national crime and security anxieties, and justifies a lack of governance, state divestment, social abandonment, and police aggression within those spaces. Based on fieldwork in El Guayacán from 2013 to 2018, Alves identifies the discourse utilized by police officers to depict black bodies as unruly and insecure, and black livelihoods as uncivilized and violence-ridden, causing what he terms ‘social death’, creating spatial limitations, and justifying a lack of state involvement. Despite this combination functioning to give “spatial form to racist imaginaries of crime and order,” Alves indicates a simultaneous regaining of control and territorial autonomy of El Guayacán by residents (and largely gangs) as a result of that very lack of state governance in the area, as he seeks to understand their engagement with the state and a possibility for reinventing black life outside of it.

Rune Steenberg and Alessandro Rippa’s article, “Development for all? State schemes, security, and marginalization in Kashgar, Xinjiang,” published in Critical Asian Studies in February 2019 uses ethnography to identify reactions and strategies of Uyghurs to increased and discriminatory policing and securitization by the PRC. Steenberg and Rippa’s article is based on research spanning 2009 to 2017, and focuses on the modernist, state-driven and economic growth-focused development between 2010 and 2014, which created wealth and income disparities and incited Uyghur-led violence often labelled acts of terror, and the subsequent development of increased policing and surveillance of Uyghurs, and securitization of Kashgar. The repressive security measures taken by the state and implemented by police led to detainment in “re-education” centers, with the state presence in Uyghur lives ever-increasing and entirely controlling, cutting off outside contact by late 2017. Steenberg and Rippa identify the use of state presence and surveillance through police officers to repress and marginalize Uyghurs in Kashgar, and they argue that the roots of this discrimination are based in China’s economic development and policy, which created wealth and social disparities and incited the violence.

As always, we welcome your feedback. If you have any suggestions for journals we should be keeping tabs on for this feature, or if you want to call our attention to a specific issue or article, send an email to with the words “In the Journals” in the subject line.