On the Whiteness of the Police

Copyright (c) 1997 by Annalee Newitz. All rights reserved.

I'll begin with a mass market paperback called Cops, by Mark Baker, described in a blurb on the book's cover as "the unforgettable true story of America's police." Baker writes in his introduction: "Here's how it begins for a typical young aspiring cop. A white male from a working-class family, he graduates from high school and serves in the military or spends a couple of years in junior college . . . One day he signs up to take the Civil Service Examination . . . He wants some action as well as a good credit rating. He wants to be Superman with a pension plan. He wants to be a cop." This passage, with its references to the maleness and working-classness of police officers, is typical of mass media representations of the police as hard-working guys who want to be heroes. But the move to particularize police identity as white is a relatively recent phenomenon, which reflects both contemporary media images of whiteness and of the police.

One issue in whiteness studies is the peculiar invisibility of whiteness as a racial category, but looking at the police allows us to talk about one way whiteness does get identified and criticized in the media and public discourse. I discovered in the course of my research for a book I'm writing on police culture that the figure of the police officer, particularly in the past decade, is not only associated with whiteness, but also with an explicit social critique of white power and entitlement. We see this critique finding a voice in the negative publicity surrounding the Rodney King beating, in many local cases involving police brutality, and most famously in the recent OJ Simpson trial, which resulted in detective Mark Fuhrman's conviction for perjury after he claimed under oath that he had never said the word "nigger," when in fact he had done it repeatedly on tape. In addition to these real life incidents involving public execration of racist white police officers, there are any number of fictional representations of police officers who use state-sanctioned force to advance the cause of white privilege rather than legal justice for all. Representations of the police in movies like Bad Lieutenant, which I'll talk more about later, draw our attention to the way whiteness can be portrayed as going hand in hand with the abuse of disempowered individuals.

Current public debates over police roles can therefore be understood in part as debates over whiteness and the roles of whites in maintaining and enforcing social norms. Indeed, police reforms of the past have generally occurred in the context of public outcry over more general abuses from dominant groups in politics and industry. Police historians like Sidney Harring and David Johnson point out that police in urban areas have been quelling strikes and race riots since the 1830s, almost always fighting against organized resistance to the status quo. Because municipal police forces are a concrete representation of state and economic power, their abuses of that power tend to be more visible than subtle forms of abuse. Movements to reform police departments can often be an important step toward changing more pervasive, but less spectacular, social problems. It's easier to cry "brutality" when a white police officer beats a black man than it is to explain what has kept that same black man from making as much money as white women do in his office; however, it's clear these problems stand in relationship to one another. Police reform is therefore linked to general social reforms, but usually police reforms are instituted to remedy extreme examples of everyday abuses.

Police reform movements in the United States right now are focused on promoting anti-racist and non-sexually harassing police forces. This is a significant change from the last great wave of police reform in the United States during the early twentieth century, which was based on the idea of police professionalization: in other words, earlier efforts at police reform were class-based, not race or gender-based. Proponents of police professionalization like August Vollmer, who set up the first Police School right here at UC Berkeley in 1908, helped to make crime fighting the primary task of police officers, thus giving police a moral mission, a sanctified civic role as "good guys" rather than strike breakers or thugs in the political machine. Earlier, and today, police officers still do many things besides fight crime; but with the advent of professionalism police were trained in everything from fingerprinting techniques to photography in order to better acquaint them with the most modern crime detection techniques. The idea that police should go to school to learn their trade, and that they should specialize in certain types of crime such as vice or homicide, are all the result of reforms made in the name of professionalism. Ultimately, with the success of professionalization, police officers were given a respectable class status as workers and experts.

The professional police officer as an ideal is widely accepted in policing circles today, as well as in popular culture. On shows like Cops or Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, we see police officers talking in highly moral and technical language about suspects and crime prevention; and every academic's favorite television series The X-Files features two professional crime fighters, Mulder and Scully, who work for the FBI. As a matter of fact, the FBI as a professional crime-fighting institution is an outgrowth of professionalist police reform in the 1930s.

It is the professional cop, the well-trained crime fighter, who is held up as the ideal against which the brutal, racist white cop is found massively lacking. Reform movements today are therefore still focused on professionalism as an ideal, but professionalism has been redefined to include multiculturalism and gender tolerance among officers. You might therefore say that the "bad cop" we aim to reform is a white guy who is violently racist and sexist, and the "good cop" we hope to make him into is a professional. Interestingly, these terms are somewhat incommensurate. The question is what makes professionalism, a class category, the opposite of white racism and male sexism?

I want to offer an answer by taking a detour through two recent cinematic fables about police reform. In the films Bad Lieutenant (directed by Abel Ferrara) and Robocop (directed by Paul Verhoven), we are treated to allegorical representations of the bad cop and the good cop, both of whom are in the process of constructing--and deconstructing--their own whiteness. Bad Lieutenant, as you might guess, is the tale of a bad cop. His character, played by Harvey Keitel, is never named anything but "bad lieutenant," and his sole purpose in life appears to be breaking the law: he smokes crack, shoots heroin, snorts coke, sexually molests two teenage girls he pulls over for a fix-it ticket, gambles extravagantly, and nearly shoots two innocent black teenagers for supposedly robbing a convenience store. He engages in police brutality repeatedly, uses a number of racial epithets like "nigger," and except for a brief "Catholic guilt" interlude towards the end of the film, his character is represented as an example of how the police officer's badge allows the bad lieutenant to get away with being above the law. He is essentially an unreformable cop.

It's useful to understand this as an allegory about how white skin privilege works. The police uniform, the badge, are like white skin, and the person who wears that skin is allowed to enforce laws which he doesn't himself intend to follow. Indeed, he exploits people who obey the law, and who respect his power as a police officer. For example, after the convenience store robbery I referred to earlier, the bad lieutenant simply rounds up two black teenagers and accuses them of the crime at gunpoint. When he shoots his gun over their heads, they are so afraid that they admit to the crime; subsequently the bad lieutenant forces them to give him the money that they supposedly stole. After he pockets their money, he lets them go. It's obvious that he's going to keep their money, and the real robbers will never be caught. The bad lieutenant has used his power as a police officer to force some black guys into saying that they are criminals. One might tell a similar story about traditional forms of white identity, where whites use their skin privilege to make people of color appear to be criminal or deviant in one way or another. This is very clearly one of the "messages" of this movie, particularly as the director, Ferrara, calls our attention to the whiteness of the bad lieutenant a number of times--the actor himself is white, of course, but more importantly the character he plays is a white racist. The bad lieutenant's racist acts underscore his own racialized identity, and his Catholicism has the peculiar effect of whitening him by situating his character in an almost entirely white ethnic minority. The bad lieutenant's noticeable whiteness helps to create his excessive, horrifying "badness;" and it heightens our sense that he believes he's entitled to be as bad as he wants because he's part of a privileged (white) group.

Robocop, the story of another white male police officer, includes virtually no references to race whatsoever. For that reason, I would argue, the movie is capable of offering us a vision of the unquestionably professional "good" police officer. Set in a not-so-distant cyberpunk future dominated by high tech corporations, Robocop is the story of Murphy, a police officer killed in the line of duty whose body, as a result of a legal loophole, actually belongs to the corporation, OCP, that owns the Detroit police department. Because the Detroit police are threatening to strike, a VP at OCP uses Murphy's head to create "robocop," a cyborg police officer who could be mass produced to replace striking police. Robocop, who has many of Murphy's memories and feelings, is also programmed with three policing directives: 1. serve the public trust; 2. protect the innocent; 3. uphold the law. He also has a fourth directive, which is classified, that instructs him not to harm anyone working for OCP, the corporation that owns him.

What's important about these directives is that they, along with Robocop's fully armored body, cause his identity to be literally nothing but that of professional police officer. Unlike the bad lieutenant, who used his uniform as a kind of white skin privilege, Robocop's uniform buries his whiteness and privilege and forces him to obey the same laws he is supposed to enforce. Robocop always foregrounds his job rather than his race, and the rules we might associate with police reform are programmed directly into his brain. Moreover, in spite of his classified fourth directive, Robocop still gets the bad guy at the end of the movie, even though the bad guy happens to be a rich, white male who works for the OCP corporation. We know Robocop, or Murphy as he prefers to be called by the end of the film, is a consummate professional because he does not allow race, gender, or class to interfere in his ability to fight crime and "protect the innocent." Robocop's armor overrides his white skin privilege--literally and figuratively--granting him a privilege we are led to believe that he deserves as a good cop.

These cop fables serve as a kind of deep background to our public debates over police brutality and reform. Bad cops, like the bad lieutenant, are the brutes, the marked whites who exhibit what you might call the classic symptoms of whiteness: racism, a wrongful sense of entitlement, and a desire to get special treatment without earning it. Brutal police are essentially white police, meaning that in this particular definition of whiteness, the white person is a racist and an abuser of power. Now I can return to a question that I raised earlier regarding current police reform movements, which seem to suggest that racist, sexist cops are the opposite of professional cops. Good cops, rather than being white, are "blue," meaning that they are like Robocop: they wear the color of their job rather than the color of their race. And they are programmed to think only of their duty to uphold the law, rather than focusing on their identities as white or male. Michael Novick's recent book on white supremacy movements called White Lies, White Power bears this out: Novick calls his chapter on white supremacist groups in police departments "Blue by Day, White by Night," as if to imply that the blue uniform has the potential to blot out the whiteness of its wearer. In this case, he argues that it doesn't, for the cops return to their whiteness--or, racism--by joining white power organizations, thus undercutting their "blueness," their identities as good police.

This logic, where white racism interferes with professional police identity, is brought home in a passage from Mark Fuhrman's autobiography. Early in the book, as he describes being accused of perjury, Fuhrman writes, "With the judge's words, I felt my professional life pass away. A hollow, lonely feeling overcame me, and I fought to keep my nerve." Fuhrman's racism has robbed him of his professional identity--indeed he uses the term we usually reserve for death to describe his professional life "passing away." This autobiography is interesting precisely because Fuhrman does admit to being a racist, describing his remarks as stupid and offensive. Subsequently he claims that our judgment of his investigative abilities shouldn't hinge on whether or not he's made racist remarks. Police reform movements, and anti-racist movements, of course, argue the opposite: we would say that his racism bars him from being a proficient investigator, and inhibits his ability to be a good police officer. Mark Fuhrman, like the bad lieutenant, is just too white to be blue. His racism, and implicitly his allegiance to whiteness, make him a bad cop.

The professional cop, the Robocop as it were, exhibits a form of unmarked racial identity. The good police officer is supposed to be above racial allegiance, loyal only to other officers. In Hollywood movies about human cops, for instance any of the Lethal Weapon series or in the Die Hards, you find teams of white and black police officers whose racial identities play into the narratives only as a source of spicy repartee--these are men who are good cops precisely because they foreground their professional identities as crime fighters. Especially in Die Hard with a Vengeance, the third Die Hard movie, you can see this idea--ex-cop McClane, played by Bruce Willis, is paired in this film with a black shop owner, played by Samuel Jackson, whose character is a black separatist. He hates white people, as he says many times, often to humorous effect. But he helps the very white guy-ish McClane get the bad guys, because he believes that justice, and perhaps good cops who uphold the law, are more important than race.

The idea that good policing outweighs race is reflected in popular titles for books and articles on black police officers, which are generally some variation on "black in blue," or "black and blue," positioning police identity as something which can cancel out race or stand in conflict with it. There is a way that these observations resonate with Michael Rogin's argument in his recent book (Blackface, White Noise), where he argues that Jews in Hollywood used blackface to stage the loss of their own ethnic particularity and their assimilation into the white middle-class. In a somewhat similar structure of performance, police officers are expected to use "blueface," the color of their labor, to lose their racial particularity and become good workers, good cops. John Cooper's book The Police and the Ghetto reinforces this idea of "blueface," referring to policing as a theatrical role, then comparing how "black actors" and "white actors" play it. What's particularly noteworthy here is the way that such discourses assume that whiteness is not only visible, not only marked as a racial identity, but that it is so much a motivating force in white people's lives that it must be shed or covered up in order for whites to perform their duties as good workers. While it's common for people of color to find themselves asked to shed racial or ethnic particularity to "fit in" on the job, policing and police reform movements have made it clear that there is a racial identity that whites, too, must shed if they don't want their professional identities to "pass away" like Mark Fuhrman's did.

The unmarked white body of public discourse, when scrutinized in police culture, becomes marked as potentially brutal and certainly racist. Yet professional police work, like any number of other professionalized forms of labor, generates its own unmarked category which subsumes whites and non-whites alike. This is a class-based category, represented by the blueness of a police uniform, or by Robocop's allegorically armored body. It is still a position of privilege, a position which can be abused and will continue to be. But it is importantly not a strictly white position of privilege; it is a position of professional expertise and class entitlement. When police reform movements aim to convert white racists and male sexists into professionals, what they do in a sense is suggest that one form of entitlement give way to another. Whiteness may be deconstructed, but the privileges--and the "unmarked" normativity--once associated with whiteness are easily mapped onto the professional middle-class uniform, whether it is a blue police officer's uniform, or a middle-management suit, or a sociologist's blazer and chinos.



Mark Baker, Cops: Their Lives in Their Own Words. (New York: Pocket Books, 1985).

John L. Cooper, The Police and the Ghetto. (Port Washington, New York: Kennikat Press, 1980).

Mark Fuhrman, Murder in Brentwood. (Washington DC: Regnery Publishing, 1997).

Sidney L. Harring, Policing a Class Society: The Experience of American Cities, 1865-1915. (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1983).

David R. Johnson, Law Enforcement: A History. (Saint Louis: Forum Press, 1981).

Michael Novick, White Lies, White Power: The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence. (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995).

Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).


Bad Lieutenant, dir. Abel Ferrara (1992)

Die Hard With a Vengeance, dir. John McTiernan (1995)

Robocop, dir. Paul Verhoven (1987)


Cops. (FOX Television, 1989-1997).

Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. (Syndicated).

X-Files. Created by Chris Carter. (FOX Television, 1993-1997).

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