The Thin White Line




IN MAY, a bipartisan group of senators and congresspeople introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime to target a person for being a police officer. The bill’s sponsors modeled it on a federal hate-crime statute, believing, without evidence, that attacks on police had escalated and should be covered under civil rights law as crimes motivated by a kind of anti-police “racism.” The bipartisan group titled the bill the Protect and Serve Act of 2018. But it is better known by a nickname that identifies it as a creation of our new culture wars: the “blue lives matter” bill. The House passed the bill by an overwhelming vote of 382 to 35. Senators Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, and Heidi Heitkamp, the embattled Democrat from North Dakota, co-sponsored the companion bill in the Senate to, as Hatch put it, counter “these heinous, cowardly assaults” on law enforcement. Heitkamp, referring to police officers as “peace officers,” released a statement lamenting that “our peace officers walk out the door every day not knowing what awaits them during the next shift.” In the fifth year of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with officer deaths nearing an all-time low, Republicans and Democrats came together to insist that blue lives matter more.

The Protect and Serve Act followed a wave of similar bills at the state level. Louisiana and Kentucky passed the first blue lives matter bills in 2016 and 2017. Most states have introduced comparable legislation since, including South Carolina, which doesn’t even have a hate-crime statute on the books. The bills took inspiration from the Blue Lives Matter countermovement, which formed after the murder of two NYPD officers in late 2014, and received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest police association. When Louisiana passed the first blue lives matter bill, which added police officers and firefighters to the state’s hate-crime statute, Chuck Canterbury, the president of the FOP, described it as a long-overdue recognition of widespread anti-police bias. “Since 1999, we’ve been saying that police officers that are ambushed merely for the color of their uniform are being subjected to hate crimes,” he told NPR’s Ari Shapiro. The FOP’s national leadership consists of seven white men, including Canterbury, making his choice of words — merely for the color of their uniform — a striking appropriation of antiracist language. Although the Fraternal Order of Police leans conservative (it endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016) and blue lives matter bills have had more success in red states, the legislation is not contained to the political right. President Barack Obama signed the Blue Alert Act of 2015 into law, creating a nationwide system for alerting the public of threats to police officers’ lives. (The act would make you believe that an army of cop killers is at the gate.) Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, voted for the Protect and Serve Act, along with 161 of her Democratic colleagues.

Since 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, liberal writers have made a point of reporting on white supremacist groups that had once seemed at the fringiest end of the political fringe in the pre-Obama years. Late last year, Hachette published ex-skinhead Christian Picciolini’s memoir White American Youth, and this fall Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow has been doing the rounds to promote Rising Out of Hatred, his book about former white supremacist youth leader Derek Black. In April, I reviewed Kathleen Belew’s history of the white power movement Bring the War Home in the pages of LARB. But there is a risk that in consuming stories of self-identified white supremacists like Roof we may miss the more mundane forms that white supremacy takes in the United States — forms of white supremacy that don’t announce themselves with swastikas and white hoods. The truth is that Roof makes white people feel secure, because they know that they aren’t him. They would never say what he said or do what he did. They can’t see themselves in Dylann Roof. Most white people are uncomfortable talking about their whiteness, so they find veiled ways to voice their racial grievances and entitlements. The idea of blue lives has given white people, including perhaps most of all non-police, a way to assert their whiteness without having to use the word white. This does not, of course, mean that all police officers are white. Far from it. But all blue lives are, because blueness has been imagined as the opposite of blackness. It’s either one or the other. You can’t be black and blue.

Civil rights groups have protested the blue lives matter legislation because hate-crime laws, they argue, are meant to protect identities rather than professions. “Hate crimes are about an identity-based bias, an immutable characteristic that a person cannot change,” Allison Padilla-Goodman, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times. “Adding a professional category changes and confuses the meaning of that.” Padilla-Goodman put her finger not just on why police shouldn’t be protected by hate-crime laws but also how white men have held onto their dominant status in the post–Civil Rights era: by constructing mutable identities through a close association with vulnerable police officers, firefighters, and soldiers. The Blue Lives Matter countermovement hails white men as universal and yet marginal, race-neutral (identified with state-issued uniforms) and yet raced (necessitating hate-crime protections). It allows them to have it both ways as majority and minority, center and margin. White men who claim blue lives assert their Americanness as agents of the law while bemoaning that the law has failed to protect them as “blue” minorities in an anti-police nation. There is nothing whiter than blue lives.

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In 1993, Cheryl Harris, a young professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, published a field-defining 80-page article in the Harvard Law Review in which she argued that whiteness constituted a form of property. In the 1930s, Harris’s grandmother, a light-skinned black woman, had moved from Mississippi to Chicago, where, struggling to raise her two daughters, she applied for a job at a downtown department store as a white woman. She got the job, and the job got her and her daughters through the Depression. No one at the department store ever knew she was a black woman from the south side. Her grandmother, Harris wrote, could see that whiteness had a cash value. It was an asset. She was “not merely passing, but trespassing.” Whiteness emerged in the early republic as a form of property, a racial identity on which claims to land and self-possession depended. The law constructed it as a condition for seizing indigenous lands and plundering black bodies. A man needed to first own whiteness before he could own land and slaves. Laws changed over time, but, as Harris’s grandmother knew, whiteness remained and remains treasured property in America, where it can be the difference between surviving hard times and not making it at all. Harris’s use of the word trespassing to describe her grandmother’s racial passing suggests how whiteness as property has endured for so long: policing. The legal construction of whiteness coincided with the establishment of the first police departments, which served to protect private property, to safeguard whiteness from indigenous and black people without claim to property of their own, neither land nor their own bodies. Whiteness as property depended on the whiteness of police.

White claims to blue lives have surfaced at times of black political gains, from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era to the election of the first black president, allowing white men to voice a racial grievance without having to acknowledge that they have a race. In his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. B. Du Bois showed how white laborers’ decision to align themselves with white planters rather than black workers — to choose racial pride over class solidarity — brought Reconstruction to an end and paved the way for Jim Crow. White laborers remained poor, but they received, Du Bois wrote, “a sort of public or psychological wage.” They could feel secure that, while they might be poor, black people were even poorer. They could feel superior to their black neighbors. This is one of Du Bois’s most famous claims, but few historians note the form in which he argued white laborers received their racial wage. “They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white,” he wrote. “The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.” White planters were not going to share their wealth with white laborers, but they would let them protect their property. They paid them in public deference in the form of blue uniforms and a privileged relationship to the law. Their wages remained low, but they could rest assured that their blue lives mattered.

In the years after World War II, blue lives turned red, white, and blue. Thousands of white men returned from Europe and the Pacific, where they had served in segregated units, and brought their military experience to their local police departments. It didn’t take long for police officers to embrace the idea that they were waging a war on crime at home. William Parker, the police chief of the LAPD from 1950 until his death in 1966, pioneered the militarization of law enforcement, which earned him the condemnation of civil rights leaders and praise in the pages of Life as the nation’s “second most respected law enforcement officer” behind J. Edgar Hoover. Parker served in Europe for two years and came home with a war-mindedness that he never lost. In 1952, he gave a speech in Chicago in which, adapting a military expression, he described the police as “a thin blue line” separating the “law abiding elements of society and the criminals that prey upon them.” Parker’s program of police “professionalization” — a term he used to mean militarization — had transformed Los Angeles, he told his Chicago audience, into “the nation’s ‘white spot’ in the black picture” of a nation besieged by crime. Parker believed that the nation faced an invasion from within, an invasion that originated from Los Angeles’s black and brown neighborhoods and required military techniques and equipment to combat. When a representative from the Civil Rights Commission asked him about accusations of discrimination in hiring and police conduct, he replied, “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police.” Already, in the early days of the Civil Rights era, Parker recognized the political value of police officers to white interests. He turned his white officers into embodiments of the nation (soldiers in a war on crime) and yet maintained that no one lived more marginal lives in police-hating America. Thin blue line, minority white police, war on crime — Parker may have seemed behind the times in the 1960s. It turned out that he was ahead of them.

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In the fall of 2014, with police shootings of unarmed black men in the headlines, Andrew Jacob, a white University of Michigan sophomore, sat down in his dorm room and designed a flag for police officers: a black and white American flag with a horizontal blue line below the stars. He named it, with an unknowing nod to Parker, the thin blue line flag. Jacob ordered a thousand flags from an overseas manufacturer and put them up for sale on Amazon. They sold out. He ordered more, and they sold out again. He and his business partner, Pete Forhan, a white UM classmate, have sold more than 50,000 flags since as the president and vice president of Thin Blue Line USA, which offers pro-police bracelets, pins, decals, pet accessories, and apparel for the whole family. Jacob and Forhan first met on their high school swim team in West Bloomfield, Michigan, an affluent Detroit suburb. Neither grew up in a police family. But they felt that police officers had been mistreated and wanted to sell merchandise that honored their service. “The black above represents citizens, and the black below represents criminals,” Jacob told the Detroit News, explaining his design. “So the thin blue line separates the two and maintains order.” The flag represents an America facing, as Parker would have put it, a war from within. There are Americans, and then there are “criminals.” Never mind that those below Jacob’s thin blue line are also Americans. Thin Blue Line USA now sells shirts and hats that mix the police flag with the logo of the Punisher, the Marvel antihero who first appeared in Spider-Man comics in 1974 as a white Vietnam veteran waging a vigilante war on street crime. Introducing a new black, white, and blue Punisher hat, the company’s “law enforcement liaison” said, “At the end of the day, whether on this earth or somewhere else, the criminal always gets punished.”

Participants in the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year carried the thin blue line flag alongside the Confederate Southern cross and the Nazi swastika. But Jacob and Forhan have been careful to distance themselves from self-identified white supremacist groups. Their message is not anti-black but pro-police, they say, despite having profited from a movement that arose in opposition to the assertion that black lives matter. That message has worked, attracting conservative and liberal politicians who either believe that police officers need hate-crime protections or know that they can’t risk being labeled anti-police if they want to stay in office. The whiteness of blue lives forms a rare site of consensus in our new culture wars by bridging the two dominant racial ideologies of the post–Civil Rights era: conservative color blindness and liberal multiculturalism. Conservatives can celebrate white police as deracinated embodiments of the nation, while liberals can treat them as minoritized heroes whose voices must be heard. Some do both, dressing white officers in red, white, and blue and then, in the next breath, lamenting that the nation has no place for them. In a culture war, no one wins, except, it seems, white people who, whether they wear a uniform to work or not, have learned to outfit their whiteness in police blue, firefighter red, and army green.

President Trump knows this. Since his first day on the campaign trail, he has weaponized blue lives against black lives and soldiers against kneeling black football players. Two weeks after taking office, he signed an executive order directing his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to develop legal strategies to enhance protections for police. Sessions responded by lifting restrictions on law enforcement access to surplus military equipment, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and bayonets. When a reporter asked Trump administration officials why they thought police needed bayonets, they explained that bayonets could be used to cut seatbelts in an emergency. This past spring, the president spoke at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in the capital in recognition of Peace Officers Memorial Day. “We must confront and condemn dangerous anti-police prejudice,” Trump declared, following an introduction from Canterbury, the FOP president. “Can you believe there’s prejudice with respect to our police?” he asked the audience of uniformed officers and their families, who responded with polite applause. The people who benefit most from the assertion that blue lives matter are not police. They are men like Andrew Jacob and Donald Trump, who know that, for all the explicit white supremacy in the United States today, blue still sells better than white. That night, President Trump ordered that the White House be lit with blue lights to honor police. Despite a lightning storm, the grounds crew kept the lights on all night. Perhaps nothing captures the racial politics of Trump’s America better than a big white house that, if you don’t look too close, appears blue.

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Joseph Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War (University of Chicago Press, 2019).


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