How Police Culture Has Reshaped America
If Tyre Nichols’s violent death at the hands of the Memphis police felt tragically familiar, the revelation of the race of the five accused officers — five Black men — startled many. Perhaps it shouldn’t have. When it comes to law enforcement, the politics of race in the United States is becoming ever more complicated. Just ask migrants from Latin America who have suffered abuse at the hands of U.S. Border Patrol agents, over half of whom are Latino.
As someone who studies race and the right, I have found that Democrats and progressives, expecting demographic change and rising diversity to tilt the country leftward, have failed to take seriously how that change is not at all a given. A major reason for that misunderstanding is that America’s prison culture and military commitments have transformed America’s cultural and economic landscape — particularly among communities of color. By treating citizens of color as monolithic entities, they have failed to consider how attitudes toward policing and homeland security have been shaped not only by white supremacy but also by decades of endless war at home and abroad.
America’s wars on drugs, crime, terrorism and more — along with our endless involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan — have created a weapons-saturated politics of policing, border control and mass incarceration. These wars have inspired social protest movements opposing militarized violence led by Black people, Latinos and other people of color. But this reshaping of America is not one-dimensional: Generations of increasingly diverse Americans now have livelihoods that hinge on an ever-expanding homeland security state.
Communities of color are simultaneously victims of, participants in and practitioners of the violence practiced within and beyond our nation’s borders. Even as police shootings continue to climb, prisons disproportionately punish Black inmates, and as undocumented immigrants continue to suffer violence at the hands of law enforcement, the security state is becoming ever more diverse: Hundreds of thousands of people of color fill agency ranks, holding positions as police officers, border agents, sheriffs, jail wardens, military officers, prison guards and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
It’s no mystery why these jobs are popular: They are stable and pay comparatively well, with good benefits and accessible entry requirements, and offer real advancement opportunities, unlike in many American companies and industries. In an economy long characterized by austerity and a shrinking social welfare base, homeland security and prisons have emerged as growing sites of state-subsidized employment.
Despite mass calls for police reform in 2020, amid and after the George Floyd protests, funding and staffing for the police across the United States only grew, with local departments continuing their decades-long practice of incorporating surplus military-grade weapons, vehicles and equipment into routine policing practices. At the same time, at the border, with enforcement measures increasingly intended to criminalize the movement of refugees and migrants, this country has produced an entrenched, militarized system of detection, detention and deportation. But border policies have also created jobs, industries and revenue for both employees and entrepreneurs. As a result, an increasingly large number of African Americans and Latinos now live in communities shaped by an enforcement culture.
In the decades since the Sept. 11 attacks, generations of Americans have experienced their most sustained acts of citizenship through military service — finding employment, opportunity and purpose by entering an institution that connects violence to the resolution of political problems. For some, military service deepens a commitment to democracy, equality and defending our constitutional rights and protections. But given the complexities of military culture, it’s hardly surprising that a certain segment of Black people, Latinos and other people of color, just like some of their white counterparts, would return from war sharing the far-right’s illiberal embrace of brute force. That may mean an increased comfort with cruelty, as well as a tendency toward gun fetishization, the increasing dehumanization of adversaries and the conflation of freedom with violence.
Of course, serving in the military or as a police officer or border patrol agent doesn’t necessarily make someone conservative or drawn to political violence or extremism. Many people sign up to earn a decent living or out of a genuine desire to help and serve their communities. Some become ardent reformers. Still, there is ample evidence that troops, veterans and people in law enforcement skew to the right.
Indeed, while the vast majority of people of color continue to vote Democratic, a growing number of those who have been the historic targets of violent and racially exclusionary U.S. policies appear increasingly open to supporting political candidates who support those very policies. While extolling stop-and-frisk policing, gratuitously harsh border control and mass incarceration, G.O.P. candidates in 2020 and 2022 made gains with Latinos and other voters of color nationwide. We’ve also seen an uptick in candidates of color running not only as party-supported Republicans but as avowed champions of Donald Trump and his legacy. Two of the three Republican Latinas vying for U.S. House seats in the Rio Grande Valley last November went so far as to highlight their husbands’ experience working in the Border Patrol.
Communities of color have an intimate history with violence, from massacres of Native Americans and chattel slavery to anti-Asian violence, police killings and the deaths of migrants on the border. But communities of color are not monolithic, and their responses and relationships to that violence mirror that very diversity.
[Cristina Beltrán is an associate professor in New York University’s department of social and cultural analysis and an editor of the journal “Theory&Event.” She is the author of, most recently, “Cruelty as Citizenship: How Migrant Suffering Sustains White Democracy.”]