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Racial Criminalization and the Double Standards of American Law Enforcement

While tensions have been building between American law enforcement and the Black community in recent years due to increased visibility of police violence against Black Americans, this conflict has boiled over in the wake of the killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020. Caught on video (caution: graphic), Floyd’s cry of “I can’t breathe”, uttered as now-former officer Derek Chavin continued to forcefully kneel on the unarmed man’s neck after already handcuffing and pinning him to the ground, has become a rallying cry in recent protests against police violence perpetrated against Black Americans. This wave of protests sparked by Floyd’s death is still ongoing and has called for the defunding of American police departments. While some white Americans are sympathetic to this cause, others attribute the actions of a minority of individuals responsible for looting and rioting to the protests and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.


Counter-protests in support of the police have been common, and one of these counter-protesters became the primary actor in a very different encounter with law enforcement. On August 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse travelled from Antioch IL to Kenosha WI armed with an AR-15 to aid in countering BLM protests alongside a civilian militia that had formed in spite of official objections from the city of Kenosha, which had been the site of a recent police shooting of a Black man named Jacob Blake. Over the course of that night, Rittenhouse shot three BLM protesters, killing two of them. After the shootings, Rittenhouse walked towards a column of police officers with hands up and rifle across his chest but the officers allowed him to leave the scene (caution: graphic). The Kenosha shooting gained national attention not only due to the grotesque crime that was committed but because the subdued police response to Rittenhouse, a young white man, exemplifies the exact double standard in law enforcement being protested.

The unjustified killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Aura Rosser, Stephen Clark, Botham Jean, Philandro Castille, Alton Sterling, Michelle Cusseaux, Freddie Gray, Tanisha Fonville, Eric Garner, and more are proof that simply being Black is an act perceived by police as warranting the use of lethal force. While there may not be any laws making it a crime to be Black (at least not explicitly), this disturbing trend shows that Blackness is seen as an act of deviancy from perspective of many Americans. Deviancy is socially constructed, encompassing acts or behaviors that do not abide by the mores, folkways, norms, laws, and/or other standards followed by the majority of a society, with majority in this case referring to the group at the top of the social hierarchy.

White people have held this majority position since the colonization of North America, thus making their perception of deviancy what informs formal social controls. Discussing the relationship between white perceptions of the Black community and the historical use of sociological statistics in informing social policy, Khalil Gibran Muhammed provides an overview of the development of ‘the statistical language black criminality’ and its contributions to the process of ‘racial criminalization’, defined as “the stigmatization of crime as ‘black’ and the masking of crime among whites as individual failure” (p. 3). Muhammed points out that in “all manner of conversations about race… black crime statistics are ubiquitous” but “white crime statistics are virtually invisible, except when used to dramatize the excessive criminality of African Americans” (p. 1). Racial criminalization through the misuse of crime statistics, spread throughout American culture since the end of the Civil War, has led to the contemporary perceptions and assumptions about the Black community held by white Americans. These perceptions of Black Americans as inherently criminal and violent are the perceptions that ultimately inform both deviancy and social controls, explaining why American police are so inclined to use lethal force against unarmed Black people.

Returning to Floyd and Rittenhouse, these key events in recent American racial conflicts exemplify the results of racial criminalization. George Floyd, a Black man who allegedly tried to use a counterfeit $20 bill, was met with lethal force even after being subdued while Kyle Rittenhouse, a white man who murdered two people and injured another, was allowed to simply walk away from the scene of a shooting while carrying a semi-automatic rifle. Not only does this exemplify how the police (i.e. the agents of formal social control on behalf of the white majority) see Black people as inherently criminal and dangerous but also how they minimize these same qualities in white suspects.

Critical analyses of the discourse from the numerous social institutions involved in the process of racial criminalization, including law enforcement, media, and even the field of sociology itself, are needed. Each of these institutions has contributed to the perpetration violence against the Black community, whether this violence is physical, institutional, or epistemic. This is a time for introspection and change on the part of both individuals and institutions throughout American society: consideration needs to be made regarding what informs our perceptions of deviance and control and how these perceptions inform policy, particularly in regard to the allocation of funding.

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