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Why Do Police Target People Who Follow Islam? A Look At Defining Deviance and Finding Scapegoats

If we look at the police as mere extensions of the state employed to enforce the law, we lose sight of their original purpose to implement informal and formal social control. The act of policing is to regulate society to fit into accepted social norms. In a society like the United States, that means regulating and maintaining a society based on the accumulation of wealth.

In Toward a Marxian Theory of Deviance, Steven Spitzer’s deviance analysis through a Marxist lens posits a unique perspective that places capitalism at the center. Spitzer argues that when there is an appropriation of the product of labor, there are social conditions under which production takes place, there are patterns of distribution and consumption, and there is a process of socialization for productive and non-productive works, a capitalist society becomes defined. Under these conditions, when these cornerstones of capitalism are questioned, deviance becomes defined. Therefore, anyone who contributes to this definition of deviance can be subject to deviance policing (if we define policing as the maintenance of deviance, social order, social norms, etc.).

Frequently, American capitalist society disproportionately polices Black Americans on this basis of deviance. Other groups of people who disrupt these social norms also span across class, racial, religious, and ethnic categories. Today, I will highlight the disproportionate policing and profiling of peoples who are a part of the Muslim American community.

Under Spitzer’s analysis, he highlights that in a capitalist society, there needs to be a “maintenance of ‘problem populations,’” while channeling them into “deviant statuses.” We’ll revisit this.

It is no question that Islamaphobia has increased since the September 11th attacks in 2001. Discrimination, hate-crimes, and over-policing all rose in the past two decades. It has stained our entertainment sector, making it a norm of American society to scapegoat fears regarding terrorism onto Muslim people (which is ironic because most of the terrorism in this country is not committed by followers of Islam). Additionally, radical religious violence is committed by all religions in private, radical cells rather than a whole religious group (which one would think is common knowledge).

For this particular article, I’m going to use New York City as an approach to studying this phenomenon of scapegoating. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “since at least 2002, the New York City Police Department’s Intelligence Division engaged in the religious profiling and suspicion-less surveillance of Muslims in New York City and beyond.” This includes surveillance of every mosque within 100 miles of New York and extension into many parts of the Northeast. The rationalization for this surveillance is rooted in trickle-down federal alerts from the Department of Homeland Security and the constant defining of Islam as a precedent to homegrown radicalization.

New York City has successfully defined deviance under a capitalist structure by highlighting a “problem population”—rooted in Islamaphobia—and siphoning them into deviant statuses. Statuses that will be under constant surveillance by the police. This surveillance has leaked into preconceived notions (spewed by police officers on social media) and into violence committed by the police against Muslims.

A failure to confront all of America’s fears leads to the most marginalized becoming scapegoated for issues America does not want to face. The white, Anglo-Saxon core of this country is too nervous about taking responsibility and fault for failure or figuring out why things happen. Instead, this country takes surface-level approaches to blame entire groups of people rather than address its societal ills. This is how we maintain social order in the United States of America. And we give guns to people to enforce it.

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