From Warriors to Guardians, Race Shapes Police Masculinity
By Jennifer Carlson | March 30, 2021
Jennifer Carlson is an associate professor at the University of Arizona.
Contrast the wanton police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd with police officers’ embrace of an armed 17-year-old named Kyle Rittenhouse. Or the heavily policed Black Lives Matter protests versus police selfies with the January 6 Capitol Hill mob. Or the police seizure of guns from African Americans in front of whites rallying while openly armed.
The last year is replete with striking examples of a racist double standard in policing. It is a broken record that keeps playing—seemingly louder every year—throughout American history. It tells a story that is tragically familiar: police disproportionately disrespect, harass, abuse, intimidate, brutalize, and kill people of color as compared to whites.
But to understand this longstanding thread in American society requires understanding not just the politics of race but also the politics of gender—and how, through their interlocking, Blackness is criminalized and whiteness is disproportionately treated with impunity.
The Warrior: Policing Communities of Color
These arresting racial disparities have been facilitated by a brand of aggressive masculinity that has been celebrated in police academies for decades. Adopting a “Warrior mindset,” police have been increasingly trained to view civilians not as fellow citizens but as enemy combatants, to see U.S. streets not as places deserving of protection but rather as warzones necessitating firearm power, and to view military equipment like armored tanks and patrol rifles as necessary accessories to effective policing.
Police have been increasingly trained to view civilians not as fellow citizens but as enemy combatants, to see U.S. streets not as places deserving of protection but rather as warzones necessitating firearm power, and to view military equipment as necessary accessories to effective policing.
“Locked in intermittent and unpredictable combat with unknown but highly lethal enemies,” as Seth Stoughton describes it, police find themselves acting—and feeling—more like soldiers and less like public servants as their working lives revolve around danger, threat, control, suspicion, and violence.
In my own interviews with 79 police chiefs across Arizona, California and Michigan, I encountered this Warrior masculinity almost always in reference to crimes associated with boys and men of color: drug-dealing and gang-banging. When I asked him about gun violence in his city, one chief jokingly told me, “we like to keep our enemies on the other side of the gate.” Other chiefs minimized gun violence by tallying gang and non-gang homicides in separate columns, thereby treating certain cases as “gang on gang cases” that implicated people already “involved in a criminal lifestyle.”
There are perpetrators, this logic seemed to suggest, but there are no victims, reflecting a deep-seated resistance within American white society to view the loss of Black life as less worthy of grief. This framing calls not for attending to the trauma that gun violence leaves in its wake but rather for aggressive police action—the grit of the Warrior—to stamp out criminal threat.
The Guardian: Protecting White Innocence
Gun violence is understood far differently when it takes place in white-coded spaces. In my interviews, the politics of whiteness was reflected in how police chiefs understood gun violence in the so-called “post-Columbine” era of mass shootings. Even though active shootings are not a strictly white phenomenon, their popular association with white space—that is, suburban and rural areas presumed to be otherwise safe—led chiefs across a broad range of jurisdictions to voice concern about the threat of active shootings in movie theaters, churches, schools, even Best Buy.
But as they talked about active shootings, their gendered investment in stopping this brand of gun violence was fundamentally different than with regard to gang violence. Instead of the bravado of Warrior masculinity, I heard chiefs voice an array of emotions centered on the compassionate protection of victims. Chiefs emphasized over and again their commitment to saving lives; some even told me they carried their guns off-duty precisely because they feared the shame and devastation that would visit them should they be unarmed and find themselves unable to respond to an unfolding active shooting.
Chiefs emphasized over and again their commitment to saving lives; some even told me they carried their guns off-duty precisely because they feared the shame and devastation that would visit them should they be unarmed and find themselves unable to respond to an unfolding active shooting.
As I listened to chiefs explain their obligations vis-à-vis active shootings versus gun violence associated with urban criminality, I realized that an entirely different brand of policing masculinity was at work—not the Warrior, but the Guardian. In contrast to the charged masculinity of the Warrior bent on catching criminals, the Guardian echoed Iris Marion Young’s observation regarding “masculinist protection”: namely, that violence is not just a vehicle of aggressive domination among men but also a means of asserting “good men’s” utility to their families and communities as protectors.
Amid the threat of active shootings, chiefs from Arizona, California, and Michigan did emphasize a masculine imperative to courageously face danger; however, under the Guardian mindset, this urgency is centered on protection of innocent victims, especially children, rather than enforcement against suspected criminals as under the Warrior. Police chiefs forwarded a brand of hybrid masculinity that blended “hardness and violence, plus compassion and care” (to borrow the words of gender scholar Michael Messner), allowing them to adopt the stance of a protector rather than an enforcer and to see gun homicide victims in terms that reflected the irreparable loss of innocent life. It was a stark contrast with how they understood so-called “urban” gun violence.
The Guardian Won’t Transform Policing
This description of the Guardian may strike some as an appealing brand of policing—one that takes seriously police’s obligation to serve and protect—to replace the Warrior. Indeed, that is exactly what some police practitioners and reformers have proposed in response to the ongoing crisis of structural racism within public law enforcement.
But proposing the Guardian to replace the Warrior as a means of racial reform misses the deeper lesson from my interviews with police chiefs: that our basic frameworks for policing are deeply embedded in the racial contours in which they unfold and the gendered politics through which the police and public alike understand “good policing.”
Proposing the Guardian to replace the Warrior as a means of racial reform misses the deeper lesson: that our basic frameworks for policing are deeply embedded in the racial contours in which they unfold and the gendered politics through which the police and public alike understand “good policing.”
Indeed, police abolitionists (including those who advocate for “defunding the police”) point out that such reforms have happened before, and have failed: similar hope undergirded the embrace of community policing in the early 1990s, a reform that proved to be ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.
As long as racial and gender ideologies determine how both police and the public understand and respond to victimhood, criminality, innocence and blameworthiness, policing will remain an institution that disproportionately and devastatingly harms people and communities of color.
Jennifer Carlson is an associate professor in the School of Sociology and the School of Government and Public Policy at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Policing the Second Amendment: Guns, Law Enforcement and the Politics of Race and Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline.
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