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The Interplay of Sex, Race, and Class in Understanding Police Violence

By: Stella Park


Kimberlé Crenshaw, in Demarginalising the Intersection of Race and Sex, introduces the concept of intersectionality, a multifaceted form of analysis, as a superior theoretical tool through which society should evaluate minority groups. Intersectionality, as defined by Crenshaw, seeks to understand the social identities of subgroups not as a separate evaluation of individual parts, but as the peculiar interaction between these same components; i.e. understanding black women as not just black and female, but as black females. The phenomenon of police brutality, described by such theorists as Angela Harris as a form of compensatory masculine performance, is better understood by acknowledging the interplay of race and sex, as well as sex and class. Harris’s piece, titled “Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice” is enhanced with an understanding of how women are subject to a different kind of violence, exemplified in #BlackLivesMatter’s “If it wasn’t for the women,” in which the specific plight of black women as victims of racialized violence is examined. An understanding of each subcategory of sex, race, and class, and how these factors interact to create multiple subgroups of people is integral to understanding the complex dynamics of police brutality enveloped in discourses of subjugation, hypermasculinity, and power first discussed in Bartky’s Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Despite what predominates in the media, an analysis of police violence must account for the intersectionality of race, sex, and class, especially in regards to the specific institutionalized subjugation of blacks in contrast to whites, of the poor in relation to the rich, and of women in regards to men.

In Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice, Harris argues that the preservation of a greater masculinity, especially relative to that of other men, is what explains the systemic predominance of violence among men. Integral to this notion is the assumption that men are divided by race, ethnicity, religion, class, and sexual orientation means that there is not just one kind of masculinity. In making this assertion, Harris promotes an intersectional understanding of masculinity supported by Crenshaw, and links these different types of masculinities to the institution of police brutality. In regard to white males, Bartky claims that their hegemonic control is a product of their institutionally legitimated political and economic advantages. On the other hand, Harris argues that the deprivation of such traditional male privileges for black men leads to an alternate, compensatory masculinity which instead emphasizes the most primitive sort of dominance available to the physically dominant male: violence. In this compensatory performance of masculinity as a result of a lower class and historically subjugated racial identity, there is a presumption of “black superiority and white impotence”. This subversion of traditional power dynamics of masculinity results in a curious mutual tension and resentment between both black and white men; black men envy “white men’s greater control over political, economic, and social resources” while white men also envy black men, but for their “sexual potency, athleticism, and sensual physicality”. This tension between opposing and mutually demeaning masculinities is reified in the dynamic between predominantly white policemen, and predominantly black members of urban, economically struggling groups. For understanding this dynamic, intersectionality, in this case in regards to the different masculinities produced by both sex and race, provides an especially effective explanatory framework. White policemen, exposed to the conflicting and threatening force of an alternate black masculinity, consequently overcompensate with a greater tendency to perform institutionally legitimized acts of police brutality.

Harris additionally addresses another manifestation of male violence – class-based violence propagated on behalf of the hegemony. Here, an intersectional analysis of both race and class is necessary. The police force, constituted mainly by lower class men, is subjected to a subjugation similar to that of black men in the hands of the masculine hegemony of socially and economically privileged men. Thus, they are also similarly subject to the ills of hypermasculinity as compensation for a suppressed manhood. According to Harris, both class and a predominant military background inherent in the hierarchy of police departments further prompts this adherence and subscription to, [t]he hypermasculinity of policing [that] leads to a culture in which violence is always just below the surface. Problematically, police brutality additionally follows the confines of the institutional hierarchies as an instrument of the hegemony by particularly disciplining those who are traditionally dispossessed of power, such as racial minorities and those of lower classes. As exemplified by the brutal police killings of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin among others, police not only conduct violence toward those already deficient in power by merit of class and/or race, but also possess certain biases against these groups as a result of institutional conditioning, as addressed by Bartky’s conception of “docile bodies” indoctrinated into believing the rhetoric of the hegemony. One can further extrapolate Bartky’s claims of, [that which] is done in obedience to the requirements of femininity, to include actions done for the purposes of adhering to and establishing the fulfillment of a proper masculinity. As part of the group dynamic of police forces, as addressed by Harris, some police officers additionally see themselves as defenders of white and wealthy neighborhoods against the intrusions of minorities, which propagates the perpetration of hate violence with the hypermasculine rationalization of protecting the nation against the “others.” When considering all of these factors in analyzing the phenomenon of targeted police brutality, one cannot simply attribute this behavior to overperformed and overcompensated masculinity, but rather should consider that the institution of masculinity is always associated with power dynamics – which have deep roots in such factors as race and class.

In utilizing an intersectional analysis of police brutality, one must also address the other socially recognized side of the binary – women. According to BlackLivesMatter’s “If It Wasn’t For The Women…,” black women are also subject to selective police violence – albeit in a different form than are black men. Though also discriminated upon on the basis of their race, black women are additionally subject to different types of subjugation as a result of the intersecting factors of their race and sex. Not only do black women “often experience double-discrimination – the combined effects of practices which discriminate on the basis of race, and on the basis of sex”, but also “they experience discrimination as black women”. In particular, “black women and girls’ vulnerability to physical and sexual exploitation”, results in a particular manifestation of police violence toward black women that differs in nature and motivation from the violence committed against black men. Without paying special regard to the intersectionality of race and sex, specifically the state of being black and female, the voices of oppressed black women are obscured by black men who claim to be representative of the plight of the entirety of the black population. “Black patriarchal heroicism,” as described by the Combahee River Collective, should not constitute the center of black activism in the fight against police violence, as an understanding of the peculiar state of black femininity, a femininity plagued by the assumptions of black masculinity, is equal parts an aspect of specialized police brutality toward minorities. Adding to an understanding of experienced police oppression is the analogous instance of employer oppression demonstrated in DeGraffenreid v General Motors as mentioned by Crenshaw. In DeGraffenreid, the court evaluated black women by their separate components – whether it was solely on their status as a black individual, or solely on their role as a woman. Such an analysis ultimately proved reductive and insufficient in properly characterizing the abuse suffered by workers who occupied both of these identities inextricably and concurrently – an analogy that can be extended to explain the distinct acts of police oppression that contribute to the specific subjugation of black women.

In addition to this paper’s prior endorsements of an intersectional analysis of police brutality through the coexisting realms of race, class, and sex is a qualifying statement that recognizes and accepts that some aspects of racial and class-based oppression are inextricably co-associated. In regards to police biases toward black individuals, one sees that black individuals in America are statistically more likely to be members of a lower socioeconomic class. Even if a black individual is not part of a lower class, existing racial biases assume that she/he is, and in this way, the quality of being black, and the state of being of a poorer class, are interwoven in complicated ways not easily discernable in a purely intersectional analysis. In addition, when one examines three possible categorical distinctions of sex, race, and gender together as one, discourse on rich black men and poor black men reveal startling similarities on account of the shared racial category, which often supersedes any nuanced considerations of class. In the end, even wealthy black men subscribe to the wealthy white hegemony, just as African American police officers [can be] just as brutal and abusive toward African American citizens as white police officers, as such capitulations to hegemonic expectations offer individuals a chance at all the privileges of hegemonic masculinity. Police violence, viewed through this lens, is predominantly systemic and can be practiced by those who are not a part of the hegemonic class as a means to achieve a comparable level of dominance, and is also indicative of the “docile bodies” discussed by Bartky. Just as women engage in “self-surveillance” as a “form of obedience to patriarchy”, men police themselves in order to affirm their masculinity, heterosexuality, and separation from the dreaded status of “woman.” To the men preoccupied with societal expectations of their masculinity, racial and class-based distinctions are inherently similar in that despite their different manifestations, both alternate categories provide for an individual solution to the continual problem of affirming their masculinities – whether it be through violence, hypermasculinity, or general brutality.

As related by both Harris and #BlackLivesMatter, and understood through the film of Crenshaw’s intersectionality, and Bartky’s Foucauldian model of institutional hegemonic domination, police brutality is best understood through a multitude of interpretations with deep roots in the interplay of sex, race, and class. As the masculine ideal, perpetuated by the patriarchy, explains the origins and motivations behind the actual act of police violence, the experiences of such brutality are subject to the different sexes, racial identities, and economic classes of both the victims and the perpetrators. A black woman’s experience with police violence and oppression cannot be understood separately as solely her experience as a black individual or a female. In the same way, black men, as the main victims of police brutality, possess a special breed of masculinity created as a result of their combined identities as both males, and members of a socially unprivileged and historically persecuted group. For all these reasons, one must, through an intersectional analysis, consider distinct forms of masculinity as they relate to class and race, the existence of oppressed females, and the established institutional hegemony when evaluating the true dynamics of police brutality as it is manifested in the modern United States.

Works Cited:

Beyond Gay Marriage: Race, Class and the Future of the LGBTQ Movement. Digital image. Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor. Kalmanovitz Initiative, 16 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Sept. 2016.

Bartky, Sandra Lee. Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power. Northeastern University Press, 1988. Print

Crenshaw, Kimberlé. Demarginialising the Intersection of Race and Sex. 1989. Print.

Harris, Angela. Gender, Violence, Race, and Criminal Justice. Berkeley, 2000. Print.

“If It Wasn’t For the Women.” Black Lives Matter. 13 Oct. 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2015. <http://blacklivesmatter.com/&gt;.