– By Tori Thompson
Tori is a Master’s student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Racial profiling in police forces is a systemic national problem. Even though the United States Constitution states that “all men are created equal” and prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures, state police departments continue to abuse the law for the ‘betterment of society’. Looking through the lens of sociologist George Ritzer’s Weberian concept of “McDonaldization,” I argue that racial profiling has become McDonaldized in American police culture. McDonaldization is “the process by which the principles of the fast food restaurant are coming to dominate more and more sectors of American society as well as the rest of the world” (Ritzer, 2004). The principles of the fast food industry Ritzer refers to are efficiency, calculability, rationality and predictability. Currently, we can see the prevalence of these principles in American police protocol via racial profiling. This post argues that racial profiling has become a rationalized system of national crime fighting standards and illustrates how the principles of McDonaldization influence the marginalization of people of color.
Rational: Currently in the United States, we live in an era of mass incarceration and excessive force. The U.S. has an egregious history of forceful displacement, physically abusive punishments for petty crimes such as alleged whistling, and justified murders of people of color. This aggressive system of racial profiling has been rationalized by the police force. Racial profiling is “experienced and structured increasingly along the lines of rational planning, with an emphasis on instrumental and technical know-how rather than reflection on political questions or moral principles” (Guilanotti, 2015). In this sense, the moral question of whether or not police officers think their suspects are really suspects may or may not be relevant. There is a lack of research on policing protocol and training within the field of cultural studies, but it is apparent that in a situation where one is faced with ‘fear’ or ‘intense pressure’, having a technical or rational understanding, instead of a humane response, is encouraged in police departments.
Police forces imprison people of color by criminalizing new acts that disproportionately affect black and brown people. (Alpert, Dunham, and Smith, 2007). The use of racial profiling in police protocol illustrates that police forces evidently believe racial profiling against people of color is needed in order to protect the rights of American citizens. Yet, in contradiction, by advancing the uses of racial profiling, the rights of American citizens, particularly people of color, are further oppressed.
With that being said, this rationalized system is in fact irrational, promoting a mortal relationship between class, status, and power. Under this system, the police are given the power to incarcerate those who look like they belong to a low socio-economic class and social status, as they increasingly identify these communities in terms of their innate propulsion to criminality. Following Weber’s critique of rationalization we see the irrational use of racial profiling as an “over rationalized iron cage that depersonalizes and imprisons humanity” (Guilanotti, 2015), for it categorizes people of color as objects of control.
Efficient: George Ritzer defines efficiency as the “speed and ease of service in the search for the best means to an end (Ritzer, 1996 pg. 443). Efficiency is the principle concerned with the quickest way to deliver a service. In this case, racial profiling is mobilized to deliver a ‘quick and easy’ way to protect and serve, but the organization of the system is inefficient based on the disproportionate amount of black and brown people incarcerated or murdered at the hands of police officers. This is due to standard police training and protocol and the over-policing of minority neighborhoods. Over-policing areas that are predominately black or brown, according to Ritzer (1996), is not the ‘best means to an end’ (pg. 36). Statistically, the effects of profiling on crime rates is ambiguous (Sullivan and O’Keefe, 2016). A 2015 NYPD study reported that civilian complaints of major crimes, such as burglary and felony assault, traffic citations, and total arrests declined when NYPD officers were less present in numerous New York boroughs. Therefore, over-policing people of color is costly (since the officers are payed for by public income) and an inefficient way of ensuring public safety.
Predictable: Racial profiling is a predictable system because it assumes that a foreseeable society minimizes risk (Ritzer, 1996). Due to established standards of policing, officers often already have a preconceived notion of who they will arrest. They predict that areas with high and serious crime rates are low income neighborhoods, which are often areas of people of color. Police officers “safely assume they will receive the same products and experiences” throughout the nation (Gulianotti, 2015; Ritzer, 1996), but by doing so they dehumanize the people they serve by stigmatizing people of color with innate attributes of criminal behavior. Not only does this system lead to unjust arrests, but it dehumanizes those who simply ‘fit the description.’
Calculable: Racial profiling evolved into a calculable system. Cathy O’Neil (2016) refers to the penal system as being a “market of data science.” Racial norms are embedded within standard data software, further shaping practices of racial profiling and inequality. Numerical systems and algorithms determine things such as loan and mortgage approval, home value, commercial regulations, and education funding based on each area’s demographics. Budgets and percentages are developed with the foundation of race and how racial demographics affects the affluence of a community (O’Neil, 2016). These algorithms and percentages are utilized to calculate crime. Thus, the statistics show increased crime rates in areas that house people of color, reinforcing arguments for the use of racial profiling to predict the chance of individual criminality. All of this leads to assumed predictability based on racially biased calculations.
In conclusion, control is the overarching theme of this post. Racial profiling has become an established standard of the American justice system, giving police officers a large degree of control and immunity over their interactions with people of color. Through this social context, we can consider the interaction between police officers and people of color as being “structured through sets of roles and identities that accord with the social status of the individuals” (Gulianotti, 2015). The role and identity of the police officer embodies the historical and contemporary subjugation of people of color, for the modern police officer is a construction shaped by the historical legacies of racial discrimination in the United States. Therefore, the social actions of both groups are shaped by the actual responses that are given by the other, and thus, the specific interaction between people of color and police officers is socially constructed within the ‘iron cage’ (Weber, 1992; Gulianotti, 2015).
Alpert, G. P., Dunham, R. G. and Smith, M. R. (2007), Investigating racial profiling by the Miami-Dade Police Department: a multimethod approach. Criminology & Public Policy, 6: 25–55.
Giulianotti, R. (2015). Weberian and microsociological approaches to sport: Meanings, identities and rationalization Sport: A critical sociology (pp. 21-34). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction : How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (First edition. ed.). New York: Crown.
Ritzer, G., & Stillman, T. (2001). The postmodern ballpark as a leisure setting: Enchantment and simulated de-McDonaldization. Leisure Sciences, 23(2), 99-113.
Ritzer, G. (2004). The McDonaldization of society (Revised New Century Edition ed.). London: Sage.
Sullivan, C., & O’Keefe, Z. (2016, July 25). Does more policing lead to less crime – or just more racial resentment? Washington Post, 25 July 2016. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/07/25/does-more-policing-lead-to-less-crime-or-just-more-racial-resentment/?utm_term=.3e2609f17d2f.
Weber, M. (1992). The protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (T. Parsons, Trans.). London: Routledge.