Police, Police Unions and Racial Capitalism

Police, Police Unions and Racial Capitalism


In the wake of protests against police violence and calls to defund the police, a major obstacle opposing any and all reform or even criticism, are police unions. How do police operate as political actors? What is the role of police unions in preventing reform? How can we address policing when police and their unions wield such power? In this session, we will discuss these questions, situate them within the idea of racial capitalism and abolition, and connect the fight against policing to the broader struggle for socialism and left movements more generally. We will also discuss how you can get involved in the fight against the DC Police Union and the push to Defund the MPD. 

This session was be led by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and a DSA member, Stuart Schrader, the Associate Director of the Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship and Lecturer at Johns Hopkins University, and Nell Geiser, a member of the Metro DC DSA Defund MPD Working Group.


Find below a brief summary of the topics and theories covered in the session.

What is Racial Capitalism?

It’s sometimes not immediately clear what racism has to do with things like the banking system — remember Hillary Clinton asking, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow, would that end racism?” When we say racial capitalism, we are not talking about a special type of capitalism, but giving a name to the descriptive theory that claims there’s a very close relationship between racism and institutions like the financial system.

History of Racial Capitalism

Racial capitalism can be viewed as a type of “world-systems” dating back to figures like Rosa Luxemburg and V.I. Lenin. The theory comes from African Marxists in South Africa and the Dar es Salaam school, who used the history to confront and understand apartheid. In the United States, it was popularized by the book Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson.

Racial capitalism sets out to answer the question: “How did European powers get so influential during the early modern period?” For theorists of racial capitalism, answering this question requires looking at the whole social structure, as opposed to focusing on just production or other specific aspects of capitalism. In the words of Professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò:

“The plantations, the mines, and the encomiendas (and their profits) might be why the systems were built in the colonized world, but what was built was a different story: the what is the social system as a whole, and that system is racially stratified.”

Basic Ideas of Racial Capitalism

In the words of Cedric Robinson:

The development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions, so too did social ideology. As a material force, then, it could be expected that racialism would inevitably permeate the social structures emergent from capitalism.

According to Cedric’s thinking, the spread of capitalism generated three political norms in the modern world: first, a specific mode of production; second, a form of social organization; and third, a set of ideologies, including racialism. The result of all this is racism, as defined by Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore: “the state-sanctioned and/or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” The consequences of this continue to show up today, as in higher rates of COVID-19 in traditionally redlined neighborhoods.

A major feature of this view that Robinson and others emphasize is that racial domination helped secure the entire social structure on which capitalist institutions (like profit-making plantations) depended and depend on. Institutions like policing, incarceration, slave patrols and immigrant surveillance all undergird this social structure in an attempt to keep it stable. These institutions distribute risk and security in ways that make society safe for some at the expense of others — with race often helping to organize who is who.

Arguments Against Racial Capitalism

One objection that people raise regarding racial capitalism is that emphasizing the “racial” nature of capitalism too much excludes analysis of the other ways that capitalism rigidified forms of discipline based on gender, sexuality, national origin and so on. But racial capitalism doesn’t claim that any of these are irrelevant and can open up new ways of analyzing these other dimensions of capitalism.

Others suggest that capitalism is not inherently racialized, because capitalists just care about exploiting workers — not the types of workers they are exploiting. But even if capitalists aren’t motivated by racism, not all groups of people are equally risky to employ or equally profitable to exploit; capitalists are often incentivized to exploit non-white groups of people.

Finally, it is important to emphasize that racial capitalism does not claim that racialism was necessary for capitalism to emerge — just that capitalism did in fact emerge by producing and making use of racialism. 

What this all means is that policies that target and reduce group differences in vulnerability to exploitation — policies such as police and prison abolition, Medicare for All, a federal jobs guarantee and the Green New Deal — are targeting something that plays a deeply functional role in capitalism. This is what makes these fights (actually or potentially) anti-capitalist.

Police and the Origins of Class and Capitalism

The typical socialist position on police is that the police work on behalf of capital to protect private property and prevent social protest.

Police power is an important component of social domination, which both capitalist and racist systems use to maintain order. Though, it’s possible to overinflate the importance of the police alone. In the words of Professor Stuart Schrader, “eliminating the police won’t make capitalism disappear, but I also think that capitalism won’t disappear without eliminating the power of police.”

Police don’t just protect the capitalist social order — they also produce it. As Professor Mark Neocleous discusses in his book A Critical Theory of Police Power, police power is a remarkably direct form of domination in a capitalist system where capital itself rules through indirect domination. But this direct form of domination was arguably necessary to help produce early capitalism, as early policing systems were used to forcibly enclose the commons and prohibit people from begging or stealing, thereby forcing them into wage labor.

Understanding the history of policing reveals the way crime itself has long been defined in class terms, and the ways in which policing reinforce the class-making process: by drawing geographic boundaries around where certain behaviors are tolerated or not tolerated, police actively shape the contours of class.

Police and the Redistribution of Violence

Jails and prisons today are places of violence, both individually and institutionally. In many ways, these institutions don’t reduce violence so much as redistribute violence to new areas, allowing the rest of society to appear “safe.”

Study after study shows that police spend only a small fraction of their time actually dealing with violent or felony crime — instead they focus on maintaining a presence in specific zones, be they wealthy regions, dividing zones between classes, or extremely resource-starved areas like housing projects. 

Police also don’t merely respond to racial distinction in racist ways — they also help produce the distinction itself by enforcing a continual dividing line of advantage for some and disadvantage for others. This type of reproduction ensures that the consequences of systems of disadvantage like redlining will continue from generation to generation, protecting some areas from crime while doing little to address it in others.

Fractures Within the Police

If police are the tip of the spear of the racial capitalist social order, where do we put pressure for change? On the police themselves? On the people or institutions on whose behalf they are acting? How do we make sense of the racist outcomes caused by policing when the representatives in government are often — in the case of large cities — non-white or avowedly liberal Democrats?

It helps to begin by understanding that the police themselves are not monolithic. One consequence of the events of the 2020 Insurrection Attempt is that we now know that the Capitol Police Force has deep and persistent racial fractures within its force. To the extent that police seek particular political outcomes, they’re often expressing the power of particular factions within the police forces. This conflict is frequently a conflict between the (generally successful) rank and file officers on the one hand and liberal technocratic reformers on the other.

As socialists, we should oppose both of these models of policing. But we should also be aware that they’re not the same, and these sorts of fractures could be used effectively by abolitionists as points to mobilize around.

Police generally like flexibility and often dislike things like “zero tolerance” policies or quotas, and certain police forces may as a whole refuse these practices. But this often results in commanding officers empowering a select number of cops to engage in extremely abusive activities because their aggressive methods produce good numbers a police department can use to balance out the other officers who would prefer to act with more flexibility.

What Are Police Unions?

Police unions are one part of a “multi-sided law enforcement lobby” that includes prison guard unions, district attorney associations, sheriffs’ associations and police chief organizations, all of which have helped block efforts to change minimum sentencing laws, abolish solitary confinement and capital punishment, close prisons and end commercial bail. These groups rose to prominence in the 1990s, often by partnering with (sometimes fictitious) victims’ rights groups and the tough on crime movement. Critically, these organizations position themselves as the only legitimate experts on crime control.

The biggest police union is the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), which has over 350,000 members across 2,100 local chapters, or nearly half of all police and detectives in the United States. Other police are represented by the AFL-CIO (which represents about 100,000 police officers) and other types of unions such as the AFSCME and the Teamsters — making police very well-integrated into the labor movement writ large.

How Big of a Problem are Police Unions?

Unlike the vast majority of the labor movement, the interests of police officers are fundamentally aligned with the capitalist-colonialist state. They have a vested interest in maintaining funding, staffing and the expansive carceral state. Police unions frequently abuse their power, and as a consequence people end up dead or traumatized. This alone makes police unions very different from other types of unions within the labor movement.

But police unions are only one layer in a multi-layered carceral system. Collective bargaining agreements often provide police officers multiple levels of appeal beyond conventional union due process, providing elected leaders with a rationale for frequently deferring to police department leaders.

The criminal system is set up around protecting police, from the existence of “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights” in many states to qualified immunity that protects individual officers from being sued, as well as the fact that district attorneys who prosecute police misconduct must also collaborate with the police in other cases. Some states bar the disclosure of disciplinary records for police officers, and collective bargaining agreements often protect departments from defunding by locking in wage increases.

So police unions are a problem, but they are not the problem. In the words of racial justice activist Bill Fletcher Jr.:

The law enforcement unions are not the problem; the history, culture, and practices of the U.S. law enforcement system are the problem . . . When officials claim that there is little they can do about police contracts, that is nothing but sophistry. The government may have to negotiate ‘impact,’ but it has the power to radically restructure.

Politicians like to use police unions as a smokescreen to justify inaction on police reform, and the labor movement is currently struggling over whether to accept police unions as legitimate members. But expelling police unions is not enough, because the labor movement needs to take a stance on the overall role of law enforcement within a truly democratic society by addressing issues like community control and abolition head-on.