Protecting and Serving What?: U.S. Policing and Racism Through an Anthropological Lens

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Course DatesMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRNRegistration
June 17, 2019 - June 28, 20196/17 - 6/28M-F 12:15P-3:05POpenJessica Katzenstein

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Course Description

After several years of well-publicized police killings of unarmed Black men, critiques of U.S. policing as racist have become mainstream. We hear that the problem is not simply one of “bad apples” but rather structural racism, requiring structural reform: community policing, more diverse officers, implicit bias training. Yet people have leveled similar critiques, and politicians have proposed similar solutions, since at least the Civil Rights era. How can we explain the tenacity of this decades-old pattern (police violence, public outcry, promises of change, repeat)? Do we simply need more-effective Officer Friendly programs to realize a starry future of colorblind policing? Or is policing so foundationally racist it is immune to structural reform? The stakes are too high not to ask, not to examine how policing operates, where we can locate racism, why reforms’ promises have historically gone unfulfilled. Furthermore, our critiques must also account for the times police do “protect and serve,” as when they enforce restraining orders or stop mass shootings.

This course asks: What is American policing? And how can the answers help us understand why police reforms have not worked as promised? To explore these questions, we will cross disciplines and genres, journeying through social sciences and humanities – and even through media like The Wire and Law & Order – while drawing on writing, thinking, and issues from around the world. Along the way we will interrogate received narratives of security, crime, race, and power, and discuss some of the most urgent problems in modern policing.

This course tours diverse traditions of thought, undergirded by an anthropological sensibility. In other words, it deconstructs American policing with attention to the complexity of local social worlds. We will not simply ask “is policing racist?” but instead examine how police operate on the ground. How are police influenced by trainings imported from the Israeli military and the FBI? How do they construct and measure crime? How does racism work within an ostensibly colorblind system? And what can looking at policing from many different angles teach us about how to understand phenomena as varied as immigration discourse, murder statistics, mass shootings, and the rise of white supremacists? We will investigate work from anthropology, criminology, sociology, critical race theory, American studies, and history, as well as documentaries, TV shows, and popular fiction. We will even study the writing of police and their trainers, from a sociologist-turned-cop to a retired military officer who teaches “killology” to police.

The course will evenly balance lectures and discussion. We will also screen media (documentary clips, news reports, etc.), hold structured debates, and, at the end of the course, have brief student-led talks. Each unit will center on a tradition of thought. For example, we will learn what ethnography is and how anthropologists have studied policing, from riding along with elite crime squads in Paris to plumbing the archives of colonial police reports in Gaza. We will then examine the approach itself – ethnography is uniquely well-suited to studying everyday lives, less so to long histories of reform efforts, for example. Finally, we will apply this approach to a pressing political issue, such as the militarization of U.S. policing. We will look at several cases, like the police response to the San Bernardino shooting, and discuss questions such as how anthropology can/cannot apprehend these violent crises. For the final project, students will apply course concepts to a policing-related topic of their choice in a short essay, then present their analyses to the class. They will also compose brief reading responses during the course.

This course offers an introduction to core methods and concerns of various disciplines, which may be particularly useful for students considering majoring in the liberal arts. The instructor has conducted extensive ethnographic research with U.S. police. Her experiences with police trainings, ride-alongs, and interviews, as well as current debates within and about U.S. policing, will lend firsthand knowledge and analyses to the course.

This course will help students develop skills to critically engage with media and texts – from news reports to political theory to social scientific studies – and deepen their understandings of vital concepts like security, power, and racism. It will sharpen their reading and writing abilities and provide a safe, structured environment in which to practice sharing ideas in a seminar format. These skills and concepts will help prepare students for college-level coursework in the liberal arts. Furthermore, regardless of proposed major, students will learn to ask more critical questions of received narratives and of the world around them.

Prerequisites: This course is open to all interested students.


Course Information

  • Course Code: CEAN0935
  • Length: 2 weeks

Program Information


Brown’s Pre-College Program in the liberal arts and sciences, offering over 200 non-credit courses, one- to four-weeks long, taught on Brown’s campus. For students completing grades 9-12 by June 2019.

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