Excerpted From: Shannon Malone Gonzalez, Samantha J. Simon and Katie Kaufman Rogers, The Diversity Officer: Police Officers' and Black Women Civilians' Epistemologies of Race and Racism in Policing, 56 Law and Society Review 477 (September 2022) (References) (Full Document)


GonzalezSimonRogersAntiblack police violence--and resistance to it--fuels a legitimacy crisis for U.S. police. Heightened scrutiny of police post-Ferguson has renewed conversations about “police-minority relations,” with police departments across the country adopting reforms that purport to improve relationships with minority communities . One reform involves hiring historically underrepresented officers--including people of color, LGBTQ people, and white women--as police officers.

The push to diversify the police is not new. Yet, little research investigates how this effort is discussed and understood by police officers and black civilians--two groups routinely invoked in discourse on “police-minority relations.” We explore how police and black civilians understand the significance of race and racism in policing by analyzing their discourse on police officers of color, and particularly black officers. Using 40 interviews with a race-diverse, primarily male sample of police officers and 60 interviews with black women civilians (who are not police), we ask: how do police and black women civilians, respectively, frame the relationship between race and racism with policing? How do they understand racial integration as addressing the issue of racism in policing?

By comparing their discourse on these topics, we find that black women civilians and police use divergent epistemologies to conceptualize race and racism in policing. Police rely on an epistemology of white ignorance to reconfigure the problem of police racism as an issue of misplaced racial bias against police and identify diversifying police as a remedy to address this bias. Alternatively, black women use a standpoint epistemology to frame the problem of police violence as a structural relationship produced through a history of racism and identify police diversity initiatives as incapable of addressing this institutionalized racism. This frame positions race as an outcome of historical and structural racism, while police describe race as a static identity and source of inhered cultural difference.

We conclude with an analysis of how police engage diversity discourse as a form of racecraft, focusing the conversation on individual attitudes toward police to avoid institutional accountability for police racism. Black women express a competing epistemology for understanding police racism; however, this epistemology is not disseminated, legitimated, and enforced through state power. We thus theorize state-sponsored discourse on diversity and “police-minority relations” as a mechanism of white ignorance that works to systematically undermine lived experiences and collective memories of police racism and reinforce the state's monopoly on violence.

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In this article, we ask: How do police and black women civilians understand racial integration as addressing the issue between police and minority communities? What do these understandings reveal about the belief systems they use to understand race, racism, and police-minority relations? Empirically building on a theory of racial ignorance, we identify epistemologies and discourses through which a white institution (in this case, police) evades and distorts the perspectives of people of color (in this case, black women) and their collective memories, history, and lived experiences of racism. By revealing discrepancies in how police officers and black women civilians describe the role of race and racism in policing, this study illustrates how the state reproduces white ignorance about police racism, as well as how black women civilians resist these narratives. We reveal conflicting epistemologies for understanding racism, which produce divergent frames for understanding race and its function for the institution of policing. By analyzing conflicting discourses on police diversity initiatives, we reveal ways that racecraft operates through police narratives, and ultimately works to stall racial justice movements through the reproduction of white ignorance.

Police in this study relied on and reproduced an epistemology of racial ignorance to dismiss and discredit people of color's lived experiences of police racism. We argue police conceptualize racism using an epistemology of white ignorance, producing a frame that allows them to see race as a static identity based on inhered differences. This limits the issue of racism to an issue of “racial” perception, facilitating diversity initiatives as a solution to this limited (mis)understanding of the problem: police understand diversification as changing how people understand the police-minority interaction and the police as an institution, but that changes nothing about the policing institution or how police operate.

These police narratives evade and distort the social reality of racism to produce (mis)understandings useful for police domination, framing (1) policework as racial, but not racist; (2) police-minority conflict as resulting from racial misperception, rather than racism; and (3) police diversification as a reasonable intervention to address this misperception. For these officers, black officers and other officers of color as an asset to police departments because they can leverage their racial identity to shore up perceptions of police legitimacy among black civilians and other civilians of color. Officers of color are supposed to accomplish this by drawing on insider knowledge and rapport they are assumed to have with communities they racially and/or ethnically “mirror.” We argue these discursive maneuvers generate white ignorance about police racism, allowing police to acknowledge their work as selectively “racial” while also legitimizing police amidst growing calls for abolition.

Conversely, black women in this study drew on a standpoint epistemology grounded in lived experiences and history/collective memories of police violence to frame policing as racist; racialized distrust of police as relational; and the diversity solution as an unhelpful, and even harmful, intervention for black women. In other words, black women's standpoint allows them to see “race” as an output of racism, and racism as a function of unequal power relations that reflect their history and lived experiences of police violence. Because standpoint epistemology sees “race” as a product of racism, and racism as a social relation and product of socialization and institutional inequality, black women's narratives reveal why they see diversity as incapable of “fixing” the institution. Further, black women's reliance on history and lived experiences reject a framing of “the problem” that sees it as resulting from black women's misunderstanding and/or misperception of the situation. Instead, the problem is racist institutional practices of the police that reinforce unequal power relations, which police dismiss and downplay through this dialectic.

These epistemologies conceptualize racism in different ways, leading to different understandings of “race,” and producing supportive logics for divergent interventions to addressing police violence and racism. By juxtaposing the narratives of black women civilians with those of police officers, we show how police partly accommodate antiracist critique through a process of racecraft that maintains white ignorance about police racism by reproducing an ideology that sees “race” as a static, inhered identity differentiated by observable traits, but totally divorced from power relations. This limits the issue of racism to an issue of “racial” perception, facilitating diversity initiatives as a solution to this limited (mis)understanding of the problem: police understand diversification as changing how people understand the police-minority interaction and the police as an institution, but that changes nothing about the policing institution or how police operate.

Several implications emerge from these data. First, our findings cast doubt on potential efficacy of diversity-based police reforms. The black women in this study indicated they feel threatened by police officers across racialized and gendered categories. Given this, it seems unlikely that increased diversity in policing would improve “police-minority relations.” We foreground the voices of black women civilians, a population ostensibly meant to benefit from police reform. However, the black women in this study do not see officers of color as transformative or beneficial to their broader relationship with the police. Instead, this sample of black women and police officers operated from entirely different conceptualizations of what power and community mean within the context of racial and gendered systems. Further, for the police in this study, the epistemology and praxis of racial ignorance applies to officers across racial categorizations. For officers, their understanding of police racism is shaped by their participation in the institution of policing. This highlights that an individual's situatedness within an institution (e.g., a police department), not an “essential” racial identity, influences their relationship to racecraft.

Second, our findings suggest that police are adapting to increased public scrutiny of police by accommodating critique in a limited frame that acknowledges race, but not racism. We argue this racecraft (Fields & Fields, 2014)produces white ignorance that legitimizes oppression by obscuring the lived, material power disparities between policcers and civilians. As Ray et al. (2017) write, calls for hiring officers of color to reduce police violence assume that “the race of the officer, rather than racialized policing, is the cause of unrest.” This assumption implicitly blames “the community,” defined (by police) in racial terms, for failing to cooperate with police on the basis of racial difference. As a hegemonic discourse, the racial difference frame lays “the groundwork for handling difference as the real problem, instead of the power relations that construct difference”.

By selectively incorporating an acknowledgement of race into discourse on policing, these maneuvers work to neutralize discussion of power, history, and lived experiences in conversations of police racism. This explains why many of the police officers we interviewed said they supported police-force diversification--they believed hiring officers of color would improve community perceptions of police legitimacy, without necessitating major changes in police operations. This discursive move helps police defend police against charges of racism and shore up police legitimacy while also acknowledging that “race” shapes policework. By framing citizen attitudes as the ingredient that makes a police encounter “about race,” police officers can concede that “race” of officer, but not racism, shapes policing. In this way, police acknowledge that racial difference informs their interactions with civilians while denying that racism structurally informs their own practices or implicating themselves in (re)producing racial difference. This frame works to diminish the material issues black communities raise about police.

Finally, this study questions the logic of reforms seeking to “build bridges” and alleviate “tension” between police and black communities. This is the work of racecraft: the discourse bolsters police legitimacy by constructing black people's perceptions as a problematic Other (vis-à-vis the police), a static, racialized object that must be “dealt with.” Such a framework identifies the relationship between civilians and officers as a key site for police reform. The “police-minority relations” framework thus places the onus for reform on citizen attitudes toward police, rather than structural racism in police work. This allows departments to dismiss civilian interpretations of police encounters as racially biased and characterize this bias as the true cause of animosity, tension, and violence in the streets. Police can then outsource responsibility for fixing “police-minority relations” to individual black officers and other officers of color, who are seen as department liaisons for these communities. We conclude that diversity-based reforms primarily serve the institutional goals of police departments because they allow them to elide their own power and skirt accountability for change.

More broadly, we suggest that rhetorically defining the social problem with policing as one of “police-minority relations” and/or “racial diversity” limits the scope of the conversation in a way that impedes the direct focus on eradicating police violence. Reducing the role of race in policing to individuals' identities and interpersonal dynamics defines the problem as about race, not racism, which distracts focus from racist systems and structures,  This aligns with evidence that community policing programs reinforce rather than regulate police power, obscuring punitive police practices with narratives about “building trust” and interacting “respectfully” with civilians. As a mechanism of white ignorance, this distraction forecloses the discusion of more transformative models of justice. For police and police reformers, waning police legitimacy is cause for alarm. However, for some activists, delegitimizing the police is a necessary step toward the end goal of eradicating police and prisons. Future research on racism in the U.S. criminal punishment system, particularly on policing, must account for how “police-minority relations” are conceptualized differently across contexts, groups, and standpoints. Further, we suggest that work in this area critically examine how this concept of “police-minority relations” operates as a form of racecraft, a vector of power that legitimizes institutions of racial oppression.

Shannon Malone Gonzalez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her research primarily focuses on police violence against black women and girls.

Samantha J. Simon is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Criminology & Criminal Justice at The University of Missouri, St. Louis. Her research focuses on gender, race, organizational inequality, and violence. Samantha J. Simon, Criminology & Criminal Justice Department, University of Missouri, St. Louis, MO, USA. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Katie Kaufman Rogers is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. Her research uses ethnographic and qualitative methods to study work/organizations, the criminal-legal system, consumer culture, and gender, race, and class.