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Excerpted From: I. India Thusi, On Beauty and Policing, 114 Northwestern University Law Review 1335 (2020) (305 Footnotes) (Full Document)

indiathusi copyMany police departments around the world, from Los Angeles to Cape Town, have “protect and serve” in their mission statements and emblazoned across cars that patrol the streets of urban and rural communities alike. The South African Police changed its name to South African Police Service at the end of apartheid to emphasize that it would begin to serve the public. “Protect and serve” reflects police departments' commitment to protecting the public from criminals and to serving the public interest as community guardians and servants. Some scholars who examine the role of police officers usually consider the ways the police do or do not meet the goals of protecting and serving, assuming that these goals are, or should be, the goals of the police. Much of the scholarship shares a common premise: public safety and the public interest are, or should be, the primary motivations for the police.

However, policing in a country founded on white supremacy may simply exist to protect racial hierarchy, even when such protection undermines the goals of community service and crime reduction. Policing is often a medium for expressing which bodies society values; indeed, expressing corporeal value may be the primary goal of policing. What if disciplining disfavored bodies into docility and labeling these bodies as less valuable for the purpose of exclusion supersedes the crime-fighting agenda? Drawing on primary data collected by the author, this Article indicates that the possibility is more fact than fiction in the policing of sex workers in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Drawing from extensive ethnographic fieldwork, this Article illustrates how perceived beauty was a factor in whether and how police surveilled sex workers in the Hillbrow community in Johannesburg, South Africa. The data suggest that increased policing of more beautiful sex workers in Hillbrow not only took precedence over the crime-fighting agenda, but that it also often worked against it. Rather than serve and protect dangerous communities, the police gravitated toward the “benevolent surveillance” of sex worker communities with (what society perceived as) more beautiful sex workers. It was benevolent surveillance because these sex workers were under the watchful eyes of police officers who surveilled them in order to protect them, and the officers did so in a manner that reflected appreciation and kindness toward the sex workers. By adopting a language of aesthetics that was tied to race and gender, police officers reinforced an ideology, even if indirectly, about the superiority of whiteness and the corollary inferiority of blackness. Police officers' behavior, attitudes, and commentary expressed that some sex workers were perceived as more beautiful than others. These perceptions are statistically significantly correlated with how and where they policed, which suggests beauty became a form of currency. In Hillbrow, the police exhibited more respect for brothels with sex workers they described as beautiful, portraying these sex workers as the “true professionals.” These observations about “beauty” expressed the officers' views about female sexuality, race, gender, and femininity. Sex workers who were perceived to be whiter and more European were often placed higher on the hierarchy of protection priorities. As a result, beauty became a form of social capital that impacted how sex workers negotiated their relationships with the police. These findings indicate that police officers play an important role in how society determines whose bodies are important and assigns value to those bodies deemed worthy and valuable. These results are incongruous if police officers are primarily concerned with fighting crime and serving communities. However, if the assignment of value to different bodies in society is a natural consequence of policing, then these findings are less surprising.

These research findings are relevant to those interested in policing in the United States because both South Africa and the United States have attempted to build police organizations that respect the rights of everyone despite their racially fraught histories. They share complicated histories regarding race, gender, sexuality, and policing. While the United States had a period of legal racial segregation under Jim Crow for close to one hundred years following the end of slavery, South Africa had a formalized apartheid program that required separation between the races for over seventy years following a period of colonialism. In both countries, the police were enforcers of legally mandated separation of the races, and in both countries, the police have a history of antagonistic relations with black people. In both South Africa and the United States, whiteness has been idealized as the highest form of beauty and achievement, while blackness has been associated with depravity and sexual promiscuity. As Professor Tanya Hernández has observed, “When societal benefits are distributed differentially within a racial caste system, race takes on the quality of property rights. Whiteness and approximations of whiteness will always be valued in a society structured on a White/non-White racial continuum.” From dominant standards of beauty to popular culture representations, whiteness is associated with beauty and is at the top of the social hierarchy in both countries. Both countries place whiteness as higher on the social continuum, such that lighter shades of black skin are more favorable than darker shades of black skin. So, the social benefit does not just come from white skin as compared to black skin, but also from lighter skin shades as compared to darker skin shades. Gender is a further complicating factor in this racial hierarchy, as the feminine ideal is associated with a vulnerability that is frequently assumed to be the sole domain of white women. There are key differences between South Africa and the United States in that South Africa is a majority-black country and the United States is not; and apartheid in South Africa formally ended in 1994, while Jim Crow in the United States was held unconstitutional in 1954.

Within this social context, this Article considers two questions. First, what is the relationship between police and sex workers in Johannesburg? Second, what are the limitations of popular understandings about the police in light of the policing of sex workers? This Article frustrates a commonly held assumption that crime prevention is a primary objective of police and their approach to policing. It does so by drawing on nearly two years of participant observation with police officers on the job and with operating brothels as well as conversations with sex workers; twenty-five semi-structured interviews conducted with police officers; and one focus group comprised of fifteen officers. The policing of sex work is an ideal site for examining how police enforce racial and gender hierarchies because sex work has long been a space for contesting female sexuality, autonomy, and desire.

Part I of this Article explains why South Africa is an ideal place to examine the policing of racial and sexual subordination. This examination allows for consideration of how a legacy of racial separation and white domination lingers in contemporary policing. Michel Foucault's theories about discipline and punishment and Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw's theory on intersectionality provide insights for understanding how race and gender complicate our assumptions about policing.

Part II discusses the research methodology, which takes an anthropological approach and analyzes the cultural and social settings that contribute to the policing of racialized standards of beauty of sex workers.

Part III outlines the empirical findings from the research in South Africa and demonstrates how perceptions about beauty influenced how police interacted with sex workers. These findings illustrate the ways that perceptions of whiteness lead to uneven social capital amongst sex workers. Specifically, the policing of beauty reflects a racial and gender hierarchy that depreciates blackness and valorizes whiteness.

Part IV provides recommendations for reimagining the role of police in light of how they preserve existing racial and sexual hierarchies. It argues that we must acknowledge that assigning corporeal value is a function of policing, and we must incorporate intersectionality into how we analyze police work. In light of this, it becomes clear that policing can only be improved with less formal policing.

[. . .]

Patriarchy and racism can take on surprising forms. In Hillbrow, the sex workers who police perceived as most beautiful and who worked in the safest spaces had more police interactions and were more heavily policed. The type of policing that these sex workers experienced reflected a benevolent police gaze--a type of disciplinary surveillance--that relies on less brute force. The police in Hillbrow reinforced the higher value of whiter bodies over blacker bodies at the expense of reducing crime, which provides support, however limited, to the notion that police serve and protect racial hierarchies in countries that have a history of white supremacy before they serve and protect the people. If the trends detected in this research are borne out in other and more communities, then it suggests that racial bias is at the very heart of policing and is not an aberration that can be corrected through more training or more policing. Police discipline and reinforce which bodies are valued and which bodies survive. They allow blacker bodies to suffer from neglect. Attempts to reform police are unsuccessful because reinforcing racial and sexual hierarchies is what police often do. Transformation in policing requires more than tinkering with the current system, which police will protect and preserve, despite good intentions. Increasing democracy and fairness in policing requires careful consideration of the ways race, gender, and sexuality complicate our understanding of the police.  

I. India Thusi. Associate Professor of Law, California Western School of Law.

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