The Thin White Line

It allows them to have it both ways as majority and minority, center and margin. “They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white,” he wrote. Although the Fraternal Order of Police leans conservative (it endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016) and blue lives matter bills have had more success in red states, the legislation is not contained to the political right. Thin Blue Line USA now sells shirts and hats that mix the police flag with the logo of the Punisher, the Marvel antihero who first appeared in Spider-Man comics in 1974 as a white Vietnam veteran waging a vigilante war on street crime. President Trump knows this. The FOP’s national leadership consists of seven white men, including Canterbury, making his choice of words — merely for the color of their uniform — a striking appropriation of antiracist language. Edgar Hoover. White laborers remained poor, but they received, Du Bois wrote, “a sort of public or psychological wage.” They could feel secure that, while they might be poor, black people were even poorer. Since his first day on the campaign trail, he has weaponized blue lives against black lives and soldiers against kneeling black football players. They would never say what he said or do what he did. Conservatives can celebrate white police as deracinated embodiments of the nation, while liberals can treat them as minoritized heroes whose voices must be heard. Parker believed that the nation faced an invasion from within, an invasion that originated from Los Angeles’s black and brown neighborhoods and required military techniques and equipment to combat. Neither grew up in a police family. The legal construction of whiteness coincided with the establishment of the first police departments, which served to protect private property, to safeguard whiteness from indigenous and black people without claim to property of their own, neither land nor their own bodies. “We must confront and condemn dangerous anti-police prejudice,” Trump declared, following an introduction from Canterbury, the FOP president. That message has worked, attracting conservative and liberal politicians who either believe that police officers need hate-crime protections or know that they can’t risk being labeled anti-police if they want to stay in office. It didn’t take long for police officers to embrace the idea that they were waging a war on crime at home. Their wages remained low, but they could rest assured that their blue lives mattered. He turned his white officers into embodiments of the nation (soldiers in a war on crime) and yet maintained that no one lived more marginal lives in police-hating America. Sessions responded by lifting restrictions on law enforcement access to surplus military equipment, including grenade launchers, armored vehicles, and bayonets. In a culture war, no one wins, except, it seems, white people who, whether they wear a uniform to work or not, have learned to outfit their whiteness in police blue, firefighter red, and army green. The bill’s sponsors modeled it on a federal hate-crime statute, believing, without evidence, that attacks on police had escalated and should be covered under civil rights law as crimes motivated by a kind of anti-police “racism.” The bipartisan group titled the bill the Protect and Serve Act of 2018. White men who claim blue lives assert their Americanness as agents of the law while bemoaning that the law has failed to protect them as “blue” minorities in an anti-police nation. “Since 1999, we’ve been saying that police officers that are ambushed merely for the color of their uniform are being subjected to hate crimes,” he told NPR’s Ari Shapiro. Two weeks after taking office, he signed an executive order directing his attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to develop legal strategies to enhance protections for police. It’s either one or the other. She got the job, and the job got her and her daughters through the Depression. A man needed to first own whiteness before he could own land and slaves. Senators Orrin Hatch, the Republican from Utah, and Heidi Heitkamp, the embattled Democrat from North Dakota, co-sponsored the companion bill in the Senate to, as Hatch put it, counter “these heinous, cowardly assaults” on law enforcement. “Adding a professional category changes and confuses the meaning of that.” Padilla-Goodman put her finger not just on why police shouldn’t be protected by hate-crime laws but also how white men have held onto their dominant status in the post–Civil Rights era: by constructing mutable identities through a close association with vulnerable police officers, firefighters, and soldiers. Despite a lightning storm, the grounds crew kept the lights on all night. It turned out that he was ahead of them. Since 2015, when white supremacist Dylann Roof killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, liberal writers have made a point of reporting on white supremacist groups that had once seemed at the fringiest end of the political fringe in the pre-Obama years. Thousands of white men returned from Europe and the Pacific, where they had served in segregated units, and brought their military experience to their local police departments. Parker served in Europe for two years and came home with a war-mindedness that he never lost. When a reporter asked Trump administration officials why they thought police needed bayonets, they explained that bayonets could be used to cut seatbelts in an emergency. ¤
Joseph Darda is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Race and Ethnic Studies at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Empire of Defense: Race and the Cultural Politics of Permanent War (University of Chicago Press, 2019). They paid them in public deference in the form of blue uniforms and a privileged relationship to the law. That night, President Trump ordered that the White House be lit with blue lights to honor police. Perhaps nothing captures the racial politics of Trump’s America better than a big white house that, if you don’t look too close, appears blue. The law constructed it as a condition for seizing indigenous lands and plundering black bodies. Jacob ordered a thousand flags from an overseas manufacturer and put them up for sale on Amazon. But it is better known by a nickname that identifies it as a creation of our new culture wars: the “blue lives matter” bill. The whiteness of blue lives forms a rare site of consensus in our new culture wars by bridging the two dominant racial ideologies of the post–Civil Rights era: conservative color blindness and liberal multiculturalism. Most white people are uncomfortable talking about their whiteness, so they find veiled ways to voice their racial grievances and entitlements. Some do both, dressing white officers in red, white, and blue and then, in the next breath, lamenting that the nation has no place for them. But they felt that police officers had been mistreated and wanted to sell merchandise that honored their service. “Hate crimes are about an identity-based bias, an immutable characteristic that a person cannot change,” Allison Padilla-Goodman, a regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, told The New York Times. He ordered more, and they sold out again. In 1952, he gave a speech in Chicago in which, adapting a military expression, he described the police as “a thin blue line” separating the “law abiding elements of society and the criminals that prey upon them.” Parker’s program of police “professionalization” — a term he used to mean militarization — had transformed Los Angeles, he told his Chicago audience, into “the nation’s ‘white spot’ in the black picture” of a nation besieged by crime. You can’t be black and blue. They can’t see themselves in Dylann Roof. In April, I reviewed Kathleen Belew’s history of the white power movement Bring the War Home in the pages of LARB. Far from it. Whiteness as property depended on the whiteness of police. But there is a risk that in consuming stories of self-identified white supremacists like Roof we may miss the more mundane forms that white supremacy takes in the United States — forms of white supremacy that don’t announce themselves with swastikas and white hoods. They could feel superior to their black neighbors. The people who benefit most from the assertion that blue lives matter are not police. B. “So the thin blue line separates the two and maintains order.” The flag represents an America facing, as Parker would have put it, a war from within. The House passed the bill by an overwhelming vote of 382 to 35. The idea of blue lives has given white people, including perhaps most of all non-police, a way to assert their whiteness without having to use the word white. (The act would make you believe that an army of cop killers is at the gate.) Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic House minority leader, voted for the Protect and Serve Act, along with 161 of her Democratic colleagues. It was an asset. The truth is that Roof makes white people feel secure, because they know that they aren’t him. Most states have introduced comparable legislation since, including South Carolina, which doesn’t even have a hate-crime statute on the books. “The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent upon their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.” White planters were not going to share their wealth with white laborers, but they would let them protect their property. They are men like Andrew Jacob and Donald Trump, who know that, for all the explicit white supremacy in the United States today, blue still sells better than white. There is nothing whiter than blue lives. ¤
In the fall of 2014, with police shootings of unarmed black men in the headlines, Andrew Jacob, a white University of Michigan sophomore, sat down in his dorm room and designed a flag for police officers: a black and white American flag with a horizontal blue line below the stars. White claims to blue lives have surfaced at times of black political gains, from Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era to the election of the first black president, allowing white men to voice a racial grievance without having to acknowledge that they have a race. In his 1935 magnum opus Black Reconstruction in America, W. E. In the years after World War II, blue lives turned red, white, and blue. When a representative from the Civil Rights Commission asked him about accusations of discrimination in hiring and police conduct, he replied, “I think the greatest dislocated minority in America today are the police.” Already, in the early days of the Civil Rights era, Parker recognized the political value of police officers to white interests. William Parker, the police chief of the LAPD from 1950 until his death in 1966, pioneered the militarization of law enforcement, which earned him the condemnation of civil rights leaders and praise in the pages of Life as the nation’s “second most respected law enforcement officer” behind J. The bills took inspiration from the Blue Lives Matter countermovement, which formed after the murder of two NYPD officers in late 2014, and received the endorsement of the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), the nation’s largest police association. President Barack Obama signed the Blue Alert Act of 2015 into law, creating a nationwide system for alerting the public of threats to police officers’ lives. Heitkamp, referring to police officers as “peace officers,” released a statement lamenting that “our peace officers walk out the door every day not knowing what awaits them during the next shift.” In the fifth year of the Black Lives Matter movement, and with officer deaths nearing an all-time low, Republicans and Democrats came together to insist that blue lives matter more. Du Bois showed how white laborers’ decision to align themselves with white planters rather than black workers — to choose racial pride over class solidarity — brought Reconstruction to an end and paved the way for Jim Crow. Civil rights groups have protested the blue lives matter legislation because hate-crime laws, they argue, are meant to protect identities rather than professions. Louisiana and Kentucky passed the first blue lives matter bills in 2016 and 2017. She was “not merely passing, but trespassing.” Whiteness emerged in the early republic as a form of property, a racial identity on which claims to land and self-possession depended. This past spring, the president spoke at the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in the capital in recognition of Peace Officers Memorial Day. Her grandmother, Harris wrote, could see that whiteness had a cash value. They sold out. In the 1930s, Harris’s grandmother, a light-skinned black woman, had moved from Mississippi to Chicago, where, struggling to raise her two daughters, she applied for a job at a downtown department store as a white woman. But all blue lives are, because blueness has been imagined as the opposite of blackness. “The black above represents citizens, and the black below represents criminals,” Jacob told the Detroit News, explaining his design. Laws changed over time, but, as Harris’s grandmother knew, whiteness remained and remains treasured property in America, where it can be the difference between surviving hard times and not making it at all. No one at the department store ever knew she was a black woman from the south side. ¤
In 1993, Cheryl Harris, a young professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, published a field-defining 80-page article in the Harvard Law Review in which she argued that whiteness constituted a form of property. The Protect and Serve Act followed a wave of similar bills at the state level. When Louisiana passed the first blue lives matter bill, which added police officers and firefighters to the state’s hate-crime statute, Chuck Canterbury, the president of the FOP, described it as a long-overdue recognition of widespread anti-police bias. Thin blue line, minority white police, war on crime — Parker may have seemed behind the times in the 1960s. The Blue Lives Matter countermovement hails white men as universal and yet marginal, race-neutral (identified with state-issued uniforms) and yet raced (necessitating hate-crime protections). This is one of Du Bois’s most famous claims, but few historians note the form in which he argued white laborers received their racial wage. Late last year, Hachette published ex-skinhead Christian Picciolini’s memoir White American Youth, and this fall Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow has been doing the rounds to promote Rising Out of Hatred, his book about former white supremacist youth leader Derek Black. This does not, of course, mean that all police officers are white. “Can you believe there’s prejudice with respect to our police?” he asked the audience of uniformed officers and their families, who responded with polite applause. NOVEMBER 19, 2018

IN MAY, a bipartisan group of senators and congresspeople introduced legislation that would make it a federal crime to target a person for being a police officer. Their message is not anti-black but pro-police, they say, despite having profited from a movement that arose in opposition to the assertion that black lives matter. Jacob and Forhan first met on their high school swim team in West Bloomfield, Michigan, an affluent Detroit suburb. But Jacob and Forhan have been careful to distance themselves from self-identified white supremacist groups. He named it, with an unknowing nod to Parker, the thin blue line flag. He and his business partner, Pete Forhan, a white UM classmate, have sold more than 50,000 flags since as the president and vice president of Thin Blue Line USA, which offers pro-police bracelets, pins, decals, pet accessories, and apparel for the whole family. There are Americans, and then there are “criminals.” Never mind that those below Jacob’s thin blue line are also Americans. Harris’s use of the word trespassing to describe her grandmother’s racial passing suggests how whiteness as property has endured for so long: policing. Introducing a new black, white, and blue Punisher hat, the company’s “law enforcement liaison” said, “At the end of the day, whether on this earth or somewhere else, the criminal always gets punished.”
Participants in the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville last year carried the thin blue line flag alongside the Confederate Southern cross and the Nazi swastika.