This article was originally published by California Law Review in Sept. 2020. The following is the introduction. 

On May 25, 2020, a video went viral depicting Amy Cooper, a White woman, calling the cops on Christian Cooper, a Black man, to tell them that an “African-American” man was “threatening” her. That same night in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin snuffed the life out of George Floyd, who pleaded for mercy and cried out for his mother. Racial stress had already been brewing because of the coronavirus’s disparate impact on communities of color and several other high-profile killings of innocent African-Americans. Floyd’s killing boiled the racial stress into righteous anger, resulting in a worldwide political uprising. As protests brought overdue attention to the ubiquity of anti-Black violence, the media regularly recited a laundry list of recent racial outrages. Figuring prominently in a list that included the lynching-like murder of Ahmaud Arbery, the deadly middle-of-the-night raid of Breonna Taylor’s home, and the horrific asphyxiation of Floyd was Amy Cooper’s call to the police. Her actions became an inseparable part of the contemporary libretto on racist policing.

The Amy Cooper video struck a nerve with a public becoming increasingly frustrated with what they saw as the tendency of White women—a group generally immune from policing, prosecution, and incarceration—to invoke state and private authority at whim. Pop-cultural proof of White women’s privilege and authoritarianism flooded the internet: “Karen” who “calls the manager;” Patricia McCloskey in front of her marbled mansion, one hand on her capri pant-clad hip, the other pointing a semiautomatic at passing protesters; the liberal friend whose “White fragility” causes heightened defensiveness. For years, critical race commentators questioned White women’s immunity to accountability for White supremacy and the underlying presumption that women, as a subordinated group vis-a-vis men, are allies to racial-justice and other left social movements, including feminism. After all, critics pointed out, in 2016, more White women voted for a confessed “pussy grabber” than the first female presidential nominee.

Here, I argue that the alliance between White women and policing currently under public scrutiny is not just a function of race-baiting, “security mom” politics—the type Trump advances when he tweets, “Suburban Housewives of America . . . Biden will destroy your neighborhood and American dream.” The alliance also cannot be fully explained as a product of unconscious predispositions that blind White liberals to the racial vagaries of the carceral state. Instead, we should understand many American women’s strong and consistent support for policing, prosecution, and imprisonment as also a function of progressive and feminist ideologies. In my recent book The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration, I trace the origins of the powerful “carceral feminist” instinct—the strong presumption that women’s equality is vindicated through criminal law enforcement. My intent is not to cast aspersions on feminism or even “White feminism” but, in the vein of James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own and Naomi Murakawa’s, The First Civil Right, to tell a complex story of feminism’s relationship to the American penal state so that we feminists can, in Murakawa’s words, “reexamine the scaffolding beneath our explanations for mass incarceration” in order to better fight it.

Read the full piece here

Aya Gruber

University of Colorado Law School

Aya Gruber teaches and writes in the areas of criminal law and procedure, critical theory, feminism, and comparative/international law. Her scholarship focuses primarily on feminist efforts to strengthen criminal law responses to crimes against women. Her widely taught and frequently cited articles combine insights from practicing as a public defender with extensive research to articulate a feminist critique of punitive and authoritarian laws on violence against women. Her forthcoming book The Feminist War On Crime (U.C. Press 2019), tells the story how feminists, in their quest to secure women's protection from domestic violence and rape, became soldiers in the war on crime and contributors to mass incarceration, and it sketches a path forward for young women, activists, and lawmakers to oppose violence against women without reinforcing the American prison state.


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