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89 4 Weaponized Empathy Emotion and the Limits of Racial Reconciliation in Policing Naomi Murakawa Police scanners, Tasers, increased data collecting and sharing, SWAT teams, gang injunctions, stop-and-frisk, “quality of life” ticketing—all of these policing reforms have been taken up to improve the quality of policing in the United States. The dominant school of thought on police reform has suggested that reforms like these make for safer communities and that improving policing will allow us to escape its violence. This orientation toward police reform imagines that documentation, training or oversight might protect us from the harassment, intimidation, beatings, occupation and death that the state employs to maintain social control under the guise of safety. What is missing from this orientation, however, is recognition of the actual function of policing in US society: armed protection of state interests. If one sees policing for what it is—a set of practices sanctioned by the state to enforce law and maintain social control and cultural hegemony through the use of force—one may more easily recognize that perhaps the goal should not be to improve how policing functions but to reduce its role in our lives. —Rachel Herzing1 “Because with an open heart, we can learn to stand in each other’s shoes and look at the world through each other’s eyes.” Thus began President Barack Obama’s July 2016 call for perspective sharing between police officers and black people, groups who must “embark on the hard but necessary work of negotiation” and “the pursuit of reconciliation.” 90 | Naomi Murakawa Interrupted by bursts of applause, President Obama offered a sanguine hypothetical of an officer who “sees his own son in that teenager with a hoodie who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous.” And, because his vision of bridging “the divides of race in America” is a form of emotional labor required equally by all—unmodulated by age, race, professional authority, institutional power, or easy access to legitimate use of batons, Tasers, and guns—President Obama’s hypothetical also requires the policed “teenager with a hoodie” to see from the officer’s perspective, ideally “see[ing] in the police officer the same words and values and authority of his parents.” The fact of racialized policing is leveled down to flat terms of interpersonal misunderstanding. In this logic, there are different but equally valid feelings between symmetrically empowered groups, “an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police” and “police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs.” In this world of feelings, the decisive question is whether these groups, in President Obama’s words, “can ever understand each other’s experience.”2 With this call for reciprocal understanding, President Obama achieved something at once ordinary and obscene: He translated the political economy of policing into an emotional economy, reducing racialized state violence from institutional pattern to personal perspective. Since Black Lives Matter activists successfully reignited national debates over police terrorism in August 2014, the Obama administration has responded as if racialized policing and punishment are problems of mistrust , misunderstanding, and historically accrued bad feelings between police and communities of color.3 This essay explores why I have such a bad feeling about all this talk of bad racial feelings. Many activists, especially young and LGBTQ people of color in organizations such as Hands Up United, We Charge Genocide, Million Hoodies March, and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, are calling for massive redistribution of resources away from the carceral apparatus—articulated, for example, in the hashtag calls of Black Youth Project 100 to #StopTheCops and #FundBlackFutures.4 My concern is that these well-reasoned demands for carceral divestment are being translated into carceral investments, and I suspect that the falsely egalitarian, deceptively responsive vernacular of feelings enables this mistranslation. By framing racialized state violence as an affective prob- Weaponized Empathy | 91 lem, a painful deficit of trust and empathy, the arc of political discourse swings optimistically toward the possibility of reconciliation through more, more, more: more “community policing,” more recruitment of police officers of color, more “friendly” enmeshment of police in communities of color, and more funding for police training to reduce implicit bias and enhance communication skills. In short, humane carceral development promises to bridge racial divides. Within this vernacular of humane policing, I am centrally concerned with the dangers of empathy. Empathy—the ability to see through another ’s eyes—is a calling card of social grace and social status, a marker of sophistication and...


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