Ask a Feminist: A Conversation with Angela P. Harris on Gender and Gun Violence
Angela P. Harris and Amy Farrell
For this edition of Ask a Feminist, we turn to Angela P. Harris—Distinguished Professor of Law, Boochever and Bird Endowed Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom of Equality, and Director of the Aoki Center for Critical Race and Nation Studies at the University of California Davis—for a conversation about the connections between masculinity and gun violence and the consequences of state efforts to control violence through criminalization. The need for feminist voices is particularly acute as political dialogue in the United States has shifted dramatically toward “law and order” approaches to solving community problems in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. Professor Harris’s scholarship provides the theoretical underpinning for feminist approaches to violence prevention such as restorative justice. Her perspective as a feminist and a critical race scholar is critical in reframing discussions about violence and violence prevention that too often favor traditionally masculine ideals of protection and autonomy over community and connection.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation held over Skype on September 16, 2016. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.
Listen to the conversation:
Amy Farrell (AF): Maybe you could just start by giving me a little background about your research in the area of gendered violence? Or your writing in the area of gendered violence?
Angela Harris (AH): I started writing about gendered violence for the first time when I had an article published in 2000 in the Stanford Law Journal. I was really interested in putting together the pieces of masculinity theory with the debate about crime and violence. At that time, what was fresh in everybody’s mind was the sodomization of Abner Louima by a police officer, Justin Volpe, in New York City, which was really shocking and brutal. I got interested in thinking about it as a crime not just about race, not just about policing, but also about gender and the way that they intersect. So that’s how I started thinking about violence as a kind of language that is distinctively attractive, I think, to masculinity—or certain kinds of masculinity.
AF: If we think about the way that that writing and theorizing reflect on issues of violence today, can you say a little bit about this concern that’s been raised recently about violence being out of control? How does being a feminist theorist and a critical race theorist reflect on that debate?
AH: The way I come at it is not so much as a policy analyst as a cultural observer, and that’s where critical race feminism is important to me. Because I think so much of our gun violence comes out of distinctive cultures or subcultures in our country that are very much wrapped up in and around questions of race and gender. So, for example, we think of the government itself as having an interest in national security, in antiterrorism. It protects from outside threats. We have a president-elect who’s very much speaking in the language of the necessity of force to protect us from enemies from without. That’s a language that I think is deeply rooted in an old tradition about the state as the patriarchal protector of the people and needing to have control over life and death in order to keep us safe from enemies within and without. And violence is inherently a tool of that kind of vision–of security as power and control. Then we also have a very strong culture of gun rights in this country. This is a culture that rallies around the Second Amendment and still has a frontier image of what it means to be an American—somebody who’s independent, who doesn’t need to depend on the state at all ... somebody who may in fact have to defend themselves against the state, and for that reason needs direct access to the means of self-protection as a form of political citizenship. That culture, I think, is also implicitly steeped in narratives about gender and about race. Because if you think of who the image of the frontier person is, it’s usually a man who’s protecting his family against Indians, against maybe up-rising slaves, against others who represent threats to “we, the people.” There’s been a real upsurge in white nationalism that we see around Donald Trump in particular that I think taps deeply into that Second Amendment vision of gun culture.
We have also different kinds of subcultures in urban cities. We know there’s a horrible epidemic of black-on-black violence and killings, and that partly is around the sense that urban communities don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe from the state, and they don’t feel safe against individuals in their communities who are using guns. I was really influenced by Jill Leovy’s recent book Ghettoside, where she talks about the failure of the police on both ends. There’s overpolicing in these communities in the sense of stop-and-frisk, police crackdowns for minor crimes, police brutality. But there’s also underpolicing in that the really serious crimes—like homicides—don’t get adequate resources for investigation and arrest. And so there’s this culture of really feeling like you’re on your own, like you’ve got to protect yourself and you’ve got to be strong, and if anyone disrespects you, you’ve got to be prepared to defend yourself to the max. That’s another subculture in our country that is very deeply entangled with gun violence and, again, the reasons stretch into race as well as gender. So that’s just kind of a sampling of where I see the current landscape and the ways in which we’re so connected to guns, to violence as the image of security as well as the image of insecurity.
AF: In what ways do you think feminists bring a unique voice to this conversation about issues of violence in communities and state responses to violence? This is a dominant conversation in many spheres, particularly in academia today. Is there a unique feminist voice that can inform that conversation?
AH: I think there are a lot of powerful feminist voices, and the Say Her Name campaign is one of them. It’s calling attention to female victims of state violence, women of color in particular. What feminists can do, I think, is to highlight the gendered dimension of many of these debates, and one of those gendered dimensions has to do with the identity of the people who are both the perpetrators and the victims. So, Say Her Name is calling attention to the erasure of women victims of gun violence. But also, as Jackson Katz and other people have pointed out, there’s a big silence about the fact that overwhelmingly the perpetrators of gun violence tend to be men.
So there’s an identity dimension of that conversation that feminists can call attention to, but more importantly, I think feminists can talk about the ways in which it’s not just whether it’s men or women who are doing the killing or are being the victims of crime, but also the way in which so much perpetration of violence and conversation about violence proceeds along lines that track conventional sorts of masculinities, that are about protection, control, and force. And I think the scripts that follow that are eerily similar if you look at the kind of narratives that police are following and the narratives that suspects are following. Frank Rudy Cooper, another law professor, has written a lot about masculinity contests as a way of characterizing some of these individual confrontations between citizens and the police where both sides are feeling like, “oh, I’m being disrespected,” and they ratchet up the confrontation just a little bit more. If both of the parties have these narratives about aggression and demanding respect, then you’re going to have a confrontation that is easily going to boil over into violence.
AF: Do you see alternatives? Are there ways in which your work provides alternatives to that dominant script?
AH: One thing I will say is that I’m really fascinated by the way the younger generation—I’m talking about kids who are maybe my daughter’s age, in their teens—many of them are abandoning the script of traditional masculinity in a number of ways. There’s an explosion, it just seems to me anecdotally, in the number of kids who are genderqueer, who are trans in various ways, who are abandoning gender altogether, who consider themselves to be agender. And I see that as a loosening of these cultural narratives, or at least making it more possible to loosen the cultural narratives about what it means to be a man—and the insistence that we’ve had until this point that if you’re born with a penis, then there are certain things that you have to do or certain ways that your personality has to be, including this willingness to use violence and to cut yourself off from alternative strategies, like empathy and conciliation and all of the skills that we attribute to women rather than men. So I think long-term there’s this really interesting cultural shift, which might not at first seem like it has anything at all to do with guns and violence, but it could be a way of relaxing our cultural hold on those narratives about what it means to be a man.
AF: Coming back to this discussion about the interactions between police and community members and the need to call attention to some of that violence—fresh in my mind is the civil settlement where Sandra Bland’s family settled that case—in what ways do the relationships between women and the police and, sadly, death either change the way we think about police control or reaffirm the way we think about police control? What is the intersection between gender and race in cases such as hers?
AH: That’s a really interesting question. I think that interaction and ones like it might be shocking to some because we have this script where confrontations that end in violence and death are between two men, and here you had a man and a woman, and a woman acting in a way that was not stereotypically submissive. She stood up for her rights and said, “No, you can’t do this to me,” and she ended up paying the ultimate price for it. I think it’s an interesting confrontation for people who are not used to seeing women stand up for themselves in that kind of way. I don’t know whether it would confirm or deny existing stereotypes about race, though, because we also still have an idea of the black woman as being smart-mouthed and angry, so maybe in some ways watching that event was stereotype-confirming rather than stereotype-challenging. But I think it’s really important at least to acknowledge that there are women as well as male victims and that from a race perspective, when we think about Black Lives Matter, we have to remember that black women’s lives matter as well.
AF: To some degree, it’s possible that this violence is a form of keeping gender norms in line. When women step out of those roles, there may be a suggestion that the state acts in ways to keep them in those positions.
AH: Yes, absolutely.
AF: I’m thinking back to this question of a feminist voice in the area of gun control or gun violence, where there are arguably few feminist voices. The narrative is dominantly quite masculine. What do you see as alternatives to the status quo in terms of state responses to violence? Are there other pathways, particularly coming at this issue from the perspective of a critical race feminist?
AH: I think there’s a lot of really interesting, cutting-edge work around feminist thinking and violence coming out of the domestic violence movement. Because domestic violence is an area where the first wave of feminist reform really focused on enlisting the state to say, “hey, domestic violence is a crime, and you police should take it seriously, and you prosecutors should take it seriously.” And so there was an effort to do things like pass mandatory arrest laws and create other sorts of policies that would make sure domestic violence was prosecuted to the same level as stranger violence. And then a few years ago we started to see a real feminist rethinking of that policy, and a recognition that that political alliance with the state and trying to make sure domestic violence would be punished and treated the same way as other crimes was also ratcheting up and inflaming the mass incarceration crisis, and that its enforcement was, again, reinforcing gender and racialized narratives that were ultimately pernicious and that the feminist community was actually trying to stand against.
But that created a huge crisis of faith in the feminist community about, “Okay, what do we do to keep people safe? What does real security look like?” I think a number of feminist movements have reached out to restorative justice and transformative justice as alternatives. But the challenge is, if you’re going to say, as restorative justice and transformative justice do, that we can’t rely on the state to be our ultimate protector of security through these traditional narratives of “we’ll use force and violence against perpetrators,” if you want to put the community in a place of better power and you want to put the habitual victims of violence—especially women and children—in a more empowered place, how do you do that in a culture that is so infused with misogyny? It’s a huge struggle, but I think it’s promising to think about restorative justice, for example, as a way of dealing with conflict that is not about identifying the perpetrator and punishing them but really about trying to heal the community, trying to, in some cases, build a community that hasn’t been adequately created in the first place, and to bring together the people who are identified as perpetrators with the people who are identified as victims, going beyond the notion of “somebody’s going to go to jail for this, somebody’s going to be punished.” But, if you do that, are the victims really safe at the end of the day?
Another really interesting initiative that I’ve had some contact with is through jails and prisons. There are a number of programs now that try to enlist offenders—and these are predominantly men—in the work of understanding how they came to rely so much on violence. There’s a program called Resolve to Stop the Violence that has that mission, and there are others that I’ve heard about as well, such as Jacques Verduin’s GRIP (Guiding Rage into Power) curriculum at Insight Out. It is about educating offenders about masculinity and about trying to expand their tool kit of self-defense: developing a tool kit for maintaining dignity and self-respect beyond the notion of “if somebody disrespects me, then I’m going to use violence” and instead understanding where those narratives came from, about what it means to be a man and how restrictive they are, but learning that it doesn’t have to be that way. I see all of these as really hopeful and feminist-infused techniques of moving beyond the knee-jerk, “if you have a problem, then get a gun.”
AF: This is a fascinating look at the ways that communities can help roll back violence and disrupt that hypermasculine script of guns being a solution to disrespect, of needing to rise up to protect oneself. I guess the question is, when we think about violence between communities and the police, you need both sides to roll that script back. Do you see any promising avenues in which to have those same types of rollbacks within the community of law enforcement? Or are we so wedded to the notion that we have a single tool for the control of community violence?
AH: It’s really interesting, there was an op-ed in the New York Times by William Bratton where he talks about his legacy and how he’s trying to distance himself from the zero-tolerance, broken windows policing that ran under his name for so long and that contributed so much to mass incarceration and to widespread criminalization of African American communities. I think there’s a way in which the crisis of state violence against communities of color, and the response by Black Lives Matter and allied uprisings to protest and push back against that, have created an opening to rethink what we’re doing with our policing and to go back to traditional notions of community policing that involved real relationship-building between police officers and communities so that these encounters aren’t coming in the context of fear, distrust, and suspicion on both sides. Personally, I’ve never understood why policing isn’t considered part of social work, because that’s what it is. And people who are police officers should be trained not just in nonviolent resolution of crises but also around issues of mental health and mental illness. They should be deeply part of the community, and they should be trying to support the family and community networks that are the basis of security in the first instance. We shouldn’t be looking to the state and to state violence as the first line of community security. That should be way down the road when other forms of security have failed. And police really need to collaborate and cooperate with those nonstate networks of care and protection in order for people to be really safe.
AF: Well, we know that when you have a dominantly male police force, the notions of deescalation and relationship building are not front and center. As women are entering policing, we’re seeing more of that, but women have remained a very small proportion of police forces nationwide for thirty or forty years, so we may be a long ways away from that.
AH: Policing is still organized in hierarchical lines the way the military is, and you have all of the trappings of a very old, patriarchal, militaristic way of running an institution. So just dropping some individual women police officers into an institution like that is going to be problematic if you’re going to expect change. It’s really a long-term project to try to remake the police, but if you’re looking at what feminism would say about that, I think that that’s the way that a feminist would look at redoing policing. Cheri Maples is really interesting on this.
AF: When events are particularly high profile—where there’s a mass shooting or there’s a major concern about gun violence—the call is often for increased gun control. And the debate centers on what states can do through gun control measures to prevent violence. Do you think that’s an effective strategy? If so, we may be at the limit. I’m from Massachusetts, a state that has tremendous gun control, where we still have a lot of gun violence. What are the limits of that strategy, of gun control as a mechanism to reduce gun violence?
AH: I think we’ve seen the frustration on the face of President Obama every time there’s another mass shooting and he has to go to the community and say, “well, it’s too bad we can’t get any gun laws passed.” So, I agree that we’re really seeing the limits of gun control as the primary strategy, because it runs up against a culture that is very strongly protective of guns. I’m now thinking back to our discussion of Second Amendment NRA culture. There’s got to be a way to get beyond that—to get to safety that’s not going to just run straight into that buzz saw of political resistance. Again, maybe one way to think about it is this long-term cultural battle to loosen the bonds of or to reexamine masculinity, and ask why it is that we think getting a gun is the best way to protect yourself. For a while I was one of those people who thought, “Okay, well, the next mass shooting, this is going be the point where we all say, ‘Wait, this is crazy. We can’t keep doing this.’” But that never seems to happen. Instead, I think each tragedy just creates a doubling down on both sides of the debate. So rather than focusing on the question of are there guns available, are there not guns available, or what do gun control laws look like, I think the feminist way forward is through alternative forms of dispute resolution and conflict resolution, having restorative justice programs in our schools as well as diversions from the criminal justice system. Really giving people the tools to think productively about conflict from a very early age, to deal with conflict in ways that don’t involve violence. It’s a very long-term game: breaking down some of the traditional gender narratives that we have and expanding what it means to be a man, as well as expanding what it means to be a woman. But as I said, I really think this is already starting to happen among a lot of younger kids. They’re questioning the notion of, “well, to be a man means that you don’t cry, that you don’t have emotions.”
AF: So unpacking gender norms may, in fact, be a solution or way forward?
AH: I think so. I think it’s a very long-term solution. It’s not as satisfying as saying, “okay, now you’re safe.” But I think in the long term, it’s really going to be the most enduring legacy.
Angela P. Harris (email@example.com) is the Boochever and Bird Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at the UC Davis School of Law. Her work examines the law’s ambivalent relationship to subordination on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, class, and other dimensions of power and identity. She is a coeditor, with Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Yolanda Flores Niemann, and Carmen G. González, of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2013), an anthology examining the experiences of women of color in academia. Her current project examines American farming as a racial project, with a focus on contemporary farmers and gardeners who understand their activity as the work of racial liberation.
Amy Farrell is associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University. Her scholarship seeks to understand arrest, adjudication and criminal case disposition practices. Professor Farrell also conducts research on police legitimacy and law enforcement responses to new crimes such as hate crime and human trafficking. Her book Deadly Injustice: Trayvon Martin, Race, and the Criminal Justice System, coedited with Devon Johnson and Patricia Y. Warren, was published by New York University Press in 2015. Professor Farrell was a corecipient of the National Institute of Justice W.E.B. DuBois Fellowship on crime justice and culture in 2006.