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Police reform no panacea for racism in Canada | Jeffrey Hartman

Tuesday, June 23, 2020 @ 11:23 AM | By Jeffrey Hartman

Jeffrey Hartman %>
Jeffrey Hartman
News media is awash these days with calls for police reform in response to the killing of black men. These killings, of course, are not new phenomena but the extent of the backlash, while long present to a lesser degree, is.

Discussions of police reform necessarily contemplate social change. This is an important realization because the concept media, particularly social media users, seem most interested in discussing is defunding of police. While this is certainly a possibility and may well succeed in saving lives, we need to understand how it will cause governance to mutate. Althusser’s theory is useful here.

Society has an infrastructure and superstructure with both serving the same end: to produce and continuously reproduce the means of production. The infrastructure, or economic base, is essentially the market and activities of the governed. What happens here — i.e., transactions — while producing and reproducing the material conditions of production, is an effect rather than direction. The superstructure holds the Repressive State Apparatus (RPA) and Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA). The state is the contest of class struggle and expresses itself, i.e. the will of the ruling class, through the RSA via the government, army, police, courts, prisons and so on. ISAs inform, or direct, the RSA and function through ideology. Althusser lists religious, educational, family, legal, political and cultural ISAs as examples, all of which serve the ruling ideology. 

We did not need Althusser to tell us that the purpose and effect of policing is to maintain order. What we do need Althusser for, though, is help understanding the purpose and effect of defunding police. Although the movement aims ostensibly to prevent police killing of minorities, which no one would question as being a good thing in and of itself, the effect is to shift governance from the RSA to ISAs to some extent.

We have seen this before at other moments in time. Foucault discusses how the French Revolution fundamentally changed governance. The state hitherto maintained control through a juridical mode of governance which exerted itself through murderous splendour, much like the RSA. When the efficacy of overt violence began to fail, governance shifted to a more implicit, but hardly passive, method of control: discipline and the norm. Viewed from an Althusserian perspective, and generalizing, we can see that governance has shifted from an RSA to ISAs before.

The object of police defunding is to reallocate funds that would otherwise be used for police to community initiatives. When asked what a defunded community would look like, U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said a white suburb with funded youth, health and housing initiatives. These suburbs, she said, have lower crime rates not because of police but because of investment in a healthy society.

Ocasio-Cortez clearly views police defunding as a step towards racial equality and it is, but it is no giant leap. We can posit that, in North America, white people are governed less by the RSA and more by ISAs than non-white people and the current movement aims to consolidate governance in the ISAs. 

We thereupon arrive at a problem: racism does not, cannot and has never existed at the level of the police or RSA. Racism is an idea — a ruling ideology — that is acted upon by the police and RSA. Unless there is a corresponding change in the ideology of the white ruling class, we can perhaps expect the murderous splendour of racism to disappear but not racism itself. And it is too easy to say that the ruling ideology will change because a majority of social media users support police defunding.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford and former federal cabinet minister Stockwell Day both recently denied a history of systemic racism in Canada. RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki made similar comments, as did Quebec’s premier. 

While no one could argue that reducing the senseless killing of black men is a bad thing, we need to remain focused on racism as an ideological method of governance and, if police defunding occurs, critically assess the funding of other initiatives.

Jeffrey Hartman is a Toronto-based criminal lawyer at Hartman Lawwith a special focus on prison and police law. You can reach him at or call 416-316-2234.   

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