Policy Forum

Racial authoritarianism in U.S. democracy

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Science  04 Sep 2020:
Vol. 369, Issue 6508, pp. 1176-1178
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd7669

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Summary

Recently, casual and savage violence of police against peaceful protesters and images of police in military gear sweeping up residents into unmarked vans has led journalists to question whether U.S. democracy is in peril. Many observers described these recent actions as authoritarian. But racial authoritarianism has been central to citizenship and governance of race-class subjugated communities throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. It describes state oppression such that groups of residents live under extremely divergent experiences of government and laws. Yet when police engage in excessive surveillance, incursions on civil liberties, and arbitrary force as a matter of routine patrol, many scholars of American politics are reluctant to consider it a violation of democracy and instead deem them aberrations in an otherwise functioning democracy. This mischaracterization is not limited only to intellectual discourse but also affects the public sphere. By obscuring evidence of racial authoritarianism, reforms will not land where needed. Procedural reform is useful when we are simply improving policing, not ridding democracy of authoritarian practices.

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