The Violence of Fear: Racist Ideologies, Police Perceptions of Threat, and Inequality in Policing

Sherina Feliciano-SantosUniversity Of South Carolina (Linguistic Anthropology)

The escalation of violence by police is often justified as being based on split-second decisions where a law enforcement official’s perception of threat is posited as sufficient warrant for their behavior. While such justifications are posed as rational and equitable, recent events have made explicit a pattern of bias in violence against unarmed black and brown subjects. This begs three interrelated questions, what is it about the experience of fear and threat that seems self-evident in the context of some racialized bodies? What is it about ideologies regarding fear that justifies violence? How does a discourse of fear naturalize and perpetuate racialized inequalities?

Drawing on the analysis of body- and dash-cam footage of Driving Under the Influence stops and ethnographic research of the legal system in the U.S. South, this presentation considers how racist ideologies become experienced as fear, anxiety, and rage, impacting how the bodily movements, speech, and non-verbal gestures of already marginalized subjects become interpreted as signs of violence and threat in routine police stops and arrests. By looking at how a racialized gaze and the emotions it generates reproduce inequality and sustain violence, these findings expose tacit mechanisms involved in fear production and violence, thus also offering avenues to confront and interrupt their reproduction.

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