ContractsProf Blog

Editor: Jeremy Telman
Oklahoma City University
School of Law

Friday, April 30, 2021

Guest Blogger Marissa Jackson Sow on Whiteness as Contract and the Police, Part II

Whiteness as Contract as a Framework for Understanding America’s Police Problem

Marissa Jackson Sow 

Part Two: Using Contract Theory to Analyze the Gap Between Expectations of Police and Police Performance        

Breaches of America’s racial contract do not go unpunished: in early June 2020, the entire world got multiple glimpses of the New York City Police Department’s violent backlash against racial justice protests. As guardians of that contract, the police used Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 8pm curfew as a means to harass, provoke, brutalize, and ultimately terrorize New Yorkers—including those, who, like my husband, had to report to work in the City after 8pm. One particularly brutal attack on peaceful protesters in the South Bronx, where we lived, on June 4 was the subject of a damning Human Rights Watch report, which concluded that the police department had planned the attack on the protesters, who were primarily Black and Latinx. My family and I left New York City, thoroughly traumatized, a few days thereafter. 

Jackson SowOn the third night of the curfew, officers in riot gear descended upon peaceful protesters in Crown Heights, Brooklyn at approximately 11pm, tackling and detaining them. After most of their vehicles departed, one remained behind, unable to start, as the crowd began to jeer them. Once the vehicle started, the police gave the crowd the middle fingers and drove off, playing the ice cream truck song, which is titled “N****r Love a Watermelon. Ha! Ha! Ha!” The incident was captured on video and posted to social media. Police allegedly played the song out of their cruisers unprovoked in historically Black neighborhoods for weeks thereafter.

Months later, more bizarre activity from the NYPD was captured on a recording device and, again, posted to a social media platform. In advance of the 2020 general elections, officers were recorded playing pro-Trump propaganda out of a police cruiser in predominantly Black Flatbush, Brooklyn. Such activity is a flagrant violation of the official NYPD code of conduct. The theory of whiteness as contract provides guidance, pointing to the invisible common law that governs police interests and behavior—anti-discrimination laws, police department codes of conduct, and the formal terms of police officers’ employment contracts notwithstanding.

Leviathan CoverContracts are, of course, about expectation, agreement, and performance, and such is the case whether discussing commercial contracts or social contract theory. People do not call upon the police in the hopes that the police will shoot them to death. Underlying any request for police assistance is the understanding of a contractual agreement between citizen and police that because of the taxes one pays into local government: the agreement is that citizens fund the police, and that in exchange, the police will protect and serve them. A contracts-based analysis reveals why and how this reasoning fails to translate into reality in American society vis-à-vis Black (defined here as all people of African descent, including Latinx peoples) and Indigenous (defined here as American Indian and Latinx) communities. Here, I consider policing using the concepts of unconscionability, mutual assent, and promissory estoppel.

Calling upon the police assumes membership in America’s social contract; however, Whiteness as contract definitionally excludes Black and Indigenous people therefrom. Expectations by Black and Indigenous community members that the police work to protect and serve them because they pay police salaries with their tax dollars reflects the commonly-held expectations of the American public with respect to their public and civil servants—expectations that actually only apply to members of a body politic from which Black and Indigenous people are forbidden entrée, though they are formally members of that contract under public law.

The state not only accepts the tax dollars of Black and Indigenous people—allocating a portion of those dollars to law enforcement budgets—but actually requires that Black and Indigenous people pay their taxes as a condition of their formal membership in a social contract. The promise that the United States makes to its citizenry is that police will not deprive them of their due process rights, and that where such rights are violated by officers acting under the color of law, the citizens must be able to seek remedies from the state. Given that police are usually able to harass, torture, and kill people of color with impunity, on salaries funded by their victims, even the formal social contract should be considered unconscionable. The state forces Black and Indigenous people to participate in a bargain, extracting tax dollars for them in exchange for police services, knowing that those police services are actually intended to cause them harm.

The presence of the racial contract—that invisible common law that nullifies the formal American social contract, and which relies upon the forcible extraction and expropriation of Black and Indigenous peoples’ resources in order to create and protect white wealth—totally undermines Black and Indigenous people’s formal expectations of law enforcement. Black and Indigenous communities expect equal assistance and service from police, as per their formal rights under law, and in exchange for their tax dollars; the state gaslights them into believing that such a contract is intact. However, the state actually uses police to contain, suppress, and eliminate Black and Indigenous people—in order to perpetuate the racial contract and the system of racial capitalism for which the racial contract exists. The State—which represents the white body politic—knows that it has promised certain benefits of citizenship to all citizens and knows that Black and Indigenous citizens rely upon the promise, while also knowing that it has absolutely no intention of delivery thereof. Because there is no mutual assent between the parties, no contract actually exists.

As guardians of America’s racial contract, the police work to ensure that Black and Indigenous people stay in their physical and socio-political place; facilitate extraction and seizure of capital from Black and Indigenous people from the state; and remedy perceived breaches of white supremacist social order. On June 25, 2020, for example, news broke of the firing of three Wilmington, North Carolina police officers who were caught on a two hour-long video accidentally recorded in a patrol car making intensely racist anti-Black statements and threats. One declared that “We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them fucking n*****s.” He also suggested that he or others should “Wipe [Black Americans] off the fucking map...that’ll put ‘em back about four or five generations.”Another deplored, in response, that white people had begun “worshiping blacks”.

Defeund Police
Photo by Tony Webster

Thus, with each police killing of a Black or Indigenous American comes increased calls for police reform or abolition. Serious calls to defund the police are now part of mainstream political lexicon, as Black and Indigenous people realize that the state is actually compelling them to pay for their own murders, or the murders of their families, friends, and neighbors. Many members of these communities realize that their privity with the police—and with the state—is illusory, and that they are not contractors, but rather the subjects and objects of the contract itself.

Communities targeted by police brutality have a right, per the doctrine of promissory estoppel, to seek remedies from the state based on their reliance upon an agreement that the police would protect and serve them in exchange for their municipal funding. Abolitionists can base an argument for reparatory justice based upon the reliance doctrine: indeed, should they be able to make a case for detrimental reliance of a community upon a contract with the local police department, a claim could theoretically be made of a municipal government for damages that would then be subtracted from the police department’s budget. Otherwise, the affected community that could demonstrate reliance and breach, and certainly that the state has made vitiating misrepresentations regarding the police’s duties to protect and serve Black and Indigenous people. Thus, the non-breaching party could demand rescission of the agreement and opt to stop funding the police. Of course, the state would have to agree to this demand, and in order for that to happen, the state must first rescind the racial contract and include Black and Indigenous people as contractors—and, thus, as full citizens, and as people with rights that the police are bound to respect.

This post is part of a continuing series on introducing critical perspectives, including critical race theory, into the teaching of first-year contracts.  Other posts in the series include:

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