Loyola University Maryland

Graduate Program in Liberal Studies

Liberal Studies Blog

Police Brutality: The Intersection of Masculinities

by Craig Bennett, Student, Graduate Program in Liberal Studies

The recent report[1] by the Department of Justice outlining the Baltimore Police Department’s history of racial profiling, discriminatory practices, as well as excessive force, especially in black communities, highlights an important issue – the intersection of masculinities. The report accused Baltimore police officers of using their authority in ways that violated the rights of many Baltimore citizens. The report outlined the failure of officers to follow up on sexual assaults, sexual harassment of women, both in and out of the department, and even mentions incidents of strip searching men in Baltimore City Police Patchpublic, arresting individuals for being disrespectful, and flexing their authority as if they were above the law. I will not say that all officers in the Baltimore Police Department should be blamed for the egregious actions of a few, far from it. However, the incidents between the police and the black community can provide insight into an important issue relating to masculinity. When the masculine needs of those in authority create an abusive system aimed at a group of people who have worked to overcome degradation and emasculation, the resulting tension has torn communities apart in the city and eroded public trust in the police department. We must not only look at the need to dominate and abuse one’s authority, but also focus on the screens on which that abuse is focused in order to get a clear picture of the drastic impact. The riots of April 2015 could possibly be the consequences when abusive masculinities intersect with black masculinities at a time when young black males have been made to feel that violence is the best means of exercising their manhood.

The first issue to examine is the masculinities of many police officers and how those masculinities can evolve into the type of abuse outlined in the Justice Department report. It should come as no surprise that many police officers often target men of color when policing in urban areas. Statistically, a higher percentage of police officers come from relatively privileged[2] segments of society, being both white and men. Racial bias has historically created tension between the black community and the police. However, gender plays a significant role in the relationship between the two groups and may be at the heart of the recent violence and unrest. When police masculinity and machismo intersect with race and gender, the kind of racial profiling mentioned in the Justice Department report is the result.

Police wearing riot gear walk toward a man with his hands raised in Ferguson, Missouri.

Law Professor Frank Rudy Cooper wrote, “Policemen have nearly unique powers to make others acknowledge them as “the man” while ostensibly merely performing their duties. The short answer is that officers may get “macho” with civilians. Specifically, they may enact a command presence in situations where it only serves to boost the officer’s masculine esteem. To enact command presence is to take charge of a situation. It involves projecting an aura of confidence and decisiveness. It is justified by the need to control dangerous suspects.”[3] The confrontation between white men and black men goes back to the mid-17th century. Black men were the antithesis of white men. Since an important component of hegemonic masculinity is property, then property owners are considered to be more masculine. Since black men could not own property in the Antebellum South and were often property themselves, they were not viewed as men. The owning of property, especially black slaves, became an important way for white men to establish their masculinity. The denial of black masculinity became a prominent feature of being a white man, which unfortunately still persists today.[4]

It is clear that police officers, especially white police officers, have a great deal of power. They have the power to detain a man, to make him empty his pockets, to search him, to seize his property, to humiliate him, to re-assert their authority and manhood over anyone who questions it. When that type of power and masculinity intersects with the masculinity of young black men, events similar to those that happened last April have a strong possibility to occur.

It is therefore important for those in power to understand the masculinities of young black men in order to defuse these damaging conflicts. Historically, the post-Civil War migration of recently freed blacks into northern cities was accelerated by the emasculation that many former slaves faced in the Deep South. Northern cities like Baltimore represented a new life for blacks in terms of economic opportunities as well as physical survival. Black men sought to escape the “the literal emasculation of despicably gendered torture, in which many victims of lynching were first castrated.”[5] Heading north represented an opportunity for “a man [to] feel like a man.”

However, black men, even in the North, had to exist in a white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy in which black men felt emasculated for not being able to find satisfactory work in order to support a family.[6] The emasculation combined with stereotypes created somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy where black men today, fueled by lack of choices and easy access to guns, have begun to act defiantly and violently towards each other and those in authority. During slavery, stereotypes portrayed black men as violent brutes who needed to be kept in check. Today, many black males “no longer challenge this dehumanizing stereotype, instead they claim it as a mark of distinction, as the edge that they have over white males.”[7] What is very important to understand, especially for police officers, is that the vast majority of black men are not criminals and the projection of these stereotypes only perpetuates the very fear in whites that can lead to violent and armed confrontations and make the police feel like they have to subdue black men for the protection of society. When this subjugation is the result of the very violence in the black community that the white patriarchal structure has created, it is no wonder that racial tension between the black community and the police continues to increase since one fear feeds the other and there is nowhere to go but deeper into the abyss.

The problem is not one that can be easily solved, but we as a community need to start taking steps towards de-escalation. The violent history of American society and the dominating patriarchal structure has created the very tension that we saw in Baltimore last April. bell hooks wrote, “There is no freedom to be found in any dominator model of human relationships. As long as the will to dominate is there, the context for violence is there also.”[8]  The problem is only exacerbated by the gun culture in our society which has provided many young black males with an even more negative and violent outlet to flex their masculinity. I do not pretend to have all the answers, but what I do know is that our community will continue to be plagued by violence and hate if we as a society are not willing to accept our differences and continue to let our past define who we are. We cannot let white masculinity exist as a means to dominate black masculinity, which further perpetuates the stereotypes that in turn tear our communities apart. Perhaps the report released by the Justice Department will act as a mirror for all of us and provide a crucial first step towards healing.


[1] United States of America. U.S. Department of Justice. Civil Rights Division. Investigation of the Baltimore City Police Department. 10 August 2016. Print.

[2] Ashkenas, Jeremy, and Haeyoun Park. “The Race Gap in America’s Police Departments.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 02 September 2014. Web.

[3] Cooper, Frank Rudy, ‘Who’s the Man?’: Masculinities Studies, Terry Stops, and Police Training. Columbia Journal of Gender and Law, Vol. 18, p. 671, 2009. 24 September 2009. Suffolk University Law School Research Paper No. 08-23.

[4] Cherry, Myisha. “The Police and Their Masculinity Problem.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 26 Nov. 2014. Web.

[5] Kimmel, Michael S. Manhood in America: A Cultural History. New York: Free, 1996. Print.

[6] hooks, bell. We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

[7] ibid., 45

[8] ibid., 62

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