Policing the Poor: From Slave Plantation to Public Housing

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While many applaud the apparent successes of community and saturation policing, Neil Websdale contends instead that such law enforcement initiatives oppress rather than protect the poor, particularly African Americans in large urban centers. Based on a groundbreaking ethnographic study of public housing projects in Nashville, Tennessee, he argues persuasively that community policing is a critical component of a criminal justice juggernaut designed to manage or regulate stigmatized populations, much like slave patrols served as agents for social control on Southern plantations.

In a work that is sure to stir controversy and heated debate, Websdale draws on extensive field research, documentary sources, and interviews to illuminate how a criminal justice system deeply rooted in racism and slavery destroys the black family, creates a form of selective breeding, and undermines the civil rights gains of the 1960s. Unlike previous studies of community policing, which analyze programs through the lens of law enforcement, this book focuses on the history, experiences, and perspectives of the people whose lives are most affected by today's policing strategies.

Skillfully blending the voices of project residents with a rich synthesis of historical, sociological, and criminological analysis, Websdale describes the situational, cultural, and economic circumstances of Nashville's poor; examines the policing of social upheaval by detailing events in the 1997 looting and burning of the Dollar General Store; considers African American kinship systems and the special circumstances of battered women; and discusses why the vice trades -- prostitution and selling drugs -- thrive in public housing projects.

Policing the Poor is a much-needed balance to prevailing optimistic views on the effectiveness of this new method of law enforcement.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Websdale (criminal justice, Northern Arizona Univ.; Understanding Domestic Homicide) challenges the popular belief that community policing is all good and benefits the poor. Sharing the results of an ethnographic study he conducted at the Edgehill projects in Nashville, he argues that the socioeconomic conditions of the projects result from years of racist behavior toward American blacks that can be traced to the origins of slavery and have continued because of global capitalism. Websdale concludes that the Nashville poor are well aware that they are subject to rigorous social quarantining, numerous social stigmas, and stringent surveillance. Furthermore, he disagrees with the common perception that community policing brings law enforcement officers closer to the public, allowing them to assess neighborhood problems more effectively. As the author himself admits, however, it is difficult to generalize from one case study to another, and with his lack of credible evidence to support his own anti-community approach to policing, it is doubtful that many people who are not already convinced will benefit from this analysis. Not recommended. Tim Delaney, Canisius Coll., Buffalo Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555534967
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 9/13/2001
  • Series: Northeastern Series on Gender, Crime, and Law
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 289
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Policing, Society, and History

* From the fifteenth century, European explorers and traders ventured into uncharted waters and found "new" land to exploit. These developments extended existing markets, created new ones, and led to the mass movement of populations. They also resulted in the colonization, subjugation, and death of large numbers of native peoples. As Walvin notes, the diversified diets of the eighteenth-century British family reflected these developments. People began increasingly to consume "tea from China, sugar and coffee from the West Indies, tobacco from Virginia, chocolate from Africa and America, rum from the Caribbean." In many ways the labor power of slaves facilitated the diversification of the modern-era diet in nations such as Britain.

    Slave traders forcibly transported roughly 20 million Africans to the New World, the first slaves landing in Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619. The steady stream of confiscated blacks intensified in the eighteenth century, with at least 6 million transported during that time. The kidnapping and forced transportation of Africans tapered off in the nineteenth century. Slavery was officially eliminated in British colonies in 1834, in Dutch colonies in 1863, and in the United States in 1865.

    Africans provided the labor for the slave-based agricultural production systems in the Caribbean, South America, and the United States. A small, white European minority dominated these emerging social systems, rationalizing and justifying their social supremacy throughclaims of religious ascendancy and racial superiority. The confluence of these religious and racial ideologies became particularly acute in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, during which time "race" became firmly established as a cultural signifier of inherited characteristics.

    Policing Slavery and Nineteenth-Century Reconstruction and Redemption

    From the seventeenth century onward, European settlers arrived in the Americas in huge numbers. The majority engaged in agricultural production, eking out a living from the land. The agricultural economies of the New World thus reflected the dispersion of various European traditions to New World settings with their different climatic conditions, natural resources, and growing seasons. In spite of widely accepted religious and racial beliefs that depicted blacks as inferior, these emerging agricultural economies still had to police slaves closely. Africans did not come willingly to the New World and resisted the institution of slavery in many ways. Most Africans captured in wars or kidnapped by slavers were from sedentary (nonnomadic) West African societies characterized by hard agricultural labor. Once the Africans were captured or kidnapped, traders and those in their employ, including black African natives, tied slaves together with rope and often marched them hundreds of miles to the African coast. Today, people visit the remnants of the slave forts that are scattered along the coast of West African states such as Ghana. Elmina Castle is one of the most infamous of these forts. Built originally by Portuguese traders in 1482, Elmina boasts one of the oldest Christian chapels in Africa. The Portuguese originally sought gold and ivory from local tribes. However, by 1600 Europeans from the Caribbean and North America craved cheap labor, and Elmina Castle soon became a holding pen for captured Africans. The housing of one of the oldest Christian chapels inside the Elmina slave fort was no mere coincidence. Wealthy Europeans justified their exploitation of black labor through the ideology of Christianity. Ideally, Europeans would transform primitive black savages into civilized, God-fearing agricultural workers. Work was the fulcrum and the Christian god the guiding light.

    John Blassingame describes how, once on the coast, "the Africans were made to jump up and down, had fingers poked in their mouths and their genital organs handled by a doctor. Those chosen by the Europeans were then branded." Many died on the march, others committed suicide, especially while still on the African coast, with their eyes trained on their homeland. Shackled together in cramped, diseased conditions with little nourishment for anywhere from several weeks to several months, many died. Harvey Wish notes fifty-five known mutinies on slave ships from 1699 to 1845; this form of resistance was common enough for slave-ship captains to take out "insurrection insurance." On slave ships crossing the Atlantic, Hugh Thomas observes, "There was probably at least one insurrection every eight to ten journeys. On French ships, though, there seems to have been only about one every twenty-five voyages." Among all the insurrections, few succeeded in overthrowing the traders.

    Slaves' resistance continued in the New World. The scope and form of this resistance depended greatly upon the social organization of the plantations and the surrounding country. Full-scale uprisings were more common in countries such as Brazil or in the Caribbean, where plantations were much larger, usually having at least 150 slaves, and where owners were absent and whites relatively few. In the American South, half of the slaves lived on farms, not on plantations. Indeed, only one quarter of Southern slaves lived on plantations with more than fifty slaves. Among the white population, those who did not own slaves outnumbered those who did by six to one. The majority of whites lived in poverty and often deeply resented the privileged planter class, which also dominated colonial governments and state legislatures. The relatively small number of slaves on Southern plantations, compared to their Caribbean and South American counterparts, lived in proximity to their masters and the masters' families. Slaves themselves lived in family units, with individual family members sometimes dispersed between neighboring plantations. In these situations slaves experienced the ties, loyalties, pressures, and solidarity of both family and community life, the qualities of which often provided a buffer against the dehumanizing influences of slavery. Planters, especially in the later antebellum period, encouraged slave family life. Indeed, Southern paternalism underpinned the management of slave populations, and planters genuinely believed that the slave-owning system was the pinnacle of social organization. Slaves resisted and negotiated this paternalism carefully, knowing that white people outside the plantations were usually armed and hostile to them. Escaped slaves faced the hazards of the countryside, including overseers and masters who often knew the land well and were skilled hunters. Punishments for escaping were severe, including the cancellation of passes to see family members, the sale of the escapee to a new master, a flogging, or other coercive treatment. Given these conditions, Southern slaves engaged in little mass rebellion; historians have recorded only a small number of uprisings compared with insurrections in South America and the Caribbean.

    Southern society defined slaves as chattel. Masters used slaves to further their own production goals. Yet slaves knew well the virtues of freedom. While slaves in the South did not engage in mass uprisings against their owners, they nevertheless resisted slavery in a variety of ways. From shirking to stealing from owners, lying, killing owners and overseers, fleeing plantations, visiting family on neighboring plantations without passes, and engaging in acts of violence and hatred, slaves refused to submit. In the many ways slaves negotiated Southern paternalism, they undermined the very essence of slavery itself. Eugene Genovese observes that "the slaves' accommodation to paternalism enabled them to assert rights, which by their very nature not only set limits to their surrender of self but actually constituted an implicit rejection of slavery."

    The plantation system gradually expanded after the American War of Independence. The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 spurred cotton production. Howard Zinn estimates cotton production in the South grew from a thousand tons a year in 1790 to a million tons in 1860. This upsurge in cotton production required the gradual removal of Indians from their native Southern lands, particularly from 1814 to 1824.

    Slave patrols played an important part in this daily performance of unpaid labor, since they limited slave resistance and insurrection. The slave patrols enforced customary cultural beliefs and practices, many of which became embodied in the slave codes introduced by colonial and, later, state governments. According to the slave codes, blacks and whites occupied different social positions that reflected blacks' basic inferiority to whites. Masters sold and bartered slaves, wagered them at gaming tables, and bequeathed them through their wills. Masters enjoyed what Foucault once called sovereign power over the bodies of slaves, whom they whipped, tortured, branded, and killed as punishment for a range of perceived offenses. The ideology of slavery deemed that masters should provide slaves with clothing, food, shelter, and other material provisions. As slavery grew, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, masters usually provided a modicum of these material provisions for slaves, thus contributing to the collective "calling" and "duty" of the planter class to raise civilized, God-fearing slaves. President Andrew Jackson owned a cotton plantation called the Hermitage, near Nashville. Jackson owned at least 130 slaves. His was one of the largest plantations in Tennessee's central basin. Recent archeological excavations at the site revealed that enslaved families lived in roughly four-hundred-square-foot, single-room brick buildings clustered in three different locations to the rear of the mansion house. Writing about his own paternalistic style of plantation management, President Jackson observed, "One willing hand is really worth two who only does what labor he is forcibly compelled to perform."

    Notwithstanding President Jackson's paternalism, the enforcement of discipline in work and daily life was an essential component of the management of slaves. They could not leave plantations without passes. The passes specified the reasons for slave absence, the duration of their excursions, and their destinations. It was the duty of all whites to check slave passes. Whites who failed to do so could find themselves subject to punishment such as fines. Masters or those in their employ could whip slaves without appropriate passes or turn them over to the courts. For example, Herbert Gutman details how one slave was whipped for visiting his common-law wife without a pass. Apparently, it was common practice on Saturday nights for men to visit wives who were owned by different masters and who therefore lived on other plantations. Some of these men traveled without passes. "My pa," explained Millie Barber, "come sometimes without de pass. Patrollers catch him way up de chimney hidin' one night; they stripped him right befo' mammy and gave him thirty-nine lashes, wid her cryin; and a hollerin' louder than he."

    Slaves and their masters negotiated the slave codes. Some masters sent their slaves on errands to local stores without passes. If patrollers knew the slaves and were in awe of the master, then they might let the transgression pass. Formally, the slave codes forbade slaves gathering in groups of more than four to five without whites present. This especially applied to religious gatherings. However, some masters allowed slave groups to engage in religious activities and worked this out with patrollers. Similarly, the slave codes forbade slaves to learn to read and write. Nevertheless, the children of some masters taught house slaves these skills. However, in the final analysis, the inferiority and subjugation of slaves underpinned race relations. So too was the lowly position of the majority of whites who worked the land, engaged in craft work, or peddled their wares. Slave codes required all adult whites to regulate slaves. Many wealthier whites bought themselves out of slave patrol duty.

    Overall, the slave codes worked to the advantage of the big planters and drove a wedge between poor whites and slaves. These two disadvantaged groups occupied lowly but different positions in the Southern production system. But on a day-to-day basis, the law sometimes worked against planters' short-term interests. For example, if poor whites stole from a plantation and slaves witnessed the theft, those slaves could not testify against or contradict the whites in court. In such a situation, the only recourse available to the planter was to find white witnesses or to settle the matter privately, perhaps with violence.

    Slave codes arose in a legal tradition saturated with notions of honor, status, and duty. Southern judges applied the law carefully to preserve its "credibility." For example, Keir Nash reports a study of appellate courts in nine Southern states between 1830 and 1860, noting that blacks received reversals of convictions in 136 of 238 appeals. These cases speak to the meticulous application of legal principles rather than the haphazard application of law against slaves. Commenting on Keir Nash's work, Randall Kennedy notes: "When juries were improperly constituted, even in cases where actual guilt appeared to be clear, appellate courts reversed convictions. The Supreme Court of Alabama overturned a guilty verdict against a slave charged with murdering a white man on the grounds that one of his jurors had only a share in an undistributed estate of slaves, whereas state law required a juror in a case against a slave to be a full owner of at least one slave."

    Besides maintaining legal distinctions between whites and blacks. the slave codes reinforced notions of purity and pollution by dictating proper deference and distance between races. For example, some codes required blacks to step aside if whites walked toward them, prevented blacks from walking with canes in the manner of an old Southern gentleman, and did not allow slaves to make loud noises. By criminalizing these types of social infractions, the codes provided avenues of redress and punishment for everyday departures from what Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton would later call "the American Apartheid."

    Most counties in the South had slave patrols. In some states the militia or army performed slave patrol duty. In others, patrol initiatives emerged out of colonial or state government legislation, only to slowly permeate the fabric of county and municipal government. As early as 1667, white planters in New England introduced legislation to regulate "the Negroes on the British Plantations." The code referred to blacks as being "of a wild, barbarous, and savage nature to be controlled only with strict severity." Like the English planters, the other European slave-owning societies introduced similar codes. In most areas patrols checked the passes of slaves as they moved off plantations. They also conducted routine checks of slave quarters, searching for stolen property and contraband. The frequency of these visits varied tremendously and their focus sharpened in the aftermath of threatened, actual, or perceived slave insurrections.

    During the eighteenth century the intensity of slave patrolling increased. For example, the Tennessee Patrol Act of 1753 required county courts to appoint searchers to survey slave quarters four times a year to check for weapons and contraband. By 1799 patrollers searched slave quarters monthly. From 1806 these searchers evolved into an elaborate preventive patrol force. County governments paid patrollers one dollar per shift, with a five-dollar bonus for each slave caught and returned to the slave's master. One early legislative act creating a police system dates back to 1690 in South Carolina. The act required all persons, under penalty of forty shillings, to arrest and chastise any slave away from his home plantation without a proper ticket. After 1721 a merger between militiamen and appointed local civilians created a police system based on regular patrol. These patrollers received salaries and toured plantations once a month to search for guns and contraband. Patrollers also administered whippings for a variety of infractions.

    Just as modern-day police officers and private security guards come largely from working- or lower-middle-class families, so too did slave patrollers emerge from the ranks of less well-to-do whites. They shared with slaves similar positions as exploited subordinates. There is evidence to suggest that poorer whites interacted with slaves in a number of ways that hurt planters. Genovese notes how poor whites would incite slaves to steal from masters, with poor whites acting as "fences" for the stolen property. Some whites would encourage or aid slaves to escape. Other whites traded with free blacks and escaped slaves who had set up maroon communities in the South. Wintersmith notes the existence of maroon communities at various times in mountainous, forested, and swampy areas of South and North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama between 1672 and 1864. These communities survived through agriculture and illegal trading with white farmers. According to Blassingame, maroon communities constituted "one of the gravest threats to the planters." Not only did such communities undermine planters' authority and encourage other slaves to flee plantations, they also served as a base for guerrilla incursions against planters. More significantly still, the "unholy alliances" between poor blacks and whites ran counter to the divide-and-conquer tactics of many among the planter class.

    The introduction of slave codes and slave patrols helped amplify divisions between poor whites and slaves. On another front, the planter class also had to contend with the rise of industrial capitalism in the North and its reliance upon wage labor as opposed to slave labor. Southern planters saw northern capitalism as ungodly, corrupt, dishonorable, and a major threat to Southern social organization. Cotton production in the South grew dramatically during the first half of the nineteenth century. Southern planters needed more land to avoid exhausting their soil and to better respond to the demand for increased cotton production. They eyed the new land of the westward expansion to extend their slave-based agricultural system. Industrialists in the North opposed them and sought to limit the westward spread of slavery. These mounting political and economic tensions culminated in the Civil War, which the North, with its superior industrial might, won.

   Nineteenth-Century Reconstruction (1865-1877) and Redemption (1877-1896)

    In the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, some Southern states passed segregation legislation designed to separate the races in public settings. Under federal pressure, state governments removed these laws during Reconstruction. This period of so-called Radical Reconstruction included passage of the Thirteenth Amendment (outlawing slavery, ratified 1865); the Fourteenth Amendment (affirming citizenship rights to all those born or naturalized in the United States, ratified 1868); the Fifteenth Amendment (asserting the right of black men to vote, ratified 1870); and the first Civil Rights Act (1875), which undertook to secure for the Negro "full and equal enjoyment of the accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of inns, public conveyances on land or water, theatres, and other places of public amusement," as well as the right to serve on juries. In particular, the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment extended citizenship and equal protection under the law to blacks. Many white men violently resisted these legislative changes and the undoing of slavery. Howard Zinn notes the murder of forty-six Negroes in Memphis, Tennessee, in May 1866, most of whom were veterans of the Union army or sympathizers. During the melee, white rioters burned ninety homes, twelve schools, and four churches. Bobby Lovett notes that racial violence in Nashville was a means of perpetuating white supremacy in the wake of the South's defeat in the Civil War. The Ku Klux Klan was especially active in Nashville immediately after the Civil War, and members commonly attacked Negroes, especially after dark?


Excerpted from POLICING THE POOR by NEIL WEBSDALE. Copyright © 2001 by Neil Websdale. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Map of Nashville
Introduction 3
1 Policing, Society, and History 14
2 The Nashville Poor 36
3 Policing Social Upheaval 79
4 Black Kin and Intimate Violence 113
5 Crack and the Cracks in Neoliberal Democracies 150
6 From Elmina to Edgehill: Policing the Black Underclass 191
Notes 223
References 255
Index 267
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