The Racialized History of Vice Policing


Vice policing targets the consumption and commercialization of certain pleasures that have been criminalized in the United States—such as the purchase of narcotics and sexual services. One might assume that vice policing is concerned with eliminating these vices. However, in reality, this form of policing has not been centered on protecting and preserving the moral integrity of the policed communities by eradicating vice. Instead, the history of vice policing provides an example of the racialized nature of policing in the United States. Vice policing has been focused on (1) maintaining racial segregation, (2) containing vice in marginalized communities, and (3) facilitating the surveillance of these communities. This Article adopts an abolitionist methodology to evaluate vice policing and introduces three principles that animate abolitionist organizing and thought: the principles of legacy, futility, and possibility. This Article introduces this framework for understanding abolition, which will be more deeply examined in future work. It applies two of these principles—legacy and futility—to evaluate the racialized history of vice policing in the United States. The first principle, legacy, invites us to center an institution’s history in the maintenance of white supremacy when evaluating that institution’s continued existence in modern society. The second principle, futility, encourages us to abandon futile attempts to resuscitate morally bankrupt institutions. This Article applies the legacy and futility principles to demonstrate how the very core of vice policing is about maintaining white supremacy.

In many cities in the United States, police deliberately pushed vice into racially segregated Black neighborhoods and contributed to a geography of vice that reinforced the racial hierarchy. This policing protected property interests in white neighborhoods while allowing vice to continue to exist within these cities. Vice policing maintained the property interests of white communities by ensuring their property values did not decrease because of visible, and impossible to fully eradicate, crimes. As such, the policing of vice was a mechanism for maintaining racial segregation and preserving white property. It was a form of redline policing. Liberals who critique police and prison abolition as too radical often ignore this history (or are unfamiliar with it). While these liberal reformers believe we should preserve the good parts of policing, this Article argues that racialized vice policing has left very little good to preserve. In other words, the bad parts of vice policing are core to the way policing occurs and are part of its legacy (and present). This Article illustrates how this policing was critical to creating and then maintaining Black communities as sites of vice and visible crime. Given this history, the abolitionist demand to abandon futile efforts to reform violent institutions invites us to take this history seriously and look beyond police to address community harm in this area.