Policing the Color Line | The Nation


Policing the Color Line

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Hadden's history is very well researched and her writing is smooth, but the book's most interesting political ideas remain only half-exhumed. One wants more discussion of the patrols' cultural impact: They policed "blackness" and the color line, but they helped construct the meaning of "whiteness" as violently anti-black. In fact, some patrols were instructed to attack whites who strayed across the color line: One North Carolina law instructed patrollers to whip any "loose, disorderly or suspected person" found in the company of slaves regardless of the person's color. Unfortunately, Hadden does not thoroughly explore this nexus of violence, the law, race and identity. What the book does offer is a very detailed accounting of who patrolled, how, when, where and under what sort of legal guidance. Embedded within Slave Patrols is the theme of surveillance. The patrols were technologies of observation and intimidation, while the attendant system of slave passes and wanted posters were embryonic forms of identification.

About the Author

Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti
Christian Parenti, a Nation contributing editor and visiting scholar at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of...

Also by the Author

President Rafael Correa tried to save the world’s most biodiverse forest, the Yasuni National Park—but rich nations ignored his offer.

Ahmed Rashid’s gloomy, essential account of the divisive US-Pakistan alliance.

Picking up this history of surveillance and social control, from a different angle, is Simon Cole's Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification. Cole's book is a microlevel history of what Foucault called "capillary" forms of power. In particular, Cole focuses on the state's evolving methods of identifying deviants. He begins with the history of criminal identification and judiciary record keeping in the Napoleonic courts and jails around 1808, where convicts were simply listed alphabetically, a system that provided no means to combat false identities. The 1839 invention of photography began to change all that. Starting in the mid-1850s, once daguerreotypes were widely available, police in Europe and America began creating "rogues' galleries" and photo albums featuring known "criminals" and "degenerates." The NYPD, ever innovative, led the way. By 1858 they had 450 "Ambrotype" photos on file. Meanwhile, fingerprint identification was just beginning as an administrative tool in colonial India.

William Herschel, chief administrator of the Hooghly district of Bengal, first started experimenting with handprints on documents to verify the identity of contractors and pensioners (he probably gleaned this technique from similar ancient Hindu practices). His desire for greater control over the local population was fueled in part by the massive Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-8 and the resistance, chaos and widespread fraud that followed in its wake. Herschel's prints helped create "real" identities and thus shored up the power of colonial ledgers and files. As in Hadden's story, we see the double helix of resistance and repression developing together.

Along with Herschel, several other gentlemen were also "discovering" fingerprints: Francis Galton, the father of eugenics and a cousin of Darwin's, started studying fingerprints as part of his work on heredity and race (he never did link print patterns to either), while Henry Faulds, a physician working in Japan, first suggested using fingerprints to identify criminals in an 1880 letter to the journal Nature. Eventually, experts were able to divide all prints according to "loops," "whorls" and "arches." This allowed for simple storage and retrieval. But "dactyloscopy"--as print reading was known--wouldn't become a standard law enforcement tool for almost a generation more.

The height of criminological sciences in the late nineteenth century was "Bertillonage," a complicated, and in retrospect rather silly, system of body measurements developed in France by Alphonse Bertillon, son of one of anthropology's founders. By the 1880s Bertillonage had proliferated throughout the industrialized world, though the system's extremely precise procedures and set of eleven bodily measurements were frequently modified (or mangled) by local police departments and thus rendered useless when exchanged between agencies. To simplify things, fingerprints--infinitely unique and unalterable--got folded into the Bertillon system as a convenience.

Police in India were the first to start fingerprinting, in 1897. By 1901 Scotland Yard had incorporated a form of fingerprinting into its Bertillon system, and in 1906 the New York Police Department did the same. From there, the technique soon eclipsed Bertillonage. By the early 1920s photos and prints made up the fundamentals of criminal identification, and Bertillon had been almost completely discarded. Much of Cole's book concerns itself with the ensuing techno-bureaucratic intrigues and battles among a myriad of different print classification systems and their proponents. These dry and politically pointless sections would have been better left behind.

Interestingly, fingerprinting was always tied up with racism, but never quite as racists hoped. For decades, eugenicists searched for racial patterns within prints; what they found was a total lack of any such distinctions. But following the lead of Herschel in India, white administrators and police who "saw" Asians, Africans and Native Americans as bafflingly homogeneous in appearance fell back on the infinite uniqueness of fingerprints to control the poor, the deviant and the subjugated. And throughout the development of modern identification, people of color have often been the first targeted.

But what does all this mean? Cole, like Hadden, offers massive amounts of research; but like Hadden, he is less than robust in his political analysis. Suspect Identities is just a bit too straight. For example, Cole briefly mentions ruling-class fears of international anarchism during the 1890s as spurring on increased international cooperation among big-city police departments and creation of effective technologies of identification, but doesn't dig deep enough. The fact is, fighting anarchists, reds and labor organizers played a very important part in developing modern forms of identification and police power. Likewise, the control and surveillance of immigrants and people of color have always been tied up with the exploitation of their labor. This larger political-economic context plays too small a role in Cole's overly technical narrative. The result is something of a neutered history that leaves readers feeling as if they are on a hunting trip, only to discover that the gun is loaded with blanks.

To his credit, Cole is very clear and compelling about the implicit racism associated with "biometrics." His last chapter brings the story of fingerprinting full circle with an examination of DNA identification's rapid spread. Like prints almost a century ago, DNA is seen as unlocking biological truth, and in so doing it is reinvigorating both the popularity of biological explanations for behavior and an updated form of eugenics. Political complaints aside, both of these books are empirically robust ventures into important, largely uncharted, historical terrain.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size