Naturalization and Questioning the Codes We Live By

Paul Bass and Shafiq Abdussabur

Last Wednesday night the Youth Rights Media staff and I took a group of students from my Media Literacy class to a talk by Shafiq R. F. Abdussabur. The author of “A Black Man’s Guide to Law Enforcement in America,” Abdussabur is a police officer also runs workshops for other police departments in Connecticut. The purpose of this talk was “Race, Politics, and Police,” mostly focussed around racial profiling and police/community relations, always timely topics in New Haven but moreso given the way East Haven’s dirty laundry has gone national.

Because I am a terribly cynical person*, I would characterize Abdussabur’s comments as “the best PR the NHPD has going for it.” While well intentioned, there are uncomfortable overtones that even the youth in our program picked up on. His book, as the literature describes,

gives tough love instructions for those who think they have been victims of racial ethnic profiling, but only to realize that they where [sic] poor communicators.

Abdussabur did raise an important point where he talked about the dificulty of addressing racial profiling and moving forward in solving the problem because of a lack of data. While CT passed the Racial Profiling Prohibition Act in 1999, this was never properly enforced and East Haven was one of several cities that didn’t regularly file reports which would provide evidential records of profiling.

The troublesome bit was all the qualifiers that Abdussabur has for the public. On one hand, they are pretty common-sense – be polite to police, watch your tone, respect their authority, etc. During Q&A, he explained that this is something police belief the public already knows, yet chooses to ignore. The answer is evidently to train the public to meet the police’s expectations. That flies in the face of the seemingly obvious need to train police in cultural competency and overall better people skills.

Also worrisome was his lack of clarity on whether or not it’s ok to record police (which Paul Bass, asking the questions, undoubted wished he could have explored), something an audience member took objection to. It’s really at the heart of these current issues.

AbdussaburThere’s a bit of good and bad here – Abdussabur is clearly aware of what he calls the need for “multidimensional thinking” – where we see each other beyond the roles we play, a degree of personalization where an enemy becomes someone’s parent, sibling, child, etc. The enemy in need of this multidimensional representation is not a “thug,” but the police themselves. He dismisses hip-hop fashion and youth culture as fads and trends, that “everyone looks like a gangster,” and the talk seemed to gloss over the way that media portrayals can make certain demographics into a stereotype, leading to the problem of racial profiling. On a beat, police rely on what he refers to “officer discretion,” or their hunches – which can be motivated by racial preconceptions brought on by those faulty representations.

These preconceptions are promoted and internalized as a value within a culture, as self-perpetuating ego defenses against out-groups (“blacks are so violent, no wonder so many of them are in prison!”) Anecdotal evidence such as the NYPD’s repeated screening of an Islamophobic film for recruits should still be infuriating, but not surprising, in a society where Muslims have been vilified by the media for over twenty five years. The same would go for African-Americans and Latinos, who (as with any non-white minority) have continuously struggled for fair media representations which weren’t ridiculous or offensive caricatures or contrived and pandering token cutouts of real people.

These representations really not only determine the nature “officer discretion,” but the way people see themselves (identity) and the world (ideology).

Connotation, in short, produces the illusion of denotation, the illusion of language as transparent and of the signifier and the signified as being identical. Thus denotation is just another connotation. From such a perspective denotation can be seen as no more of a ‘natural’ meaning than is connotation but rather as a process of naturalization. Such a process leads to the powerful illusion that denotation is a purely literal and universal meaning which is not at all ideological, and indeed that those connotations which seem most obvious to individual interpreters are just as ‘natural’. According to an Althusserian reading, when we first learn denotations, we are also being positioned within ideology by learning dominant connotations at the same time (Silverman 1983, 30). – from Daniel Chandler’s Semiotics for Beginners

Abdussabur said, “Policing is politics through the use of force.” I think that’s a great quote. I think it’s probably the most unintentionally accurate quote about humanity in general – we police others, we police ourselves, according to some measure of politics, which isn’t always decided by a legislature somewhere (as he presumably meant it to be). His outlook on policing is a decidedly parental one, in the decision to educate the public on how to better conform to the police’s expectations of them. But although the absurdity of that thought is lost on some, we have to understand that each of us go through that process of naturalization, whether it’s through induction into the culture of policing or just “normal life.” We should all have that multidimensional thinking Abdussabur mentions, which lets us challenge codes and dominant connotations – but that training should certainly be applied as part of the institutional naturalization police go through.


For more on the “evil arab/muslim” orientalist stereotype, see Steuter, Erin, and Deborah Wills. At War with Metaphor. Media, Propaganda, and Racism in the War on Terror. Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

On representation of the black community, try Herman Gray, “The Politics of Representation In Network Television,” in Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner, Eds., Media and Cultural Studies: KeyWorks, Rev. Ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001: 439-462. There’s a terrific takedown of the Cosby show in it, in case you ever wanted to be disappointed by one more thing.

*It should go without saying that comments are my own and do not reflect the views of Youth Rights Media. Just because I was there with them does not mean I am not an independent thinker with my own opinions.