Maybe it’s the book’s cover, with its huge, red letters and clean typeface, legible from halfway across a room. Or maybe it’s just the message that’s electrifying. The End of Policing has been omnipresent on anti-racist reading lists since summer 2020, but it entered a new level of notoriety this week most while clenched in Senator Ted Cruz’s disgusting little paw.
On Tuesday, Cruz, our nation’s least likable and most worm-like politician, brandished The End of Policing as a prop in the Supreme Court confirmation hearing for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson. Cruz wanted to tie Jackson, a Black woman, to the boogieman of critical race theory, using books on a recommended reading list for a private school where Jackson serves as a member of the bo
ard of trustees as damning evidence of her radical beliefs. Jackson ultimately told Cruz that the boogieman of critical race theory “doesn’t come up in the work that I do as a judge.”
Did Cruz score the rhetorical points he was hoping for? Hopefully not. But his stunt, and the photo evidence that spread on Twitter afterwards, were a boon for the man who wrote The End of Policing—Alex Vitale, a sociology professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center who has spent decades studying policing. Now, four years after it was first published, Vitale’s book is the #1 bestseller in Amazon’s government social policy category as of this writing, a boost Vitale says is all thanks to Cruz. (Vitale even joked on Twitter that every newly purchased copy of his book “now comes with a vial of Ted Cruz tears.”)
We spoke to Vitale about this unexpected sales bump, why he doesn’t think his book belongs in a serious conversation about critical race theory, and why everyone’s so scared of his work in the first place.
Hi Alex—so, how did you first find out about Ted Cruz whipping your book out on the Senate floor? And when did you see the picture?
I first found out about it because a friend of mine who works at the AP sent me a note alerting me and asking me for comment. At that point, I hadn't quite seen the image yet. [My friend] sent me a little audio clip, because I was like, ‘It's hard for me to comment unless I've actually heard the thing.’ [Cruz called The End of Policing “an advocacy for abolishing police.”]
Then the image started circulating, and around that time, I started getting texts and emails and everything else very rapidly.
And what did you think of those comments, besides all the statements you’ve made on Twitter already?
It’s all part of a pattern of trying to shut down any discussions of racism in the United States, My view is, it wasn’t really about the hearing, and it certainly wasn’t about Justice Jackson, it was part of a broader campaign trying to neutralize the movement to put racial justice on the country’s political map.
Totally. So, my boyfriend actually read The End of Policing in 2019—
[Laughs] Yeah! But I remember he said that he’s never read a book in public that got so many people to come up to him and ask him about it. So I’m wondering—why do you think your book, especially the title, is so provocative?
We have grown up in a society that tells us all day, every day, that the only tool we have available to produce public safety is policing. And then to hear that someone might even contemplate the idea of reducing our reliance on policing, want to de-center policing, eliminate policing, is just mind-boggling to people.
At the same time, there's a lot of unhappiness about policing, you know, a lot of people understand, personally, intuitively, that policing is really not working. People are caught in this cognitive dissonance, in which they can't imagine anything other than policing, but they also don't like policing. And so this title has struck a nerve with people, because it holds out the promise of suggesting something other than just policing.
One of the comments I’m seeing a lot is that it’s pretty obvious the copy of your book that Cruz is holding up is totally untouched—he clearly hasn’t even opened it. What do you think might surprise him the most if he did actually take the time to read it?
He’d be surprised that most of what police do is actually ineffective and counterproductive. And the other thing that might surprise him is that it's not an attack on police officers as such. It's actually quite sympathetic to the dilemmas that police officers actually face in their everyday work.
What do you mean by ‘dilemmas’?
I’ve spent 30 years working on policing. I know police all over the world, and I understand that most people go into policing because they think it's a way that they can do something positive. But they find that the job doesn't actually accomplish that.
They're torn in much the way the public is in that they don't really want to be in the mental health business. They don't really want to be in the homelessness business. They see the futility of things like the war on drugs or trying to, you know, criminalize street-level sex work.
So, they feel stuck—because the political leadership of their city, of the country, has told them that they are in charge of these things. But many of them understand that their role is not particularly helpful, that they're not the solution to those problems.
Right, yeah, it’s all kind of common-sense stuff once you unpack it. So why do you think it makes people like Cruz so… scared?
Here's the irony about that—Cruz is mobilizing this discourse about critical race theory and he’s using a book about alternatives to policing as an example. Basically, he’s tipping his hand! What he’s saying here is that he just doesn’t want anyone to talk about race. That’s the issue. It’s not about some legal doctrine or scholarship—my book isn’t part of that tradition in any straightforward way.
He’s just using this discourse of racial essentialism to say that he’s an enlightened, colorblind person, like one of those people in high school who said ‘Well, I don’t see race.’ He’s using that to try and neutralize anyone who wants to talk about the reality of racism in the United States by accusing them of being a race essentialist. Of course, race is not a biological fact, it is a social fact—and it is a very real and powerful social fact. We cannot just pretend it away by accusing anyone who raises concerns about racism as somehow re-legitimating the biological concept of race. That’s a dishonest sleight of hand, and that is part of what we have to be opposed to in this discourse.
Katie Way is a staff writer at VICE. Follow her on Twitter.