American Sociological Association

ASA Footnotes

A publication of the American Sociological AssociationASA News & Events
July/August 2020

Legal Estrangement: A Concept for These Times

Monica C. Bell, Associate Professor of Law and Sociology, Yale University

Monica C. Bell

Monica C. Bell

Julius Williams, 21 years old and just beginning to shed the wide eyes and lanky build of adolescence, tried to distinguish himself from other young Black men in the Baltimore neighborhood where he grew up. “We had different outlooks of the world,” he postulated. “I’ve always been like a peacemaker type of happy person.” Julius is preoccupied with observing animals, studying them, communing with them. “I love animals — I love — I feel like I can relate to animals more than humans . . . I feel like people can learn a lot from animals, the way that they do things, the way how they’re organized, and how they adapt to the world.” For as long as he can remember, Julius has wanted to be a marine biologist or a zoologist. “That was something I always wanted to do.”

Yet now, Julius’ goal of becoming a marine biologist or zoologist seems very remote. Even staying enrolled in community college seems to him a Sisyphean task. During our interview five years ago, shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, he had recently dropped out of the community college he was attending. He got too far behind, and he had struggled to pay for books and housing. Being involved in the criminal legal system exacerbated those challenges.

A few months earlier, Julius had stopped by a former close friend’s house, someone with whom he had been out of touch. While Julius was catching up with his old friend, police burst into the house and searched everyone. “I sat and chilled, and then that’s when the house got raided,” Julius said, with a still-obvious tinge of disbelief.

The police didn’t find anything on Julius, but they confiscated pills that were hidden in his friend’s pockets. Nonetheless, officers handcuffed both of them and brought them in for questioning. Julius believes that on the way to the precinct, hoping to get out of trouble by sharing information, Julius’ friend told police where a gun was located. Later, both Julius and his friend were charged for gun and drug possession. Examining the police report and legal documents, Julius was astounded at the breadth of charges. “They just gave me a list of a lot of things.” Julius did not know that partly because of the tumescence of criminal codes, prosecutors routinely pile on numerous overlapping charges from a single incident in order to marshal their strategic power over defendants in the plea bargaining process.

As the raid was underway, and on the way to the police station, Julius shared his story and future goals with the police officers. He remembers that the officers seemed impressed and supportive at first. 

I’m talking to these officers and I’m thinking they will understand where I’m coming from. They like, “Oh, so we see you got a good head on your shoulders.” They asked me what I was in college for. I said I want to be a marine biologist, zoology. They gave me all this bull crap. “Yeah, oh that’s good, yeah.” 

Julius didn’t know then that this polite, almost-caring style of communication is usually just a tactic: Even as police officers bust doors, flip drawers, rip pillows, and make arrests, they might idly, pleasantly chitchat to increase suspects’ confusion and cooperation. (This is just one example of the discursive elements of legal estrangement through policing.) The officers still took Julius to jail. Once in, he did not think anyone, including his lawyer, was concerned about getting him out.

After 21 days of detainment, court records show that Julius finally had an additional hearing. The prosecutor dropped the charges, and Julius was able to go home. But after three weeks away from home, school, and the bookstore where he studied, Julius felt too far behind in his schoolwork to catch up.

I felt like they deprived me of my education. Because of those almost three weeks that I was there, my grades started dropping. You can’t miss. You can’t miss one class—you go back into school, you completely lost. 

So, like, I already was struggling with my finances. I already couldn’t pay for books. I would have to sit in the bookstore to be able to do my homework. By me being arrested, my grade point average dropped immediately, and I feel like that—it’s a part of the main reason why I’m not in school now. Because I feel like, if that didn’t happen, maybe I still would be struggling to do school, but because of those weeks that I missed, that killed my GPA. 

“That kind of messed up my experience with college,” he mused. “Like, I didn’t even want to go back, because I felt like, any day now, I can be arrested again for who knows what? Just for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s something I can’t even control.”

“The stuff the officers were saying to me, it just — I don’t know, it was just false hope.”

While Julius has faced many other challenges, this encounter with the legal system made him especially forlorn. Even when officers seemed to respect his lifestyle and his ambitions, he felt that the legal system erected barriers anyway. “That’s why I just — I have a very negative — uh — feeling about the government, and police, and things of that nature,” he said.

Julius still clings to his goal of working with animals, but to get there he thinks he needs to find another country to call home, one where his efforts might be less vulnerable to arbitrary legal action. “At first, my goal was to just get out of Baltimore,” he said. “I want to do more than that. I want to get out of United States, period. I want nothing to do with it.” Julius’ experience with the criminal justice system did more than make him feel watched, controlled, and disrespected. It eroded his hope. It made him believe there is no place in America for him. 

This is one example of legal estrangement.

Legal estrangement is a process by which the law and its enforcers signal to marginalized groups that they are not fully part of American society—that they are not imbued with all the freedoms and entitlements that flow to other Americans, such as dignity, safety, dreams, health, and political voice, to name a few. Even though people who live in Black neighborhoods regularly call police for help, there is no firm sense of entitlement to state protection. Though some Black Americans resist legal expulsion and find hope in collective autonomy, many do not. For youth in particular, legal estrangement can profoundly limit their sense of future possibilities. The concept understands the crisis of division between legal authority, especially the police, and racially marginalized communities as indicative of a long and tortured process of legal exclusion and internal exile. Instead of whether law feels binding or efficacious, legal estrangement is concerned with whether law and legal authorities are solidarity-enhancing or solidarity-diminishing—that is, whether they tend to create an environment for group inclusion or group exclusion at social, political, and economic levels. Legal estrangement is thus especially attentive to perceived inequalities of inclusion, or what Michèle Lamont has called “recognition gaps.”

To some extent, legal estrangement recaptures and deepens the original denotation of legal cynicism as articulated by Robert J. Sampson and Dawn Jeglum Bartusch in their groundbreaking 1998 article, “Legal Cynicism and (Subcultural?) Tolerance of Deviance: The Neighborhood Context of Racial Differences.” There, Sampson and Jeglum Bartusch define legal cynicism as “anomie about law” and legal authority. The definition of legal cynicism has evolved for Sampson in ensuing years; his magnum opus, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect (2012), even reimagines the concept as “moral/legal cynicism.” Legal estrangement, by contrast, does not rest on the belief that there is a tight link between legal and moral rules: Law is more defensibly a set of codes that emerge from and enshrine domination, not collective moral agreement. Law is a dynamic force with which people and communities engage; that engagement can reinforce social solidarity or further “estrange” marginalized groups. The notion of “anomie about law” can bring us not just to the work of Durkheim, but also of Robert Merton, who repurposed anomie into a key aspect of strain theory: Anomie emerges from the increasing ambitiousness of shared goals throughout society, coupled with society’s failure to make the means to achieve those goals widely available. This is one piece of legal estrangement’s theoretical scaffolding.

Another piece of legal estrangement’s theoretical scaffolding can be found in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. In a series of studies of Black American life—most centrally the 1904 report, “Some Notes on Negro Crime, Particularly in Georgia,” Du Bois and his Atlanta School collaborators collected survey, interview, and administrative data on crime, arrest, and incarceration. They found, among other things, that white officials and Black men had greatly divergent perspectives on the possibilities of justice in Georgia courts. They reasoned that prevalent punishment practice at the time, such as lynching, “spreads among black folk the firmly fixed idea that few accused Negroes are really guilty.” That report also condemns the relative lack of legal protection for Black people, as well as practices such as convict leasing, that sent a message to Black Americans that the purpose of the system was to make money for the state, not to rehabilitate supposed lawbreakers. Newer research has examined the persistence of these processes of legal exclusion, noting that they are part of broader, intersectional patterns of American racial exclusion.

Legal estrangement examines procedural, direct injustice on the level of individual interaction with legal authorities, vicarious marginalization at the social network level, and structural exclusion at the legal and historical level. All three levels of these processes contribute to group-based social exclusion through law, and sociologists should study them in relation to each other. Too many studies focus on only one of these levels of analysis, often with emphasis on individuals’ direct interactions with legal authorities. Legal estrangement demands attention to structural conditions that produce legal exclusion, such as segregation, racial marginalization, and dispossession. It also demands attention to deeper cultural components, especially collective memories of state violence and social exclusion. Policing is only one part of those dynamics — but a hyper-salient one given its role as the face of the state, especially in race-class marginalized communities.

The concept of legal estrangement has been useful for studying the possibilities and limits of police reform. For example, Michelle Phelps, Amber Joy Powell, and Christopher Robertson recently found that even if people in marginalized, heavily policed communities have both positive and negative experiences with the police, positive experiences are less salient than negative ones. For this reason, they conclude that “improving community trust through outreach and positive community interactions alone is really difficult.” Yet, legal estrangement is not just a consequence of policing. The concept is portable to other contexts. Asad L. Asad, for example, recently described system embeddedness — “individuals’ perceived legibility to institutions that maintain formal records” — as a force that may contribute to legal estrangement among Latinx immigrants to the United States. More work needs to refine and measure the concept, to clarify its relationship to related concepts, to ground it more richly in the literature on collective memory and cultural trauma, and to explore its specific effects. 

Yet, it is clear that legal estrangement may be helpful for understanding our current moment. It helps us see why movements would call to defund, dismantle, or abolish police instead of merely reforming them. The multivalent, longstanding, and historically rooted violence against marginalized communities, especially Black communities, has deeper roots than research on police distrust or illegitimacy usually captures or theorizes. 

As we know, sociology has at times played a troubling role in the reproduction of racial injustice. Yet, sociology can—when used responsibly—be a source of knowledge that communities, lawmakers, and social movements can draw upon to better understand the content of their grievances and the possible outcomes of their proposals. Our discipline might be ready to step back into the light.