The word safe is both a noun and an adjective. As a noun, the word names an object, a locked box, often containing valuables; as an adjective, it describes the property of a subject or object, its value being a condition or a feeling. Like many affective attributes, to be safe is relational, and often defined by what it is not: one is safe from a specific harm or makes a safe choice rather than a risky bet. In this way, the word safe can index something fixed in place (have you ever tried to lift a safe?) or difficult to pin down (feelings are often undermined by their lack of surety). But insofar as the word suggests a desired good, it offers a helpful vantage point to analyze aspirational ideals that respond to danger, uncertainty, and inequality.

The word safe is often attached to locations, from safe houses to safe neighborhoods to safe spaces. The concept of safe spaces has been polarizing in recent years, especially on college campuses and in the press coverage of them, where they are most associated with the use of trigger warnings on syllabi (statements warning of disturbing images or text, especially of sexual violence) and the removal of the names and images of racist figures from institutional markers. In these contexts, advocates of safe spaces point to being safe as a shared, common good and as a way to name efforts at greater inclusion; critics of the concept tend to emphasize the more tenuous or contradictory aspects of the ideal of safety, sometimes suggesting that there is no such thing as a “safe space” and that the role of educators is to disrupt a sense of comfort with what we think we already feel and know.

Scholars have described a heightened concern with safety as symptomatic of broad political and economic changes during the latter half of the twentieth century. Sociologists Ulrich Beck (1992) and Anthony Giddens (1998) describe a postindustrial “risk society,” to signal both the heightened vulnerability of some to the harms, often environmental, of commodity production and a growing obsession with managing risk in new legal, social, and economic forms. Risk, in this usage, is opposed to safe: its uncertainty attached to undesirable, rather than affirmative, outcomes. That said, risk-taking can be stigmatized or celebrated: it is often cast as an irresponsible choice when adopted by those without resources, and as a bold move that might bring high returns to those who can afford to lose.

This ideal of safety is by no means new; what has changed is what that word signifies and how it is assumed to be achieved. The Declaration of Independence paired “Safety and Happiness” as the just grounds to “alter or to abolish [a ‘Form of Government’]” and to build a system anew. Yet the Constitution also affirmed that “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” the state may take away bodily freedom without a writ of habeas corpus. Nearly one hundred years later, the Homestead Act of 1862 encouraged settlement of indigenous lands by European immigrants. The historian Frederick Turner’s famed frontier thesis argued that the “pioneer ideals” of U.S. democracy were built on the “free land” and “abundant resources” of the U.S. West, and that they provided a “safety valve” from the dangers of urban density and poverty in the East (Turner 1921; Von Nardroff 1962).

The myth and symbol school of early American studies identified Turner’s thesis as a myth that has had significant power in shaping policy and action (Smith 1950). Contemporary scholars, especially those identified with ethnic studies, indigenous studies, cultural studies, and carceral studies, have deepened our understanding of what it means to claim safety by examining the violence of settler colonialism; the definition of and response to supposed threats against the nation; the social construction of urban danger and disorder; and the implications of law-and-order solutions to vulnerability. Throughout U.S. history, debates about freedom, borders, and bodies have been framed in the terms of being safe from violence, harm, and the unknown. From waging war to providing health insurance, from policing city streets to planning academic curricula, the concept of safety has justified both a demand for sovereignty and the punitive limits set upon that claim.

War has provided one of the most common contexts for promoting the ideal of being safe in the United States, both as a promise exported elsewhere (in 1917 President Woodrow Wilson called for U.S. entry into WWI in order to make the world “safe for democracy”) and as that which must be protected within U.S. borders. While safety denotes protection from danger in general, the related word security is most often used to describe freedom from intended threats. Soon after the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York the U.S. declared a global War on Terror and established a new cabinet department called Homeland Security. Almost twenty years into the War on Terror, the United States and many of its allies continue to pursue military activity and policy in the name of keeping women, children, and sexual minorities safe in other regions and to secure borders, markets, and citizens at “home” (Grewal 2017; Puar 2007). This has not been the case only for U.S. wars waged abroad; the writer of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz editorialized in response to the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee that “the best safety of the frontier settlements will be secured by the total annihilation of the few remaining Indians” (Baum 1890). This “logic of elimination” has also been used to justify Australian settler colonialism and the Israeli settlement of Palestine in the name of safety (Wolfe 2006).

Though they have different connotations, security and safety are often used interchangeably, especially when the threats they supposedly protect against are treated as ever-present and self-evident, be that communism during the Cold War or Islam in the global War on Terror. In this way, the ideal of making a place safe for some is often used to justify security strategies that can undermine safety for others. In the years following World War II, policies like the G.I. Bill and redlining practices cultivated a standard of living for white middle-class U.S. families that was celebrated as a safe haven from the ravages of wars and from the crime, drugs, and disorder associated with – but also produced by the simultaneous disinvestment in – cities (Lipsitz 2006). In 1965, in the thick of the Vietnam War, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a War on Crime, describing uprisings against the war and against the poverty and racism of U.S. cities as part of a broad problem of urban violence. Three years later, Johnson signed into law the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968. The Act established the federal agency known as the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA), which provided state-based support to prevent and reduce crime. The law’s emphasis on the role of local communities in policing and the importance of research about the causes and prevention of crime were central to its avowed goal of achieving safe city streets (Hinton 2016).

One safe streets theory that has had particular weight is best known as “broken windows.” Its architects, James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, argued in 1982 that signs of social disorder (such as broken windows) lead to more serious crime, and that residents’ “sense of safety” was paramount, regardless of actual rates of crime. This theory has been instrumental to the justification of crime control strategies adopted around the globe and has found support across the political spectrum; the liberal urbanist Jane Jacobs (1961) had famously declared that familiar “eyes on the street” – everyday characters­ – were essential to neighborhood safety and more effective than top-down city planning or policing. Its broad uptake is due in large part because the ideal of being or feeling safe is assumed to be a nonideological good. Safety is understood as an affective state, but one that might be empirically measured, predicted, and controlled – and marketed to both homeowners and city managers (Low and Maguire 2019). At the same time, the more conservative criminology research driving broken windows theory was informed by theories of rational choice that assume risk calculations based in market-place ideals of self-interest and a naturalized fear of “others” (Garland 2001).

The history of local community involvement in policing initiatives and the assumption that there might be a common perception of what it means to be safe, helped the War on Terror draw a seamless connection between global threat and daily domestic life. Popular mantras like “see something, say something” suggest that everyone knows what, or who, is out of place, and might pose a threat to being safe. These strategies draw on a long history of assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality, from the history of the lynching of black men in the name of protecting white women to the disproportionate ascription of homophobia to Muslim identification. In fact, throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries, gender and sexuality-based activism has often been framed in the terms of safety from violence, and the outcomes have been greater forms of protection for some and greater risks of violence for others (Feimster 2009; Haritaworn 2015). In the 1970s, feminist activists extended and revised these arguments by demonstrating that the privacy of home was far from a safe space for many women, and the anti-rape and anti-violence movement exposed the structural forms of violence hidden within the domestic sphere (Bevacqua 2000). During these very same years, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people also began to organize in the name of their safety, in this case highlighting their vulnerability to anti-LGBT violence brought by visibility, and most often meted out on the street (Herek and Berrill 1991).

By the 1980s and 1990s, national feminist and LGBT anti-violence movements were essential to the passage of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 as well as local and federal hate crime laws that heighten penalties for crimes based in bias (Jenness and Grattet 2001). Although these laws target unlawful acts motivated by actual or perceived race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, national origin, and ability, scholars and activists have highlighted how different understandings of safety have meant that such measures have not always delivered what they promise. For example, increasing criminal penalties – from longer prison sentences to the application of the death penalty – offers state violence as a solution to individual violence. Insofar as criminal penalties are disproportionately levied against people of color, especially African Americans who are also often racially profiled and wrongly convicted, solutions to violence based in anti-crime strategies risk making some less safe in the name of making others safer (Bumiller 2008; Hanhardt 2013; Spade 2015; Whitlock and Bronski 2015). Critics of this approach have drawn on more intersectional forms of analysis to articulate solutions to violence beyond crime control and the expansion of the carceral state (Richie 2012). In 1979, the black feminist Combahee River Collective joined the Coalition for Women’s Safety, which adopted strategies of education and mutual aid to organize in response to the unsolved murders of black women in Boston (Thuma 2019); this is also the approach of the New York activist organization the Audre Lorde Project’s “Safe Outside the System” campaign, founded over thirty years later.

Nonetheless, the words safe and safety often have adhered to debates about gender and sexuality in isolation from other vectors of power and difference. Calls for safe spaces on college campuses are again instructive here: many campaigns address labor issues and institutional racism, but the popular press tends to focus attention on sexual violence, Title IX, and accessibility for transgender students. This association is a result of the history of anti-violence movements, but it is also because safe space stickers have been familiar icons on university doors, intended to mark those inside as accepting of LGBT students. In many ways, this confusion about claims for safe space is not unlike responses to the 1960s phrase “the personal is political,” which is associated with one strand of feminism despite the broad New Left politics from which it emerged. Many activists of the period pushed against the in loco parentis (“in place of the parent”) policies governing universities at the time – policies that dictated student behavior and set limits on sexual and political activity. This approach was designed to assure parents of students’ safety and a nation that they were safe from student activism. Years later, this approach was replaced by policies designed to protect colleges from personal injury claims based on negligence. While the end of in loco parentis was a response to social movements, the rise of liability models was based in tort law (Lee 2011). In the twenty-first century university, students, staff, faculty, and administrators continue to debate to what degree university policies should be motivated by a quest for student safety versus the avoidance of institutional liability (Doyle 2015).

The invocation of safety to protect against liability is an outcome of the privatization of resources and services, from access to nature to the provision of housing, health, and care. In the face of negligent government research and care in the late 1980s, HIV/AIDS activists developed practices to promote safe sex – or safer sex, noting that no sex is without risk – and transformed a public health call for responsible individual choices into a strategy of shared community protection (Crimp 1987). The effect of industrial toxins has also provided a salient cultural flashpoint for debating whether a heightened concern with safety is an atomized response of individuals who imagine themselves as always vulnerable, or a necessary collective response to deregulated industrial practices (Haynes 1995; Soderbergh 2000). Be it fear about lead paint in toys from China or the unproven link between vaccines and autism, the call for safety can sometimes cloud the distinction between the demand for private or governmental accountability and more protectionist claims for individual choice (Chen 2012; Jain 2006, 2013). As a result, issues of health and environmental safety provide a link between the management of bodies and the activities of empire (Ahuja 2016).


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