The power to construct or to ward off public problems depends upon rhetorical struggles over images, claims, and symbols: what some scholars have labeled “the politics of problem definition.” () Scholars have discovered a typical vocabulary that political contenders employ as they try to construct or ward off problems. This vocabulary includes claims about the causes of problems, how severe their effects are, how frequent or prevalent they are, the social groups they most affect, and the solutions that would best address them (Schneider and Ingram 1993). Competing claims about causality, severity, incidence, affected populations, and solutions lie at the core of most struggles to define public problems. Those who wish to construct public problems out of troubling social conditions generally portray those conditions as widespread, as affecting large and diverse populations, or as harming groups that are positively stereotyped, such as children, or “hard-working Americans” (Schneider and Ingram 1993). They also seek to present troubling conditions as the product of identifiable causes that should be addressed through public policy.
These basic rhetorical components of problem construction present challenges for those who would designate police brutality as a serious public problem. While minority communities have continually asserted that they are subjected to police brutality on a regular basis, the bulk of the white, middle-class population does not usually feel threatened by police brutality. In fact, the white middle class is often geographically and culturally isolated from those populations who typically experience more aggressive police tactics and police misconduct. At the same time, those groups most likely to perceive brutality as a serious problem, such as ethnic minorities and the urban poor, rarely benefit from positive social stereotyping. In other words, it is difficult to make a problem out of brutality not only because much of the white middle class does not feel threatened by it but because it most affects the very groups the white middle class often does feel threatened by.