Acknowledging the Racist History of the United States Police Force

Daniella Cressman

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Clay Banks

We have a sordid history of oppressing everyone who isn’t white in America, claiming that they are somehow subhuman, akin to property because they do not look like us. Tragically, this has led to a myriad of injustices that are deeply unforgivable, and a great deal of people who are incredibly angry with the white American, and perhaps even white European, population, justifiably so. Unfortunately, the deeply racist rhetoric that has plagued our history remains present in the ethos of American society, and one can see this when they look at how many innocent black men and women have been killed by police officers, and how many black and brown people have been imprisoned for an inordinate number of years solely due to the illegal possession of marijuana: A minor crime that the vast majority of white folks get away with on a daily basis.

RACIAL DYNAMICS DURING COLONIALISM

Although it is painful to remember, we have to acknowledge this part of our history: Black people were considered property under the law. It wasn’t fair or just or right in any way, but they were treated differently by the police force as a result of this deeply offensive mindset.

We also can’t continue to be in denial about how white settlers treated Native Americans: They were “barbarians” who deserved to be brutally murdered in droves, according to white settlers, which resulted in mass genocide. To this day, the vast majority of Native Americans live on the worst possible parcels of land we could “provide” them with, and we live on stolen land, the result of the bloodshed of so many indigenous people, land which they view as sacred, and we call it our own. We buy and sell it, and we assume we’re right and they’re wrong in their way of living. Honestly, the amount of reverence they have for people and for the natural world is astounding: We could learn something from them, but we’d have to acknowledge that we killed so many Native Americans to purchase and own the land we now claim as our own. When you think about it that way, Thanksgiving doesn’t exactly seem like a cause for celebration. Everything white people did to Native Americans was 100% legal. It was horrific, unjust, and cruel, but it wasn’t illegal.

As a result of the inherent racism that was justified under the law since the birth of our (great?) nation, the white community has always viewed anyone who looks different or acts different as inferior, so much so that they were considered “subhuman property,” and, apparently, invisible, unless it came to punishment under the law. Let’s face it: Black people have always been treated differently by law enforcement, because our society viewed them as inferior for so long, and it’s apparent today that, tragically, many white police officers still view black people as intimidating, inferior, and violent, whether that’s the reality or not. Countless lives have been lost thanks to white ignorance, malice, and hatred towards the black community.

RACIAL DYNAMICS DURING CHATTEL SLAVERY

Slave masters could do whatever they wanted to their slaves: They could legally whip, rape, and otherwise harm these people, these living human beings who they had taken from their homeland forcefully, and none of it was illegal.

How did they justify such cruelty? Apparently, these people were “not actually people,” because they looked different and they did not have white skin: Some attribute this deeply prejudiced mindset to a few words in The Bible, which does have a potentially problematic passage within its pages, if someone with a malicious heart is reading this scripture:

“Genesis 9 recounts how God blessed Noah and his sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth after the flood, reiterating the blessing given in Eden to be fruitful, multiply, and populate the earth. Not long after, Noah planted a vineyard, overindulged in the fruit of his labor, got drunk, and “lay uncovered in his tent.” His son Ham, the father of Canaan, “saw the nakedness of his father,” and told his brothers, who respectfully covered their father. When Noah woke up from his stupor, he condemned Ham’s bad behavior, saying, “Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be to his brothers.”
— (Gen. 9:25 ESV).

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Eliza Thomas eloquently points out that God did not curse Ham; Noah did, and he was drunk. Furthermore, all three sons were from the same father, therefore, they were all the same race.

That’s a whole other article there, or even a book, but the sad truth is that a lot of White Supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan included, have warped scripture and perceived it in a twisted way: Apparently, in their minds, black people are cursed for eternity, and deserve to be punished solely due to the color of their skin. 99% of reasonable Christians do not feel that way, because the passage is not about slavery if it’s interpreted correctly, but, sadly, it’s been misinterpreted by a select few for centuries.

I’m not bashing Christianity, but I am saying that radicalized versions of this religion are deeply problematic to society at large.

To make matters worse, the law treated black individuals very differently when it came to execution, and, since the very beginning of American history, too many black people were executed solely because law enforcement felt like being cruel to them for no reason at all, except, of course, that they believed they were inherently superior and that somehow loving their neighbors did not include anyone who looked different, spoke differently, or thought differently than they did. Oh yeah, and this is tragic to say, or even think about, but, in many states, slave-owners were legally allowed to “accidentally” kill their slaves if they ended up beating them too hard, so the power of taking another human being’s life was only sometimes left up to very biased law enforcement.

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In yet another case of extreme injustice towards the black community, this legal system remained firmly in place all the way up until 1865, when the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments were finally ratified.

RECONSTRUCTION (1865–1870s)

This was the time right after the Civil War — a time when race relations were…tense. Honestly, that’s probably the understatement of the century! So many people, it seems, strongly believed that the South should have won the Civil War, and continued to justify segregating, mistreating, and oppressing the black community as a result.

JIM CROW LAWS

Laws were enforced that the white government called “separate but equal.” One of the many problems with such laws was that the facilities were not equal: White folks usually got to use higher-quality restrooms and went to better schools, and ate at nicer restaurants. The list goes on for way too long.

Of course, the other issue with this incredibly unjust law is that, by segregating the black community, the implication was that anyone who was not white was inherently inferior to anyone who was, because, let’s face it: If the white community truly believed they were equal to the black community at that time, there would have been no need to segregate people based solely on the color of their skin — You can’t be separated by law if you’re going to be equals, that’s just not the way it works!

To make matters worse, black people did not have the same rights white folks did, and they were not treated as equals under the law. Instead, they were stripped of their rights: They weren’t allowed to sit in certain sections of the bus, and they weren’t even allowed to vote, furthering white power and possession. It benefited the white community greatly: They could elect whatever racist bastard they found fit for office, and no black person could oppose them legally.

It made the black community powerless: The sordid history of slavery was already enough to deal with — too much to deal with — and then, on top of this, they were made voiceless by the white population when it came to politics, so not only do we have a history of displacing people who looked a certain way from their homeland forcefully; we also have a history of forcing them to keep quiet about it, so that we can control the system and make more money in the process: Money that comes from the suffering of the slaves in far too many cases. Old money that, unfortunately, is usually not donated to racial justice charities, as it should be, or used for reparations, which many, myself included, believe are deserved, but passed down from generation to generation, forever remaining in white families. Do they love to think about where the money came from? No. They’d rather be in denial about it while they buy their nice clothes and fancy shoes. Are they personally racist? One could make that argument, even if they vote a certain way: They don’t usually give the money back to descendants of the people their ancestors oppressed, and they really should, but that would mean that they’d have to face the painful facts of the cruelty, the blood, the deaths, and the oppression of their heritage, which they’d rather pretend to be proud of and, yes, in most cases, they truly are pretending: That’s why they hate being called racist — it has a little bit too much truth to it, and they’re not blatant racists; they’re subtle ones, benefiting from immense pain, but only from a distance.

Jim Crow laws meant that white citizens were on the very top of a caste system of sorts, and black people were on the bottom: Black people were considered second-class citizens.

During this painful era, the white community, particularly white male senators and Ku Klux Klan leaders (many politicians were in the Klan) lynched black men and women in droves, making the excuse that black men were, allegedly, raping white women left and right. Apparently, lynching was “necessary” because it was a “preventative measure.” Sadly, lynching was not a federal crime all the way up until 2018: The Senate passed the bill; the House took no action. As you can see, it took way too long to address this injustice and to forbid many white individuals from inflicting such an immense amount of pain on black people. It’s shocking that it wasn’t illegal until 3 years ago — it’s honestly infuriating! — but that just gives you an idea of just how racist the law in the United States truly is, and truly has been, for far too long.

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Then, to rub more salt in the already gaping racial wound of our sordid history, white people decided to enforce sharecropping, which was just about as similar to slavery as anything could possibly be.

To give you an idea of just how racist the law was, these white people would rent prison labor, consisting of a bunch of black folks who had often been wrongly imprisoned in the first place, to “tend their crops.” These incredibly corrupt businesses would then pay the state in exchange for free labor. It was basically slavery all over again, but no one dared to call it that: Doing so would mean that the white community would have to take accountability for their deeply immoral behavior, and the vast majority of them were already going to church every Sunday, so they didn’t find that necessary. Furthermore, oppressing this people, and utilizing this form of free labor led to a hell of a lot more money, and they didn’t want to give that up. Let’s face it: As messed up as it is, a huge motivator for slave owners and white oppressors was money — the white community profited enormously from black suffering economically, and many of their descendants have also benefited from slavery and are incredibly wealthy as a result of their ancestors’ incessant corruption towards black people.

So, since they had free labor now, and it was perfectly, corruptly legal, the white community, including white law enforcement — an older version of the police force, whom some refer to as the honored men in blue — sent a bunch of black people to prison so that they could then enslave them, and call it sharecropping, under the law. Did these people do anything morally wrong? No. Did they deserve to go to prison simply because they “looked intimidating?” No. The laws were incredibly vague, meaning that black people could be imprisoned for basically no reason at all, for doing the same things white people got away with on a daily basis, some of which were not exactly “criminal” in any way: The laws were intentionally designed to oppress black people and bolster white peoples’ earnings. In a cruel twist of power, newly emancipated black citizens were imprisoned at a higher rate than anyone else, so the white community would immediately oppress and enslave black people who had just been freed — I think that’s the worst case of giving someone false hope I’ve ever heard of: Imagine the sense of betrayal these people must have felt, finally on the brink of freedom, often believing that progress had actually been made, only to be enslaved once more, and have white folks call it something different this time.

Sadly, sharecropping lasted all the way into the early 20th century.

When someone hears that “black men are raping white women,” they may immediately jolt with fear, but let’s consider the context here: Many white women with white husbands were secretly attracted to these well-built black men who were enslaved at the time, and a lot of consensual sex and even relationships took place, much to the dismay of the “mighty white man.” Furthermore, when one considers how many white slave-owners raped their black female slaves, it’s horrifying. If the black community thought the same way a lot of white folks did, and the roles were reversed, they could surely justify lynching almost every white slave-owner in sight.

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Finally, the Jim Crow laws came to an official end with the emergence of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s: The black community demanded justice, and rightly so, but obstacles were constantly shoved in their face, and daring to speak up was incredibly dangerous, sometimes even fatal. Infuriatingly, this only led to new forms of oppression under the law.

THE RECONSTRUCTION ERA

It’s important to remember that the police officers were the ones who were responsible for enforcing Jim Crow laws, which were blatantly present in the south, but many discriminatory practices were also present in the northern United States. The Ku Klux Klan terrorized black communities in way too many ways. Many police officers were actually secretly part of the Klan, and even a few politicians attended this vicious hate group’s “events” on the weekends after work, which often consisted of lynching black people.

Rabid dogs were used to enforce fear on the black community. Tragically, the many unjust instances of police officers killing innocent black people often stem from fear. That’s not an excuse, it should never be an excuse, but it is a stark reality for many members of the police force.

POLICE OFFICERS ARE 3.23 TIMES AS LIKELY TO USE FORCE ON BLACK PEOPLE THAN THEY ARE TO USE FORCE ON WHITE FOLKS.

Furthermore, according to “The Root,” laws such as stop-and-frisk, and racial profiling are sadly common. It seems that the United States, along with its police force, has an enormous fear of anyone who looks different, thinks differently, follows a different religion, or speaks differently than the white population with descendants from Western Europe. It is important to address this fear, because we as white people have got to do better than this: Our “beloved” officers, the ones many white folks trust to protect us and keep us safe from harm, have a deeply racist history, and we cannot continue to be in denial about that. We also have to learn to admit our ignorance on certain matters: I am not black, and so I don’t know how it is to be black in America, although I do know that it’s not easy, and that too many injustices to count have been committed and continue to be committed. Sometimes, I hesitate to write about these issues because I fear that I might say something wrong or something insensitive, and that’s certainly not my intention. Admittedly, some of the injustices that are in place benefit me as a white person, but changing the system so that it is more equal would benefit each and every one of us: There would be less racial tension, and black people on the streets would not have to live in fear of being shot or teaching their kids how to drive, there would probably be less violence towards the police because it’s no wonder that certain individuals in the black community resent them, there would probably be a more diverse workplace where we could all benefit from hearing each other’s perspectives, there would be more opportunities for black people to rise to the top and use their resources to better society at large if they chose to, or to simply hold some of the American assets that their ancestors have more than earned, and there would likely be less hatred and bigotry plaguing our nation, which could be so much greater than it currently is, for each and every individual, as our Constitution proudly claims.

“All men [and women] are created equal.”
— The Constitution of the United States of America

MASS INCARCERATION (20TH CENTURY TO PRESENT)

In the 1960s, the prison population in the United States was around 200,000. By the early 2000s, over 1.5 million people were incarcerated.

According to Danielle Bainbridge, this increase was largely attributed to Reagan’s war on drugs. Crack spread more rapidly in poor communities — which were often predominantly black communities — than powdered cocaine did, because it was cheaper. Those arrested for crack cocaine faced far more severe sentences than others. Federal laws mandated a 10-year sentence for anyone caught with 50 grams of crack. A dealer with powdered cocaine would have to be caught with 5000 grams. Again, these laws are racially biased, and they were in favor of the white community. These sentences were solely enforced for drug possession most of the time, and the crimes were often nonviolent ones. Shockingly, these laws were not rolled back until 2010: The sentence was now 18 times longer for someone possessing crack cocaine than it was for someone possessing powder cocaine, instead of 100 times longer.

The United States still imprisons more people — overall and per capita — than any other country in the world. Tragically, the black community made up only 13% of the American population in 2010, yet they made up the majority of the prison population. The sad truth is that, overall, the black population does not commit crimes at a higher rate than the white population does, but they are still imprisoned at a higher rate.

Due to the many economic disparities in some, but not all black communities, it is often the case that a rich white criminal, who has committed heinous crimes, can bail himself or herself out with enough money, while it’s not often the case that a black person has the resources to do so, even if the punishment does not fit the crime. Of course, this does not ring true in every case, but it is unfortunately true in many, largely due to our sordid history of economically and societally oppressing the black population. To make matters worse, many prisoners do not have the right to vote, so this is yet another form of oppression that has been inflicted on the black community, stripping them of the power their ancestors have fought for so valiantly throughout American history. The history of law enforcement is deeply racist, it continues to be deeply racist, and it has been deeply racist since its inception.

DOES THE PUNISHMENT SUIT THE CRIME?

Sadly, the answer in most cases seems to be this: “Yes,” if you’re white; “No” if you’re black or brown.

The police force already has a history of oppressing and wrongly imprisoning black people: The first form of policing, in the South of course, was known as The Slave Patrol — they would go around catching runaway slaves! They first emerged in the colony of Carolina in the 1700s, and set the (deliberately racist) tone for the police force ever since: The men in blue, and these days sometimes the women in blue, the officers people in the white community so often exalted as our heroes, are part of a movement that has a long and sordid history of oppressing, and even killing, violating, and otherwise discriminating against black people for no reason at all, and it always has. These officers could actually demand a slave badge, ordering any runaway slaves’ to let them know their “occupation,” because, apparently, it was legal to oppress, kill, rape, and whip these people, but it was illegal for them to run away!

After this the police force “evolved,” or, more appropriately, devolved into slave catchers, although I hesitate to even use that term because their acts were already so heinous to begin with, they took it upon themselves to chase and return runaway slaves and call it enforcing the law. Of course, they believed it was their duty to prevent revolts, because that was morally wrong in their minds…Not the fact that black women were being constantly raped by white slave owners, or the fact that black men were being whipped on a daily basis! They had to do the “right thing,” which was the racist thing, in order to ensure that the white people were getting their precious money: They’d obviously sacrificed their soul for this currency a long time ago, but that didn’t seem to be an issue because it didn’t undo their powerful place in society.

Both early forms of the police force in the United States enforced the idea that black people were second-class citizens and that white people were the authority. Organized police departments also enforced this racial hierarchy.

“There were dozens of police officers in the Charleston police department whose jobs were essentially to monitor the enslaved.”
— The Root

A lot of white folks are scared of the progress that has been made, and we’re scared of more progress being made: We somehow think that continuing to oppress people is the answer, and we’re often in denial about our own prejudice. Let’s be real for a second: If hiring practices are more diverse, there will be more competition, and if fewer black folks are in prison and more of them are in the workforce, there is a chance that some white people may not get the job that a black person does, and that’s okay, because, at some point, we have to remember that justice, equality, and treating humans humanely, is worth a hell of a lot more than any amount of money ever will be, and who knows? We might end up benefiting from different business perspectives and innovative solutions. We might end up working together and, in some cases, some white people may actually become friends with black people and overcame deep prejudices they could hold, often due to their problematic upbringing, in the process. While it’s tempting for many white people to remain silent about the many injustices of the police force, and to exalt them as the heroes of our society, it’s important to acknowledge the history of that particular establishment, because, until we’re honest with ourselves as a nation, no amount of meaningful progress can truly be made.

White people would benefit from a less racist police force too: We would live in a genuinely peaceful society that promotes true equality.

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