Race and Policing
The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
— George Santayana, Reason in Common Sense
Beginning in the seventeenth century, slave traders kidnapped and enslaved millions of Africans, and shipped them across the Atlantic like cattle. Not only were Blacks stolen from their homelands but they were also made to work for no wages. The racialized caste system of American slavery originated in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in which slaves were indentured servants — individuals who could be freed after working for a set period of time. When the first Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia, they held the status of "servant." However, as the region's economic system became dependent on forced labor, the institution of slavery in the United Stated hardened into a permanent status linked to race and lineage. The goal was to create a legal structure to build an economy with cheap slave labor as its foundation. Violence was a daily part of being a slave; these individuals endured horrendous conditions and were subject to physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, and psychological abuse. Historian David Baker has described the torturous punishment that African men and women suffered: "Planters often branded, stabbed, tarred and feathered, burned, shackled, tortured, maimed, mutilated, crippled, whipped, hanged, beat, and castrated slaves." Racial subjugation is tied to White supremacy: a worldview declaring White superiority and Black inferiority, the racist ideology that birthed the racial hierarchy resulting in the enslavement of Africans in the New World. The basis of White supremacy was the belief that Blacks were innately subordinate to Whites, and this ideology has continued to the present day. Racial oppression has merely changed forms. The militarization of police to control protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and Baltimore, Maryland, in 2015 conjures up searing images of White demonstrators during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement (e.g., hosing down Black people with water, firing shots at and setting dogs on them, and even killing them), suggesting that the legacy of these attitudes is alive and well.
The relationship between Blacks and law enforcement has been contentious throughout America's history. While informal police mechanisms originated in the colonial period, the origins of policing in the United States can be traced to the institution of slavery, when officers subjugated Black individuals through formal and informal mechanisms of surveillance and criminalization. Faced with the threat of slave insurrection and the chronic problem of slaves fleeing captivity, many state legislatures in the South in the 1700s passed restrictive laws controlling and regulating the movement of slaves through what was known as "slave patrol." Such patrols, charged with catching, beating, and returning escaped slaves, were among the first state-sponsored police forces in the United States. Imposing racially biased laws, slave patrollers were authorized to enter slaves' homes with impunity to ensure that slaves were not carrying any weapons, conducting meetings, learning to read or write, or committing criminal offenses. Slave patrollers were allowed a free hand to control and dominate the slave population by restricting Blacks to certain places and monitoring their behaviors within them. The legal behavior not only approved but "sustained slavery, segregation, and discrimination for most of our Nation's history — and the fact that the police were bound to uphold that order — set a pattern for police behavior and attitudes toward minority communities that has persisted until the present day."
To defend their slave property interests, Slave Codes were established and enforced by all segments of the White community. Slave Codes were state laws that defined the status of slaves and the rights of their owners, giving them absolute power to govern their slaves as chattel or property. These laws prohibited slaves from pursing a wide range of activities in which Whites were generally free to participate. For example, all Whites, including slave patrollers, were conferred unlimited authority to regulate the movement of slaves and had unlimited discretion to search their lodges, break up their organized meetings, punish runaways traveling without an appropriate pass, and apprehend any slave suspected of committing criminal offenses, which led to mistrust of the police among Blacks. The slave patrols constituted the most crucial component of the policing of Black bodies and served as constant reminders of slaves' inferior status.
During the early period of Reconstruction (1865–67), Southern Whites found themselves in a peculiar dilemma when the Thirteenth Amendment outlawed the institution of slavery in 1865. On the one hand, White Southerners were aware that the end of slavery could result in the collapse of the region's economy, given that slave owners were wholly dependent on Black labor to sustain economic life. On the other hand, the abolition of slavery meant that for White Southerners there was no formal system in place to maintain a racial hierarchy. In an effort to return Blacks to their "proper place" in society, states relied on the legal and prison system to create policies to maintain racial subordination and economically exploit emancipated Black people.
The "Black Codes" were a legal tool used to control Blacks and maintain the ideology of White supremacy. Passed in in 1865–66, Black Codes were criminal laws that created new offenses, such as "loitering" and "vagrancy," punishable by fines, imprisonment, and forced labor for up to one year. Many Southern states adopted vagrancy laws, making it a criminal offense not to work. Designed to regulate free Blacks and establish another system of forced labor, these discriminatory laws were applied selectively to Blacks to force them to accept employment, mostly in the sharecropping system. This legal version of slavery extended the control and policing of Blacks by criminalizing what was perceived as unproductive behavior. Black Codes opened up a market for convict leasing, in which people in prison were contracted out as laborers to the highest private bidder for state profit. Relying on language in the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery and involuntary servitude "except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted," policymakers authorized the White-controlled government to lease Black individuals in prison to commercial hands. Blacks who were convicted found themselves enslaved to the companies that they were leased out to, as these companies had absolute control over them. Company guards had the authority to "chain prisoners, shoot those attempting to flee, torture any who wouldn't submit, and whip the disobedient — naked or clothed — almost without limit." While Black people were rarely imprisoned during the era of slavery, criminalization had become the resolution for dealing with freed Blacks. Leased Black convicts faced appalling conditions; they were routinely starved and brutalized by companies, government officials, and businessmen seeking to achieve a profitable balance between the production of forced labor and the cost of sustaining them. In his book Race, Crime, and the Law, legal scholar Randall Kennedy contends:
When Whites had no pressing need for Black workers, Negros were permitted to move about freely to wring from the labor market whatever wages they could command. When Whites needed Black workers, however, law enforcement officials, reinforced by a panoply of byzantine statutes, limited competition for labor, deprived Negros of freedom of movement, coerced them into labor agreements, criminalized breach of contract, and compelled Black convicts to work off their "debt to society" by laboring for White employers at rock-bottom prices.
Under these deplorable conditions, leased prisoners were subject to cruel and harsh treatment, and thousands lost their lives. Historian David Oshinski wrote that before convict leasing was legally terminated, "a generation of black prisoners would suffer and die under conditions far worse than anything they had every experienced as slaves."
Passed by a political system in which Blacks did not have a voice, the Black Codes were enforced by all-White police and state militia forces across the South to ensure the "continued subordination of Black labor to White economic power." On the whole, both Black Codes and vagrancy laws controlled the movement of freed slaves and provided justification for incarcerating them. Even after the Civil War and formal codification of emancipation, White supremacy remained deeply rooted.
During Reconstruction, the Black Codes were eventually overturned, as the nature of the codes were opposed by many in the North who contended that the codes violated the principle of free labor. As a result, Blacks saw some significant advancement during the Reconstruction era. After nearly 250 years of enslavement, slavery was abolished under the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865; Blacks were recognized as full citizens under the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866; Blacks were given "equal protection of the laws" in 1868, based on the Fourteenth Amendment; and in 1870 Black men were provided the right to vote based on the Fifteenth Amendment.
Blacks experienced notable economic and political development during this time period, but the increase in political power and social and economic independence was accompanied by a severe backlash. Support for Reconstruction policies diminished after it was undermined by White supremacist organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which often worked closely with — and was occupied by — local police. In an attempt to preserve control over Black citizens, the KKK fought against Reconstruction governments and leaders, relying on bombs, mob violence, and lynchings to achieve their mission. In fact, the Klan and the police — who often condoned and even participated in lynchings during Reconstruction — often worked together to actively support White supremacy. Consequently, not only did federal troops withdraw from the South, thereby abandoning Blacks and others who fought for racial equality, but the federal government also stopped enforcing civil rights legislation.
When the Black Codes came under legal attack, Southern states pursued racial segregation in an attempt to ensure White supremacy and Black subordination. The proliferation of Jim Crow — a term derived from a minstrel show character — grew out of economic crisis, political opportunism, and racial fear, which regulated the nature of interracial social contact. Jim Crow referred to the various state laws that established different rules for Blacks and Whites in Southern and border states between 1877 and the mid-1960s. Under Jim Crow, Blacks were relegated to the status of second-class citizens, which touched every part of life: schools, housing, jobs, churches, restaurants, hospitals, hotels, restrooms, funeral homes, prisons, and virtually all other public spaces were completely segregated. Formal police departments were responsible for maintaining — andvigorously imposed — racial inequality throughout the South.
The contentious relationship between police and Blacks reached a boiling point at the height of the Civil Rights Era (1954–1968), as the devastating effects of discrimination and racism continued despite the abolishment of slavery. The Civil Rights Movement, especially the Selma to Montgomery march, highlighted deeply entrenched racist policy and the role police played in maintaining discriminatory laws. Blacks, along with many Whites, mobilized to fight for social justice to gain equal rights under the law; however, with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement came more repressive policing. Police in the South threatened and beat protesters, made discriminatory arrests, and failed to protect activists from violent mobs. As the movement grew more militant, it was subject to more repressive tactics. For instance, groups, most notably the Black Panthers, attracted increasing police surveillance, as the FBI sought to repress, dismantle, and discredit the movement.
The legacy of slavery and dominance over Black bodies in the United States is deeply rooted and continues to affect Blacks' experiences with the police and the criminal justice system. From slave patrols and Slave Codes to Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, racially biased formal legislation was enforced for nearly 250 years. While it seems as though slavery was long ago, Black Americans were enslaved in the United States longer than they have been free — many Americans are only two to three generations removed from slavery. Blacks have endured a legacy of vicious assaults, the effects of which linger in the present day. Understanding the centrality of race in the formation and organization of policing is necessary for getting a clear picture of contemporary police practices toward racial minorities. As primary enforcers of the law, the police were in charge of upholding and enforcing racially discriminatory laws. Historically, Blacks were not viewed as citizens in need of protection but rather treated as objects of social control that were routinely surveilled by the police. That current police practice may operate in the same way is not lost on Blacks, as many perceive that the police serve an oppressive function. We will see how both race and community context thus shapes residents' experiences with — and, ultimately, attitudes toward — the police.
Contemporary Perspectives on Race, Place, and Policing
Residents of economically distressed neighborhoods are at a substantial risk of coming into direct or indirect contact with law enforcement. Negative views of the police can best be understood by taking into consideration the nature of policing in predominately Black neighborhoods. Research shows that policing styles vary by location and that urban Black males are often the targets of aggressive police patrol practices and excessive use of force. Police officers often face conditions in which they have limited information and available time to make decisions, resulting in their development of a "perceptual shorthand." This shorthand generally relies on stereotypical assessments of dangerousness and blameworthiness based on race, gender, and age, which cues suspicion and motivates decisions as to whom to search. Such judgments can be influenced by racial typification of crime — the extent to which people associate crime with Blacks. In fact, some researchers suggest that the term "criminal predator" is a euphemism for young Black males. Too often, Black males are viewed as "symbolic assailants" who may represent danger to the police and the community.
Consequently, Black male youths are often stigmatized and perceived by officers as suspicious. Several studies show that police are more likely to stop Blacks than Whites. For instance, in 1994 the problem of disproportionate traffic stops against Black drivers was brought to light in State of New Jersey v. Pedro Soto, in which the Black defendant claimed that he was stopped because of his ethnicity. Racial profiling expert, John Lambert, served as an expert witness. Using rigorous statistical analysis of the racial distribution of traffic stops in New Jersey, Lambert found that 73.2 percent of those stopped and arrested along the turnpike over a 3.5 year period were Black — making them 16.5 times more likely to be arrested than others. He concluded that the New Jersey State Police stop, investigate, and arrest Black motorists at rates significantly disproportionate to the percentage of Blacks in the traveling population.
Recently, in their analysis of 20 million traffic stops in North Carolina, public policy scholars Frank Baumgartner, Derek Epp, and Kelsey Shoub found that young Black men in the state are the primary targets of racially disparate policing. It is well established that racial minorities are disproportionately more likely to be stopped, questioned, arrested, and frisked than Whites, suggesting that stops by the police are more likely for Blacks as a result of the race-based suspicion that is a persistent pattern of police conduct.
In its seminal decision in Terry v. Ohio in 1968, the US Supreme Court ruled that police officers are permitted to stop, interrogate, and, under appropriate circumstances (i.e., where there is reasonable signs of potential danger), perform a "pat down" of detainees' outer clothing, providing that the officer can articulate a reasonable basis for the stop-and-frisk. The court thereby set a precedent giving police formal authority to stop citizens on the street based on a standard of proof less than probable cause and to conduct pat-down searches of those citizens they stop. The effect of this ruling has been that a disproportionate number of Black individuals have been stopped and frisked by police.