Black History Month - Day 27
Black Lives Have NEVER Mattered
White Privilege and Police Brutality
In the age of digital cameras and live internet video, we are now privy to events that in past eras would have gone unnoticed and unobserved. The video of the public execution of George Floyd in Minneapolis was shocking and gruesome to watch, but unfortunately, not unusual. Ask any black person.
For white people like me, it was a rude awakening to see it, and so many people reacted viscerally to watching it. But unfortunately for Black people, even though it was shocking…. it wasn’t unsurprising. You see Black people in the United States have been victims to this type of policing not just since digital photography was invented, but since the beginning of their communal sojourn in this country.
My white privilege is probably most apparent in my life by not having to fear the police. I have never feared encountering the police. I was a privileged young white man growing up in a mostly white community in Iowa. It is something I took for granted and that was during the Civil Rights period which was quite violent. But no one in my family or at school ever had “the talk” with me (not talking about the birds and bees talk), about police violence and how I should behave if ever confronted by the police.
Most black families have had that talk with their male sons especially. Because every black parent knows…their lives have never mattered.
You see, Black people, who account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 27 percent of those fatally shot and killed by police in 2021, according to Mapping Police Violence, a nonprofit group that tracks police shootings. That means Black people are twice as likely as white people to be shot and killed by police officers.
How Do We Teach Our Children About Police Violence Against Blacks?
In developing a curriculum for including black history into the larger American history narrative, what is important to include isn’t so much all the examples of police violence and killings against black people. Today, kids can see that on their iPhones and cable TV daily.
We certainly need to highlight the injustice of each act of unjustified police violence from Rodney King to George Floyd and thousands of others. It IS important. But the injustice of the individual heinous acts of police violence can get lost in the larger narrative of why police culture is so deadly toward black people. In other words, why are blacks twice as likely to be killed by police than white people?
Here is the fine point that can be missed if all we do is focus on the atrocities. We miss the connection of today’s police violence to the historic timeline of violence against blacks that has gone on for 400 years. What happened to George Floyd has its roots and origin in the policing of enslaved Africans on slave ships in the 17th century. These are not unconnected events or behaviors.
BUT WE HAVE TO CONNECT THE DOTS!
If we don’t make this connection for young people (and a lot of adults), then we run the risk of people making the erroneous conclusion that each of these individual acts of violence by police are due to the acts of rogue or the infrequent “bad cop.” No one disputes that there are “good cops” and “bad cops” in every police force. But what this overlooks is the systemic racialization of police work that has gone on for decades within the United States. Getting rid of a single bad cop won’t solve the problem of a system that is designed to over-police and brutalize black people.
Once again, for black people, this is common knowledge. No one needs to explain this to them. But if you are a white person on a journey to antiracism, this is perhaps one of the most important connections you need to see. And we need to teach this to young people.
Nixon’s Racist War On Drugs
Let’s start with recent history. In the 1980s and 90s, US lawmakers, both Democrat and Republican, launched a “war on drugs.”
Richard Nixon’s domestic policy advisor John Ehrlichman revealed in a 1994 interview that the “War on Drugs” had begun as a racially motivated crusade to criminalize Blacks and the anti-war left. Ehrlichman admits,
“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or blacks, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin and then criminalizing them both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night in the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,”
Reagan’s War on Drugs Led to Mass Incarceration
During the Reagan Administration, two laws were passed to launch a “war on drugs.” They would have dire consequences. the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1888.
The 1986 bill created minimum sentencing laws with a 100:1 disparity between powder and crack cocaine, supported by untrue claims that crack is more dangerous and addictive, while there is pharmacologically no difference in effects between the two forms.
This disparity overall led to a major racial and class imbalance where minorities faced exorbitantly harsher punishment for use and sale of virtually the same drug as their affluent, white counterparts. The extreme actions taken against crack specifically alongside the continued media hype of the dangers of the drug led to the major focus of public attention and militarized police efforts to be on the inner cities, which had naturally formed a market around the profitable drug.
Meanwhile, suburban and upper-class users of powdered cocaine were largely ignored in policy, media portrayals, and enforcement measures.
The bills made the forfeiture of property much easier by law, specifically allowing for the seizure of belongings equating to the value of illegal goods. Consequently, state legislatures similarly expanded their search and seizure policies in congruence with increased law enforcement efforts. As funding for drug-fighting programs increased, there was a trend towards using this money for increased policing and expansion of the criminal justice system, as opposed to efforts for rehabilitation.
The 1994 Crime Bill Targets Blacks
The incarceration of blacks was given yet another boost with the Violent Crime Control Act and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, better known as the crime bill, but this time under the Democratic Administration of Bill Clinton. States and localities were incentivized through a massive infusion of federal funding to build more jails and prisons and to pass so-called truth-in-sentencing laws and other punitive measures that simultaneously increased the number and length of prison sentences while reducing the possibility of early release for those incarcerated. The program was a failure but it led to the disproportionate incarceration of a generation of African American men in the name of public safety
The 1994 bill by itself may not have led to mass incarceration. The statistics show that trend had started 15 years earlier. The 1994 bill interacted with—and reinforced—an existing and problematic piece of legislation: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which created large disparities in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine. With all the new funding from the 1994 bill, police forces over policed the inner city and once again ignore suburbia
There were other results that included the use of the death penalty for 60 new federal offenses, including certain drug offences not related to a homicide. In the five years following the bill’s passage, 74 percent of defendants with death penalty recommendations from federal prosecutors were people of color.
Another problem with the 1994 bill was the mandatory life sentencing for 3 felonies. Imposing life sentences simply because an individual has a criminal record disproportionately targets people of color, who are more likely to have a record in the first place because of unequal contact with police and the justice system.
Finally the 1994 crime bill targets black youth. It expanded the school-to-prison pipeline and increased racial disparities in juvenile justice system by creating draconian penalties for so-called super predators—low-income children of color, especially black children, who are convicted of multiple crimes.
Among other things, the crime bill allowed prosecutors to charge 13-year-old children as adults for certain crimes. As a result, today, two-thirds of Americans who were sentenced to life in prison as juveniles are black.
The Rate of Police Killings of Black People
The images have become all too common since digital technology. From Ferguson, Mo. to Minneapolis, Mn., we have witnessed public killing after killing of black people doing nothing other than just being black in public.
But what do the actual statistics show? A recent report from the Manhattan Institute reports the following findings:
On-duty police fatally shoot about 1,000 people every year. This number and its racial breakdown have remained remarkably steady since 2015.
Approximately a quarter of those killed are black. This is roughly double the black share of the overall population.
Blacks are an even higher percentage of unarmed civilians shot and killed by police (34%), which is a potential sign of bias.
Here you can see the difference visually: (from Statistica)
Rate of fatal police shootings in the United States from 2015 to January 2023, by ethnicity (per million of the population per year)
Let’s Go Back to the Slave Patrols
The origins of policing are from the era of slavery, when “slave patrols” monitored enslaved Black people, deploying tactics similar to those that some officers use today.
Many police reformers have pointed out the straight line between “slave patrols” and modern policing tactics.
“Those slave patrols were able to inflict impromptu punishments, where they were allowed to be judge, jury and executioner on the spot. And that has never changed. And so, of course, this has always been about controlling Black bodies, controlling Black people, to protect white supremacy and white wealth. That’s the scenario that police find themselves in today.” Leslie Mac, Activist and Reformer
According to historian Gary Potter, slave patrols served three main functions.
“(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves; (2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and, (3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.”
After the Civil War, Southern police departments often carried over aspects of the patrols. These included systematic surveillance, the enforcement of curfews, and even notions of who could become a police officer. Though law enforcement looks very different today, the profession developed from practices implemented in the Jim Crow era.
20th Century style policing grew out of both slave patrols and Jim Crow style terrorist groups. By 1909, August Vollmer became the chief of the police department in Berkeley, California. Vollmer refashioned American police into an American military. He’d served with the Eighth Army Corps in the Philippines in 1898. He added military tactics to the function of municipal policing.
Progressive Era, Vollmer-style policing criminalized Blackness, as the historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad argued in his 2010 book, “The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.” Muhammed argues that during the 20th century,
“police patrolled Black neighborhoods and arrested Black people disproportionately; prosecutors indicted Black people disproportionately; juries found Black people guilty disproportionately; judges gave Black people disproportionately long sentences; and, then, after all this, social scientists, observing the number of Black people in jail, decided that, as a matter of biology, Black people were disproportionately inclined to criminality.”
In other words, what we are seeing today in policing is a continuation of practices, biases, discrimination and brutality that has been part of that system for centuries.
To become educated about the problems we see today, the film documentary, “Thirteenth” is essential to watch. This post is already too long, so I’ll close by encouraging anyone that wants to learn more about this issue will benefit from seeing this film. Here is an introductory video about it.