Policing as a Tool of Systemic Racism

Part 2 of my series on Race, Crime, and Policing

By William K. Black
July 31, 2016     Bloomington, MN

My introductory column in this series laid out the blood libels against police, policing, blacks, and whites that are doing so much harm to America.  This second installment provides a brief historical overview necessary to begin the discussion about the blood libels against Black Lives Matter, law enforcement officers (LEOs) and whites as a racial group.  I repeat my warning from my introductory installment that criminology produces hard truths and nuanced explanations that upset almost everyone.

In order to understand the discussion of blood libels I need to provide the reader with a very brief overview of the key policing practices most relevant to race.  This thumbnail history is necessary to understand a series of paradoxes that I will discuss in this series of articles.  These paradoxes often are critical to understanding the intersection of police, policing, crime, gender, age, and race.

U.S. Policing’s History of Structural Racism

To speak very broadly, there were three eras of structural racism for policing in America in roughly the first 100 years after the end of Reconstruction.  (True public police forces began to be established in major U.S. cities in the late 1830s.  They were rare in the South before the Civil War.)  A fourth era of structural racism developed more recently.  The policing policies I discuss were typically the policies desired and crafted by local and state government leaders.  The LEOs were not acting as rogues.

A series of cautions and two paradoxes are important to keep in mind when reading this historical discussion.  First, this is an ultra-brief overview focused on one aspect of policing.  Policing involves myriad aspects.  Second, policing is overwhelmingly local and overlapping.  There are roughly 18,000 U.S. police departments and very little uniformity.  There are now, roughly, one million LEOs.  (It is actually very difficult to know how many LEOs there are, which should serve as a warning about data limitations.)  LEOs are individuals and they vary enormously.  Third, I’m writing about 140 years of policing.  Fourth, the eras I describe overlap and how they overlap varies greatly by locality and region.

There are two central paradoxes with regard to U.S. policing’s role as a device of structural racism.  There is enormous continuity of policing serving as a device of structural racism for virtually its entire existence, but how it has done so has changed enormously and those changes are essential to understanding the blood libels that abound about policing.

The second, related, paradox is that while the policing and the criminal justice systems have continued to function as devices of structural racism, racism among LEOs and their professional leaders has fallen dramatically and the most virulent forms of racism are exceptionally rare among today’s LEOs.  These changes reflect, but go beyond, the dramatic reduction in the most virulent forms of racism among whites.  Understanding this paradox is also essential to understanding today’s blood libels about police and policing.

Many police leaders decided decades ago to adopt a new model of “community policing” and other reforms that go beyond the criminal justice system.  In future columns I will describe how LEOs, community leaders and members, and criminologists have increasingly achieved consensus on the desirability of this approach.  These new approaches have shown the ability to reduce crimes of violence, the repression of the community, and cost – and produced large collateral advantages – a win-win-win-win.

The Era of Policing as a Tool of Anti-Black Terror to Restore Absolute White Power

First, there was terror, exemplified by lynching.  This was most common in the South, but it was not limited to the South.  The police were often directly complicit in lynching and the law enforcement system allowed the lynching, disproportionately but not exclusively of blacks, with total impunity.  Lynching was not designed as a means of mass killing of blacks, but as a weapon of terror to intimidate and repress blacks.  It frequently involved torture and humiliation of the victim.

Lynching and mass killings were the preferred tactics of the first wave of the Klan.  The Klan’s political objective was to destroy Reconstruction and its democratic and social reforms and return the worst white elites to absolute economic, social, and political domination through a reign of terror.  The Klan’s political and paramilitary heirs succeeded in destroying Reconstruction.  The decisive political blow was a cynical political deal that decided the presidency in 1876.  (A sympathetic account of Rutherford B. Hayes’ actions makes clear that the power of the systemic racism and violence that the Klan (and its paramilitary successors) and white political elites put in place to destroy Reconstruction and the three post-Civil War amendments designed to protect the rights of the freed slaves.)

Formal public police forces, however, often did not exist or were rudimentary during Reconstruction in the former states of the Confederacy.  The rudimentary police forces would have been annihilated had they confronted the Klan and the white militias composed of veterans of the Confederate army.  Only the Union Army could consistently defeat the Klan and the militias.  The creation of Southern police departments largely happened after the destruction of Reconstruction.  The leaders and men who made up these newly created police departments were eager servants of the “Redeemers” who succeeded in reinstating the absolute political domination of whites.

The removal of federal troops did not instantly end Reconstruction’s reforms and the political gains of blacks in the former Confederacy.  Pockets of reform existed in parts of the old Confederacy for two decades until they were destroyed by violence organized by elite whites.

Leaders of Wilmington, N.C., have consulted with their Tulsa counterparts on ways to acknowledge an 1898 riot in which white supremacists overthrew the city’s mixed-race government.

Once in power, the Redeemers used the police, the legislatures, the powers of the executive branch, and the judiciary to ruthlessly imprison, kill, or (most commonly) intimidate their opponents (white progressives and all blacks).  The rule of law (again) disappeared for blacks in the South and many border states for over 100 years.

The Century of Routine Police Repression of Blacks

Second, there was the role of police in maintaining a system of day-to-day racial domination and repression after the full destruction of Reconstruction.  This period persisted for roughly 100 years.  Lynching was episodic, but police and white civilian harassment of “uppity” blacks was ubiquitous.  You do not have to lynch large numbers of people to terrorize a community that you define as not protected by the rule of law and the police.  Lynching was not unique to the South and the border states, but over time it came to be overwhelmingly a “Southern” outrage.

The FBI, under the virulently racist J. Edgar Hoover, refused for decades to act to protect blacks and even white civil rights workers from being maimed, intimidated, and murdered.  Hoover went so far as to smear Ms. Viola Liuzzo, a white Detroiter, who was assassinated by the Klan in 1965 for assisting black civil rights protesters in Alabama who were trying to register to vote.

One of the three major planks – each of them racist – of Strom Thurmond’s Dixiecrats revolt in 1948 was the promise to prevent the adoption of any federal anti-lynching law.  Blacks were lynched with complete impunity from successful prosecution for a century in the South after the end of slavery.  As recently as late 2002, Trent Lott, the Senate Majority Leader, had to resign his leadership position because he made the incredible statement that the Nation would have been far better off had it adopted Thurmond’s murderous, racist policies.

During that century-long period the Klan staged its second and third waves.  In the second wave, the 1920s, the Klan briefly became a national power.  The Klan’s second wave occurred during the roughly 50-year heyday of “scientific racism.”  In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson held the first White House screening of a movie – “The Birth of a Nation.”  The film and the book on which it was primarily based, The Clansman (), constitute the vilest acts of propaganda in U.S. history.  The movie is often credited with launching the second wave of the Klan.  The movie depicted blacks as subhuman brutes and rapists with uncontrollable desires to rape white women.  The movie portrayed the Klan’s initial wave of terror as acts of heroic resistance.

During its second wave, the Klan encouraged using the police as a tool of repression of immigrants, particularly Catholics and Jews.  It was common for local politicians, including police leaders to be members of the Klan or to actively solicit its support during the second wave.

This era also produced the mass murder of blacks in cities such as Helena, Arkansas, Sherman, Texas, Rosewood, Florida, and Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1930.  Police and white civilians cooperated in these pogroms.  The goal was to destroy not only black lives, but entire black communities, businesses, and black professionals.  Blacks fought back but were massively outnumbered and outgunned.

During the Klan’s third wave in the 1960s and 1970s, designed to roll back the civil rights advances, hundreds of police departments, primarily in the South and border states, had Klan members.  It was common for police chiefs to be Klan members or supporters.  Blacks (and to a lesser extent whites) who protested the denial of the vote or other civil rights, who were “uppity,” or who were too successful as business competitors of whites were subjected to a wide range of repression by the police and other government officials.  While this system of repression was most brutal and blatant in the former Confederacy, it was common throughout the Nation.

Voter suppression of blacks in the South was the norm.  Even outside the South, however, one of the white communities’ leaders’ goals in many states was to put and keep in place laws removing the right to vote when people were convicted of felonies.  Racist policing and prosecutions disenfranchised many blacks throughout the Nation.

The Era of Malign Neglect

Third, there was the era of malign neglect, which overlapped with the second era.  Black lives did not matter.  This did not mean predominantly white LEOs murdering blacks in large numbers.  America housing was (and often remains) exceptionally segregated.  “Driving while black” was an effective means of greatly reducing the ability of young black males to commit crimes in white suburbs.

Young black males committed violent crimes overwhelmingly against blacks, and typically against other young black males.  Young males commit far more violent crimes than older males or women of any age.  Young black males commit many serious violent crimes at a rate far greater than young white males.  I will expand on these points in future installments.

The era of malign neglect was driven by the police’s limited reaction as long as the crime victims were black and the crimes were committed in black communities where they would not upset whites.  Police response times were far worse in black neighborhoods.  Police patrolling was far more limited in black neighborhoods and it was done increasingly with multiple officers in patrol cars with limited interaction with civilians.  Malign neglect was the opposite model of community policing.

During the era of malign neglect, violent crime in black neighborhoods, committed overwhelmingly by young black males and aimed disproportionately at young black males, occurred at rates dramatically greater than today’s rates.  Violent gangs, typically composed of blacks, Latinos, or Asians, led to extremely high rates of violent crime in some of the Nation’s largest cities and turned our prisons into extremely dangerous recruitment and training devices for these gangs.

The Era of Malignly Benign Aggressive Policing

Fourth, more recently in the 1980s and 1990s, there was the “war on crime,” the “war on drugs,” and local wars on gangs.  Non-coincidentally, we had the accompanying politics of “law and order,” Ronald Reagan’s “Southern Strategy,” and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s “New Democrats’” embrace of key aspects of these Republican memes, even the infamous blood libel of the fictional epidemic of “feral” black and Latino “super-predators.”  Most notoriously, this was exemplified by Bill Clinton’s bipartisan accord with Congressional Republicans to block the recommendation of the Sentencing Commission to end the 100-to-one disparity in sentencing severity for crack v. powder cocaine because it was producing enormous, totally indefensible racial disparities in sentencing that were sure to ruin the future job and marriage prospects of hundreds of thousands of young black males and Latinos.  One of the results was the mass incarceration of young black males and Latinos.  Tom Frank’s most recent book, Listen, Liberal, explains this dismal history.

Donald Trump is copying Reagan’s Southern Strategy and seeking to spark the most recent moral panics against blacks, Latinos, and Muslims.  I will return to these recurrent efforts to create “moral panics” about young black male street criminals in future installments in this series.

Note that these “wars,” for all their bigotry, their lies about young black males’ supposed inherent criminality, and their structural racism marked a sharp break with the policy of malign neglect.  Black lives now mattered.  The new policing strategies required LEOs to take on aggressively black criminals and suspect.  Police resources were now devoted heavily and aggressively to many predominately black and Latino communities.

LEOs were taught that the actions they were taking were to protect and serve the law abiding citizens in predominately Black and Latino communities.  The meme was that these law abiding citizens were the super-predators’ prey.  LEOs were selected and trained to reject racism and to take pride in protecting and serving all citizens.  They were taught that their actions were benign, brave, and the opposite of bigoted.

This era also saw the rise of “broken windows” policing.  “Broken windows” was a metaphor.  An empty building with a few broken windows, if not promptly repaired, will soon have hundreds of broken windows.  Young males will treat the failure to repair as a sign that no one cares about the damage, and young males often love to throw rocks and break windows.  A future installment in this series of columns will address broken windows policing.  For present purposes it is sufficient to say that it was based on the deliberate targeting of young black and Latino males for ultra-intrusive stops, stops and frisks, fines, and arrests for often trivial crimes and even non-criminal civil offenses.  It was one variety of the policing strategies adopted once the era of malign neglect ended.  Conservative wonks tend to love broken windows strategies against crimes of the streets – and hate them when proposals are made to use the same strategy against crimes of the C suites.

Paradoxical Hard Truths About U.S. Crime, Policing, and Race

One hard truth that emerges from studying this history, denied by huge numbers of white Americans, is that the criminal “justice” system in the U.S. (and its predecessors before the creation of true public police forces) has in fact been characterized from its origins to today by structural racism.  Policing has often been aimed overwhelmingly against young black males and then also young Latino males.

A second hard truth, however, denied by the organizing leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement, is that the nature of the repression of blacks and Latinos through policing has changed enormously in the last 30 years.  It also varies enormously by police department.

The end of malign neglect, the reduction in virulent racism among whites in general and LEOs in particular, the dramatic reductions in police departments led by vicious racists, the very large increases of minority and female LEOs in many departments – and in the leadership ranks of many departments – and the rise in many police departments of leaders committed to reforming policing has falsified the old view of the police as simply a racist means of repression of blacks and Latinos.  Blacks, Latinos, and women are still substantially underrepresented in the ranks of most police departments, but the increase in diversity is substantial and it means that open racism is an excellent way of ruining a LEO’s career.

The brilliant strategy by gays was coming out.  Straights soon learned that gay people were diverse and “normal” rather than depraved people to be feared.  Even with continued underrepresentation, the number of minorities serving as LEOs in departments of any size has long since been large enough to serve a similar function in police departments all over the Nation.  Much of the policing literature stresses that minority LEOs tend to adapt to the existing police culture, and warns that this could include a greater willingness by minority LEOs to use force against young black men.  The same acculturation process, however, is likely to make minority LEOs far less threatening to white LEOs and make it more likely that white LEOs more likely will adopt more positive view of minority LEOs and minority civilians.

Policing reforms over the last 25 years have helped to dramatically reduce the deaths of blacks and Latinos.  The end of malign neglect has demonstrated that policing that treats saving black lives (and their property) as a mission produces a dramatic reduction in the most serious violent crimes.  Blacks, particularly young black males, have been the largest beneficiaries of the end of the policing strategy of malign neglect.  Tens of thousands of black lives have been saved that would have been lost under malign neglect.  Hundreds of thousands of crimes that would have victimized blacks under malign neglect have been prevented.

Every day, tens of thousands of LEOs, of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender routinely take actions that put their lives at risk in order to protect blacks from harm.  But LEOs, in many communities, also stop or stop and frisk thousands of black males in situations where they would not do the same if the civilian were white.  This inherently produces enormous ill will among large parts of the black community and it is one of the important reasons that some young black males end up being killed by police and why it is harder to recruit blacks to become LEOs.

I explore in future installments how these aggressive policing practices can indirectly increase crime through indirect effects on employment and marriage.  We know how to implement reforms that will turn our lose-lose strategies into win-win strategies.

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