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13 June 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 1:17pm

The history of America’s racist police, from slave patrols to present

Understanding the creation of the police force in the United States is essential to reforming it. 

By Emily Tamkin

The United States is not, of course, the only country in the world with racism and police brutality. But the police force in the United States does have a unique and racist history.

Even before there were “formalised municipal police forces, there were antecedents like the slave patrols that operated to surveil and contain black people who were breaking the law by, say, trying to steal themselves to freedom”, Simon Balto, assistant professor of African American history at the University of Iowa, writes in an email to the New Statesman.

After the Civil War and emancipation, slavery was abolished — except, as Khalil Gibran Muhammad told Vox, as a punishment for crime. “What that amounts to is that all expressions of black freedom, political rights, economic rights, and social rights were then subject to criminal sanction,” Muhammad said in that interview. 

What’s more, it was white people who were allowed into conversations and debates around policing and force. Laurence Ralph, a professor of anthropology at Princeton University, has focused, in his work, on a use of force debate in New Orleans in the 1800s. 

“It was mostly white people having the debate about the use of force and having the debate that, no, the police shouldn’t be able to use guns. But their logic was still a racialised logic. ‘If the police are able to use guns then they’re going to treat us white people as if we were slaves’,” Ralph says. What’s more, some of the people who were arguing against use of force were arguing that they couldn’t trust the discretion of individual officers. That, Ralph says, is a “lingering issue” today.

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“It revolves so much around the officer’s fear. When it revolves around the officer’s fear, the question of — what happens when that officer shouldn’t be scared of someone? Yes they could be afraid, yes they could demonstrate they were afraid in the heat of the moment, but why should they be afraid of a black person walking down the street?” Ralph says. “They’ve been able to play up the fear in the jury. In the eyes of the white jurors”. 

It was in the early 20th century that police forces became more professionalised — and with that came further institutionalisation of racism.

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In the early 20th century, the Great Migration saw an increase of African Americans in America’s cities. This coincided with a decrease in immigration from Europe. “As a consequence, popular white culture began to perceive racial difference”, says Jeffrey Adler, a professor of history at the University of Florida. And so there was a confluence of factors: an increased African American population in northern and southern cities, a decrease of European migration, a police force that was newly seen as professional and respectable and formal — and a white population that didn’t see brutality against African Americans as its problem. 

“In my research on Chicago, what I found was that the police department’s disastrous relationship to black Chicago really in many ways dates back to the Great Migration of the 1910s and 1920s, and got progressively worse as the black population grew in size,” writes Balto. “I don’t think that there are single, isolated turning points that made policing more racist so much as it was a slow-moving process by which the idea that black people needed to be surveilled and harassed and abused more than other groups did became increasingly absorbed as everyday logic and practice by police”.

And that continued through the 20th century — for example, in the 1970s with the war on drugs, which Nixon aide John Ehrlichman later admitted was about criminalising the anti-war left and black Americans — and, as we can clearly see today, through the 21st.

“African Americans disproportionately live in neighbourhoods that are both heavily policed and still more dangerous than others are”, Balto writes. “It’s basically living proof of the fact that policing doesn’t work, but black communities are stuck in a double-bind where the police don’t or can’t ameliorate social harm while all the while politicians pitch police as the only thing that can respond to social harm”.

All that is why, while some who just tuned in might see current cries to “defund the police” as being of the moment or having come from nowhere, some academics and experts working in the space see such calls as part of a longer, broader history.

Ralph says he was not surprised to hear more talking about defunding the police now because he has, for years, been following the groups and movements working on these issues. The present moment is “a result of really hard work on behalf of activist organisations on the ground to kind of change the thinking within communities around the purpose and funding of the police”, he says. Those years of work, he says, were compounded by the fact that “this conversation is coming off the heels of Covid”. People could see how difficult it was for cities to provide tests and masks and gloves — but how easy it was for the police to show up in riot gear.

“It makes that argument about priorities and defunding very tangible,” he says.

Balto puts it somewhat more bluntly.

“Anyone who wants to talk about a severe social problem without understanding the history of that social problem,” he writes, “is not serious about solving that social problem”.