The Anti-Black Culture of Policing in the United States – Part I: History
State sponsored killing of unarmed black men is a deeply rooted historical tradition in the United States. Those that have expressed shock, surprise or even astonishment at the ruthless police killing of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin or the police execution of Rayshard Brooks by then Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe, perhaps have never studied or clearly comprehended the history and evolution of policing in this nation.
Policing in America is rooted in anti-blackness and controlling the movement and freedom of black bodies. The culture and history of U.S. policing evolved from a place when capturing runaway slaves and controlling the black male once freed was acutely embedded in the fabric of law enforcement agencies and the psyche of law enforcement officers across the United States. “[T]he literature clearly establishes that a legally sanctioned law enforcement system existed in America . . . for the express purpose of controlling the slave population . . . The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss . . . . Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.” Therefore, the tragic police killings of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and Breonna Taylor, straightforwardly continue this anti-black tradition of law enforcement killing and control from slavery through today, that further includes the recent police slayings of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Samuel DuBose, Alton Sterling, Laquan McDonald, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and so many others.
Most police departments in the southern U.S. began as slave patrols. The very essence of controlling black bodies was even written into the United States’ founding documents, including the Constitution, and has animated lawmakers’ thinking and legislating since the early days of this nation. “Black criminality is literally written into the American Constitution . . . .” Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, commonly known as The Fugitive Slave Clause, unequivocally states: “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
Further, as a 1787 Constitutional Convention compromise allocating Congressional representation based on population determined, enslaved blacks were to be counted as three-fifths of a person for purposes of populace representation. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution states, “Representatives . . . shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons . . . excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” The 1787 compromise was memorialized in the Constitution and continued until passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, thus cementing the less-than-a-whole-person categorization upon black Americans in the most important founding document. The U.S. Constitution, as written, dehumanizes blacks and entrenches their criminality for nothing more than simply insisting upon their right to be free from bondage.
Additionally, while white male slaveholders routinely raped and sexually assaulted their black female slaves, they concomitantly fretted, worried, and legislated that black males and slaves show no attention or intimacy toward white females. Indeed, much of the state control exhibited by white lawmakers toward black males, particularly after emancipation, was motivated by fear of black male sexuality toward white women and in large measure resulted in the nation’s legacy of lynching, Jim Crow laws, and mass incarceration. One 1860 report from The New York Herald reported that black males were particularly vicious and inclined to rape, stating, “When the lust comes over them they are worse than the wild beast of the forest.” The same brutality that attended the policing of runaway slaves and the same terrorization that attended the lynching of freed black males informs and inspires the United States’ policing of black males and minority citizens today. A United Nations Working Group found in 2016 that the U.S. “[c]ontemporary police killings and the trauma it creates are reminiscent of the racial terror lynching of the past.”
Thus, the fascination with and intense desire to control the black male body continues today as police departments and law enforcement agencies across the United States follow this timeworn tradition of concomitant enthrallment coupled with brutal control. The very social order and coherence of U.S. history is anchored in controlling and brutalizing black bodies. Anything that acts to reject or counter this anchoring factor is often met with swift condemnation and repulsion. The police killings of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks exemplify U.S. law enforcement’s continuing anti-black orientation and anchoring policy of brutal control of black men.
The same attraction and anti-black desire that inspired the above quoted “bestial” comments from The New York Herald in the eighteenth century are directly paralleled in the 21st century police responses to George Floyd allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 dollar bill and Rayshard Brooks’ falling asleep in a Wendy’s drive-thru. That an unimportant alleged counterfeit bill and falling asleep in a fast food drive-thru would lead to death at the hands of U.S. law enforcement forcefully instructs as to the continuing fear, fascination, and anti-blackness that pervades current law enforcement officers and agencies in America.
As policing has evolved as described above, from deep-seated roots in slave patrols and lynching through today’s killing of unarmed black men and women for insignificant violations, then U.S. policing is culturally, legally and historically infected with a sickness. Reforming policing so infected will require recognition and acknowledgment of the anti-blackness that continues to permeate policing today.