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Slave patrols and modern police

Photo by vnyberg at Morguefile.com
Someone reminded me recently that Darren Wilson, the white police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, explained his shooting by saying that Brown looked "like a demon." Wilson also compared Brown to Hulk Hogan and said of himself, "I felt like a five-year-old." Reading the transcript of Wilson's testimony I found a number of these bizarre characterizations that reduced Brown to something either subhuman or superhuman.

I also read Wilson's explanations about why he didn't use mace, an asp, or a flashlight to defend himself from punches delivered by Brown, but I was left wondering why he didn't use his car to create distance between him and Brown. According to Wilson's account, Brown stood outside the driver's door, punching Wilson through the open car window. When Wilson drew his gun, Brown wrestled him for control of it. Brown never got the gun, he was unarmed, and the patrol car was running the whole time, so why couldn't this officer pull away?

I return to this 2014 incident because it remains an unsolved mystery—no, not who killed Michael Brown, but why he is dead. I believe the clues trace back to our history of slavery and racism. The centuries of American slavery, from the 1600s to the 1800s, seem distant to most of us, but the truth is that slavery's ravages continue to afflict us today. And one of the ways we live with its legacy is evident in current-day policing activities.

Though the National Law Enforcement Museum website and Wikipedia don't touch on this connection, other sources, like the National Institute of Justice and Eastern Kentucky University, are quite frank that precursors of the modern police department include groups that were organized and paid to protect whites and white property against slaves, Indians, and other minorities. Part of this protection of "property," of course, included slaves. Slaves were the property of white men, and they could not question the authority of the system that contained them, denied them freedom, and subjected them to cruelty.

Slave patrols and slave catchers were organized to ensure that slave "property" was securely under the control of the white owners. Not only were blacks excluded from the ranks of those considered to be deserving of protection, they were vilified and believed to be subhuman, violent, treacherous, and murderous—and these all-white, all-male police forces were backed up by state and federal laws and institutions.

Significantly, it was a given in Dred Scott's world that any white person was in a position of authority over any black person. In Speak Right On, Dred Scott encounters a group of white circus performers who physically harass him and humiliate him with impunity, knowing that society will not stop or sanction them (p. 131-132). Not long thereafter, he argues with Gran in their hottest disagreement in the book, and the argument is sparked by the fact that Master Peter Blow did not give Dred papers for his safe transport over Alabama roads patrolled by slave catchers (p. 140-147). Had he been stopped, he might easily have been beaten, kidnapped, or killed. Later, while still a newcomer to St. Louis, Dred witnesses the physical and emotional abuse of slaves who pause to watch a building being erected (p. 179-180). The only objection raised from the whites in the crowd toward the white abuser is that his words and actions have distressed white ladies.

Of course, the reality is that slaves weren't like any other class of property. Owners didn't hate their crops or fear their jewelry; there were no cautionary tales told about demon cattle or evil pigs. 

So when blacks ceased being property, the prejudice about them remained intact. Whites continued to regard blacks with fear and loathing. Throughout Reconstruction and Jim Crow, blacks were routinely beaten, lynched, or burned off the land for minor infractions against whites—even for the "offense" of simply being black. Police, vigilantes, the KKK, and all-white "citizens" councils perpetrated this murder and destruction of property. History is absolutely clear that this abuse continued from the nineteenth century, through the twentieth, and still exists today.

Yes, there are fewer vigilantes, the KKK has been driven into shadowed corners of society, and many groups that are mostly white strive to include one or two "persons of color." In many modern police forces, there is a conscious commitment to having officers "look" more like the communities they serve and protect. This means black officers in black neighborhoods. Sometimes it even means civilians sit on the police review board.

This is a step in the right direction, but applying makeup to the complexion of a group will never cover the ugly truth of unequal treatment. Blacks today continue to face prejudice, irrational fear, and retaliation or even death when they question law enforcement and the justice system. They face it at the hands of trained officers and elected officials, and they face it at the hands of vigilantes.

One solution, I believe, is to promote equality among racial and ethnic groups—in ways we may not be thinking of. For example, until America more fairly educates, houses, feeds (and here I include water), and cares for the health of blacks, we will not have blacks equally in positions of authority. White citizens, how many black teachers have you had? How many black doctors have cared for you? How many black officers have you interacted with? How many black judges do you know? Was the person who married you black? Have you ever consulted a black lawyer? Have you ever met a black farmer? Did you ever have a black boss? How many black authority figures can you count in your life?

This matters, because black authority figures can help whites pull away from dread and hostility—for the simple reason that it's difficult to sustain hatred for the teacher that opens up possibilities; for the doctor who delivers your baby; for the officer who protects you from a mugging; for a judge who rights a wrong; for the preacher who marries you. 

Had officer Wilson pulled away, Michael Brown might still be alive.

Toward the end of the transcript, someone asks Wilson why he didn't use his car to defend himself, why he didn't pull away. He answered, "We're trained not to run away from a threat. . . . That never entered my mind to flee." Presumably, police are similarly not trained to see themselves as a threat, or to understand how they are perceived by others as a threat, or to anticipate how they themselves escalate situations until the outcome is tragic.

Slavery's legacy of physical and emotional abuse toward blacks is not peculiar to our police—many whites contribute to the dynamic—but in a just society our law enforcement officers especially should be prohibited, through training and sanctions, from unfair treatment based on racial stereotypes. 

I'm discouraged
Don't be afraid

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Comments 2

 
Guest - Jeannette Gagan on Monday, 01 August 2016 01:06

Mary, your statement "This matters because black authority figures can help whites pull away from dread and hostility for the simple reason it is difficult to sustain hatred for the teacher who opens up possibilities". is a remarkable one. In reviewing black authority figures I've had in my life, I came up with only one---a black female university professor who helped me be accepted into graduate school. It did not matter I was white, what mattered is that after an initial/assessment interview she pointed out to me what needed to be done for me to be accepted and went out of her way to help--and I was accepted. To my disappointment she transferred to another university and thus no opportunity to take classes from this person who modeled such fairness and objectivity. Even though I lost track of her I have thought of her often and the contribution she made in a very competitive process which was a life-changing event for me.

Mary, your statement "This matters because black authority figures can help whites pull away from dread and hostility for the simple reason it is difficult to sustain hatred for the teacher who opens up possibilities". is a remarkable one. In reviewing black authority figures I've had in my life, I came up with only one---a black female university professor who helped me be accepted into graduate school. It did not matter I was white, what mattered is that after an initial/assessment interview she pointed out to me what needed to be done for me to be accepted and went out of her way to help--and I was accepted. To my disappointment she transferred to another university and thus no opportunity to take classes from this person who modeled such fairness and objectivity. Even though I lost track of her I have thought of her often and the contribution she made in a very competitive process which was a life-changing event for me.
Mary Neighbour on Monday, 01 August 2016 13:44

Hi Jeannette - I'm really glad this phrase/idea struck a chord with you, because it's not something I hear much about in discussions of race. And as whites, we often don't look at it from the perspective that something, i.e., black authority figures, is missing in our lives.

Trying to look at things from the perspective of blacks, I expect that their broader experience with black authority figures and their broader interactions with authority figures of a different race tends to develop the capacity for greater racial acceptance, as compared to whites.

I was fortunate to grow up in a racially diverse neighborhood. Not only were we children taught to treat all the adults with respect, but the adults, in turn, had de facto authority over the children. They could, and did, exert this authority whenever they caught a child behaving badly.

At my Catholic grade school I remember no black teachers, but there were several in the public high school I attended. That town had a black police chief, and because my brother-in-law was a police officer, I heard good things about him. In college, for the first time, I had a black woman authority figure, a teacher of African American literature who, like your professor did with you, had a big impact on my life.

Despite all this, I know I carry an unconscious expectation that persons of authority will be white. As I wrote in another blog, I felt surprise (and felt ashamed too) when a new dentist I went to turned out to be black. So, not only is this an example of unconscious conditioning, it is also an indicator of our society's lack of racial equality. Let's hope that the next generation will encounter black authority figures more frequently and regularly throughout all walks of their lives.

Hi Jeannette - I'm really glad this phrase/idea struck a chord with you, because it's not something I hear much about in discussions of race. And as whites, we often don't look at it from the perspective that something, i.e., black authority figures, is [b]missing[/b] in our lives. Trying to look at things from the perspective of blacks, I expect that their broader experience with black authority figures and their broader interactions with authority figures of a different race tends to develop the capacity for greater racial acceptance, as compared to whites. I was fortunate to grow up in a racially diverse neighborhood. Not only were we children taught to treat all the adults with respect, but the adults, in turn, had de facto authority over the children. They could, and did, exert this authority whenever they caught a child behaving badly. At my Catholic grade school I remember no black teachers, but there were several in the public high school I attended. That town had a black police chief, and because my brother-in-law was a police officer, I heard good things about him. In college, for the first time, I had a black woman authority figure, a teacher of African American literature who, like your professor did with you, had a big impact on my life. Despite all this, I know I carry an unconscious expectation that persons of authority will be white. As I wrote in another blog, I felt surprise (and felt ashamed too) when a new dentist I went to turned out to be black. So, not only is this an example of unconscious conditioning, it is also an indicator of our society's lack of racial equality. Let's hope that the next generation will encounter black authority figures more frequently and regularly throughout all walks of their lives.
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