Racism & Law Enforcement: An Inseparable History

The idea of the modern police officer, as we know them, is less than a century old. Nevertheless, it may not surprise you to know that the concept of law enforcement is born out of a deeply rooted connection to racism, slavery, and discrimination that is still plaguing America today.

This news shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone who has been paying attention to recent events. People of color are being targeted, harassed, and killed at an alarming rate at the hands of law enforcement who are operating almost with impunity. Police brutality has become so blatant and so frequent, progressive masses of all colors cannot sit idly by anymore and have taken to the streets in protest of these injustices.

So, why does law enforcement have the strong inclination to stop and frisk a Black man when he hasn’t done anything wrong? The answer might lie in an understanding of where law enforcement took its origins from.

Slave Patrols

It’s important to know that the modus operandi of law enforcement was taken largely from slave patrols to understand the deeply seeded racism of not only law enforcement officers, but the first branch of the criminal justice system (don’t get me started on the criminal justice system as a whole).

Slave patrols are just what they sound like — a group of white men in the south, tasked with finding runaway slaves and beating them in an attempt to deter other defiant slaves. Meant as a means to control enslaved Black people and prevent rebellion, slave patrols were a way to regulate and harass slaves — even if they had the permission to be traveling in the area they were found. You can imagine that it didn’t take much for a slave, if anything at all, to be beaten by the extremely prejudice white man back then. Slave patrols became a regular way of policing in the early 18th century in which white men would stop and question enslaved people, and searching and beating them even if they were compliant.

Slave patrolling sounds awful close to what’s happening in law enforcement today, if you ask me. Just ask the criminal justice department at the University of Cincinnati, who conducted their own study on the racial and ethnic disparities in search and seizure ratesbased on the premise that “(n)umerous research studies examining traffic stop data collected by departments across the country have generally shown racial and ethnic disparities in rates of traffic stops and traffic stop dispositions (e.g., citations, arrests, and searches).”

Continued Racism and the Rise of the KKK

The emancipation proclamation and the end of the Civil War was not an end-all be-all for racism. In fact, it just made racism and the people who wanted to keep people of color disenfranchised change their methods. Those who were afraid of losing control of authority after the war could not keep slaves, but perpetuated racism and violence in a new way.

“Vigilantes,” as they called them, worked outside the law to carry out some of the same injustices as slave patrols. These vigilantes, although breaking the law and terrorizing freed slaves without repercussion, were concerned with keeping Black people out of politics and voting. The Ku Klux Klan was glad to carry out beatings and lynchings, but there was a new, subtler form of discrimination happening as well.

The Jim Crow laws were a form of institutionalized racism that was explicitly designed for the segregation of white and Black people. These laws only furthered the racist notion that whites were the superior race. Black people would fight persistently from the implementation of the Jim Crow laws in 1897 to finally making ground with the successful Civil Rights Movement in 1950-1968. However, the damage had been long established in discriminatory circles, including the criminal justice system and law enforcement.

The Discrimination of Law Enforcement Today

Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile — these are just a few of the sickening amount of innocent Black people killed by law enforcement. If I had to list them all here, you’d be reading for a very long time. So, why is law enforcement targeting and killing people of color at a disproportionate rate?

You can’t help but think that the combination of the racist history of law enforcement and institutionalized racism is a driving factor behind the high murder and incarceration rate of people of color. In fact, My Florida Law weighs in on discriminatory police practices in stating that, “(p)hysical force is also much more likely to be used against African Americans—in particular, pepper spray, dogs and tasers are much more likely to be used against African Americans than against whites, although there is the school of thought that says at least some of the use of physical force is in response to unruliness by the suspect. Many of the cases we have seen over the past few years seem to show otherwise.”

The only solace we can take in this matter is that in our day and age, we can capture this extreme police brutality on film. Being able to expose police for what they are — racists. However, the conviction rate of these racists is very low due to institutionalized racism protecting itself. Hopefully one day soon everyone can walk down the street without the racial judgment that ends in a stop and frisk, jail, or worse.
Avery PhillipsAvery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.