Is American Violence the bitter, hard-eyed side of the American Dream? What happened to the garden of Eden, the New World, the Enchanted Island, these pillars of national mythology? From police brutality to blood-and-guts in cinema, we’ll explore the ways in which violence bursts in American society through our new series “History of American Violence.” We’ll reflect on violence as a force and accomplice in each of these three chapters: law-enforcement, mediation within popular news and commentary, and cinema & entertainment. In the first chapter, writer Josue Zapata walks us through the history of American police, which, he explains, started essentially as a racial project.
As a person who writes a lot about racial police violence, I’ve unintentionally developed a repository of statistics I can deploy whenever the situation calls for it. For example, young black males are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by police. Nearly two times a week in the United States, a white police officer killed a black person during a seven-year period ending in 2012. A study found that police were more likely to kill unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects. And so on. And so on.
young black males are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed by police.
At some point, you can develop fact fatigue; you quickly grow numb to the sterility of figures, which, if I unfocus my gaze on my computer screen, could just as easily be stats about baseball or pounds of shellfish imported last August. And as much as figures proving racist police violence can illuminate gruesome trends, they haven’t done much to convince large swaths of the American public that is racist police violence is a problem. Here’s another figure: Three-quarters of blacks consider violence against civilians by law enforcement officers to be an extremely or very serious problem, while less than 20 percent of white people feel the same.
We like quantifying problems because it’s easier to measure how close we are to fixing them. This works best when the object of repair is inanimate, like a car, and the measuring unit is mechanical, like miles per gallon of gasoline. But applied to studies of human behavior, facts and figures can shroud the context, and especially the power dynamics, of a particular phenomenon. Are police more likely to kill black people because of historical racism, or because black people are pathologically more violent, as some on the right would have us think? Regardless of what one thinks, in the information age there will always be piles of statistics—whether true or false untrue—to add to either pyre.
It’s more useful to think of racist police violence—a phrase I use purposefully—as a historical phenomenon with current reverberations. The police in America started fundamentally as a racial project, and they were granted the authority of violence to enforce a racial caste system. Clearly, the modus operandi of police has evolved, and few cops today do their job for the purpose of enforcing disparate race relations. But this long forgotten history of American police goes a long way to explaining why violence is deployed much more frequently against people of color.
The police in America started fundamentally as a racial project.
Modern policing evolved from two different points of origin, one in the North and one in the South. In the North, the first municipal police force in the United States was established in Philadelphia in 1751. Back then, the police were affiliated with marauding gangs of Protestant “nativists,” who bitterly fought in the street against gangs of European immigrants, particularly Irish-Catholics, who came in waves during the potato famine of the 19th century.
It wasn’t until Irish gangsters were integrated into the police force that tensions between ethnic white Philadelphians began to heal. “The Irish cop is more than a quaint symbol,” writes Noel Ignatiev in “How the Irish Became White.” “His appearance on the city police marked a turning point in Philadelphia in the struggle of the Irish to gain the rights of white men.” Ignatiev calls the Irishization of the police the turning point at which the United States transformed into a “white republic” no longer defined by Protestant supremacy. The institution of policing opened the door for the Irish to access to power across the Northeast, and in the process, set a new caste system defined by skin color.
Meanwhile, in the Antebellum South, townships maintained slave patrols along with a corresponding system of checkpoints and written “slave passes,” similar to ID cards, to keep slaves corralled. Interestingly, notes journalist Christian Parenti in his tour-de-force on the history of American surveillance “The Soft Cage,” the first “pass laws” and patrols targeted indentured Irish servants in Virginia, but eventually, the system almost exclusively targeted enslaved Africans. Policing historians have concluded that the function and concept of patrolling was first established by slave patrols.
For both the South and the North after the Civil War, Blacks on the verge of political power there were ideal scapegoats for white aggression. In northern cities like Philadelphia, which Frederick Douglas once said was “not perhaps anywhere to be found a city in which prejudice against color is more rampant than Philadelphia,” Irish-descended police viciously beat and intimidated Blacks from going to the polls, afraid that black suffrage would leave them political marginalized again. The story was the similar in New York and Boston.
In the South, police blended together with white vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan to create an environment of racial terror, the full scale of which is still not completely known. This was done to keep the caste system in place—many Blacks remained in de-facto slavery as poorly paid sharecroppers—and where Blacks prospered, genocidal violence often followed, according to the little bit of history preserved about it. For example, in Solcum Texas in 1910, fear of a Black takeover was so intense that on one morning a band of white men began killing every single Black person in town. It was done with the tacit approval of the police and local court system, as was standard for lynchings across the South.
As the 20th century unfolded, the machination of plantation labor as well as white terrorism drove Blacks by the millions North and West, where white workers reacted with riots and mayhem against what they saw as competition for scarce employment. In response to the mass emigration, the federal government enacted a housing policy preventing Blacks from attaining mortgages, essentially confining them to the urban ghettoes that persist today. Urban police patrols were concentrated in these small urban pockets, with predictably explosive results: The major urban rebellions of the 1960's, including Watts in Los Angeles, Detroit and Newark, were all sparked by racist police violence.
Today’s urban police aren’t patrolling slaves—they’re patrolling for crimes. But over the last few decades, the conception of “crime” has been informed by a racialized understanding of which infractions should merit the most scrutiny by police. Commonly called “broken windows policing,” this strategy calls for aggressive patrolling of low level crimes theorized to lead to a decline in “quality of life,” including begging, doing graffiti, urinating in public, noisiness, and other infractions far more likely to happen in poorer neighborhoods than wealthier ones.
The research has revealed that this strategy of policing probably hasn’t done much to reduce crime. But it has succeeded in feeding an enormous amount of people of color, particularly black people, into the justice system. In New York City alone, 81% of people arrested for “broken windows” crimes between 2001 and 2013 were black or Latino.
The disparity isn’t surprising when you take a look at the intellectual environment from which it was born. At the end of the 1960's, when urban riots were erupting across the country, a theory arose postulating that blacks lived in such terrible urban environments because of a deformed culture that emphasized a love of filth and vice over classic Judeo-Christian values of thrift, chaste, and hard work. Darren Wilson, the officer who fatally shot teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson last year, perfectly summed up this attitude with a dim explanation in the New Yorker of his work as a cop: “[Black youth are] so wrapped up in a different culture than—what I’m trying to say is, the right culture, the better one to pick from.”
Even when police aren’t specifically using the broken windows strategy, however, they generally tend to target people of color for arrest and citation. This was observed in the 2013 ethnographic study “Hunting for Dirtbags,” political science professors Lori Beth Way and Ryan Patten found that “law enforcement officers monitor the lower classes to a greater degree than the middle and upper classes,” largely because “there are institutional and organizational structures and incentives within both the police department and the criminal justice process that induce officers to patrol the poor, especially those from racial and ethnic minorities, to a greater degree,” including promotions tied to citations and arrests.
It’s likely that most police officers today join the force with good intentions. But even if we can’t see it—and even if the officers themselves can’t see it—history shows that the police as an institution have not strayed far from their original function of upholding racial inequality.
We see traces of this in the fact that contact with police is simply more common for people of color than it is for their white counterparts. The ghettoes, born of purposeful and racist government policy, are still around today, and you’re more likely to run into a police officer there than you are a grocery store stocked with fresh produce or a thriving public school.
Whatever one thinks of the recent uprisings in Ferguson and West Baltimore, two places decimated by decades of municipal divestment, we know the pieces were assembled decades ago. And as we move forward figuring out how to reform the police, we must keep in mind how much the institution functions as a racial project, and together figure out how we can move beyond its insidious roots.