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Two Worlds: A Historical Perspective on the Dichotomous Relations between Police and Black and White Communities

By Otis S. Johnson

The collective memories and the current views of blacks and whites about their relationship with the police in the United States are very different. Pew Research Center and Gallup polling data have consistently found racial differences in the black and white views of how police deal with minorities. Gallup combined 2011–2014 data showed that blacks had a significantly lower level of confidence (37%) in the police as an institution than whites (59%). Bruce Drake’s article, “Divide between Blacks and Whites on Police Runs Deep,” reported that in a survey done shortly after the 2014 Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of black teenager Michael Brown, 80% of blacks said the incident raised important issues of race, compared to 37% of whites. Another poll by Pew a week later showed that “blacks expressed far less confidence than whites in local police to treat both races equally. About seven-in-ten whites (71%) expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in local police to treat blacks and whites equally, compared with just 36% of blacks.” Seven-in-ten blacks (70%) said police forces across the country did a poor job of holding officers accountable when misconduct occurred, compared with 27% of whites. Six-in-ten blacks (57%) rated police performance as poor when it came to using the right amount of force, compared to 23% of whites who held that view. These gaps are long-standing and reflect similar results from the same questions asked in 2009 and 2007. These survey results and others like them document the deep divide between the views of black and white citizens toward police.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America and executive director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, writes: “White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They don’t understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if ‘I am not breaking the law, I will never be abused.’” Why is this perception about the police so different between blacks and whites? A brief historical examination of the relationship between the police and black people sheds light on the question.

The state uses the police to enforce its laws, protect property, and limit civil disorder. Police power includes the legitimized use of force. This legitimized use of force is to maintain law and order, keep the peace, and serve and protect the members of the society. But what if in a racialized society instead of serving and protecting all members of the society, the police are used by the state as its agent to oppress and terrorize certain subgroups of that society? Historically, from colonial times to the present there has been a dichotomous relationship between the police (1) representing the power and wishes of the white majority, and (2) dominating blacks struggling for justice and equality in our society.

Victor E. Kappeler, in his book A Brief History of Slavery and the Origins of American Policing, writes: “The birth and development of the American police can be traced to a multitude of historical, legal and political-economic conditions.” This was particularly true about use of the police to control the behavior of black slaves. Slavery was legal in the British colonies and later in the United States after the American Revolution. Laws were enacted at both the state and national levels to control slaves, not to protect them. Between 1689 and 1865, Virginia passed 130 slave statues. In 1704, the colony of Carolina created the first slave patrol. According to Kappeler, the purpose of the slave patrol was “to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who essentially were considered property.” The United States Congress passed Fugitive Slave Laws in 1793 and 1850 allowing the detention and return of escaped slaves. Kappeler asserts: “The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore. Hence, the slave patrol should be considered a forerunner of modern American law enforcement.”

Emancipation and Reconstruction did not end state-sanctioned violence and oppression of the black community by the police. Vigilante groups, like the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and the Knights of the White Camellia, organized in the 1860s for the purpose of terrorizing the black community through lynching, burning, shooting, and drowning, especially of black men. Black men were lynched for “transgressions that would not be considered crimes at all, had a White man committed them,” Kappeler recounts. He adds that Congress had to pass the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 “prohibit[ing] state actors [the police] from violating the Civil Rights of all citizens in part because of law enforcements’ involvement with the infamous group.” That law did little to stop individual police officers from being members of the KKK and taking part in terrorizing the black community, through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Black Codes were passed by state legislatures in the South after the Civil War to control black labor. Whites developed the peonage system and convict leasing to maintain the inferior position of blacks in the South. The police would arrest black males on dubious charges such as vagrancy, and a corrupt court system would convict them and order long sentences. The government then leased the prisoners out to work in inhumane conditions for various white-owned businesses, such as logging, mining, or plantations.

A recurrent theme in Leon Litwack’s Trouble in Mind is the constant presence of police violence directed against Southern blacks during the Jim Crow era. Blacks were a population in an occupied war zone where the police were the occupiers. The history of black hostile relations with the police in the North after the Great Migration is described in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns. It was not unusual for police in the North to beat blacks or join white mobs as they attacked blacks for forgetting their place in the racial hierarchy.

This history and culture of dramatically different interactions with police, divided along racial lines, have understandably given black and white Americans very different perspectives on law enforcement. Black attitudes toward the police are shaped by their life experiences—even small ones that gradually, collectively shape a lifelong perspective. Comparatively subtle examples from my own childhood are illustrative.

I grew up in a segregated neighborhood in Savannah, Georgia, during the 1940s and ’50s. My parents had “the talk” with me about respecting the police while also being aware they might hurt me just for being black. My parents also warned that my day-to-day experiences on the streets would teach me what most black people learned: there were “good cops” and “bad cops,” and you would never know the difference until you saw them in action.

Police corruption was happening all across the black neighborhoods. One of my neighbors ran what was known as a “shot house.” They sold bootleg whiskey, also known as “white lightning” or simply “shine.” It was common in the ’40s and ’50s to have houses in Savannah that sold illegal liquor. There was constant traffic to and from that house, seven days a week. What made it more painful for our law-abiding neighbors was that about once a week a police officer would drive up to the house, park in front, and go inside. We knew this was a “dirty cop” going to get his “protection money.” He knew what the people were doing and got paid to do nothing about it.

Police would also break up dice games on a corner down the street from where I lived. Black men gathered on Friday after being paid and gambled into the night, aided by a streetlight on the corner. They shared their half-pint bottles of “booze” as they gambled. They returned Saturday afternoon to gamble until they got tired or drifted off to night clubs. These were the “bad men” in the neighborhood who drank, gambled, got into fights, and did not go to church. The neighbors wanted protection from them. Instead, we saw a game being played by the police with these men. The police knew there was gambling every weekend on that corner. So, they would drive up fast to the corner. The men would scatter, leaving their money on the ground in their effort to get away. The police simply picked up the money, got back into their cars, and drove away. It was a game with well-understood rules.

One year for Christmas, my brother and I received BB guns and went looking for birds to shoot in an undeveloped area near our home. A car with two white policemen came through the area, stopped, and told us to come to the car. We were well schooled, as a result of “the talk,” about doing whatever a police officer ordered you to do. “What are y’all doing out here?” one of them asked. We told them. One of the policemen said, “Don’t you know that it is against the law to have a BB gun?” We said no. He confiscated our guns. We ran home and told our father.

There is a tradition in the black community that when trouble comes, “the churchgoing people” call their minister. Daddy called our minister and told him what happened. The four of us went to police headquarters, asked to speak to the officer in charge, and told him our story. The sergeant knew who the officers were and called them into his office. He asked them if they had taken the BB rifles, and they said yes. He asked where the rifles were. The officers replied they were in the trunk of their patrol car. The sergeant asked why the rifles had not been turned in at the end of their shift. They said they had forgotten. The sergeant told the men to return the rifles to us. Our minister and Daddy thanked the sergeant for his help. We knew the two policemen had no intention of turning in our rifles, and thought no one would protest what they had done. “The talk,” which is still a universal practice in the black community, had prepared my brother and I to deal with these kinds of interactions with police—daily occurrences large and small that continually shape how police are perceived in the black community.

The police were “doing their duty” to enforce the (Jim Crow) “laws of the land” when, in the 1960s, they were a part of brutalizing Civil Rights demonstrators during the sit-ins, marches, and Freedom Rides across the South. Police and sheriff deputies participated in the murders of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi (1964), and the beating and gassing of marchers trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, to protest for the right to register to vote (1965). Later, events like the police beating of Rodney King (1991), the rise of racial profiling, “stop and frisk,” the militarization of the police, mass incarceration, “driving while black” traffic stops, and the increased videotaping of police shooting unarmed black men and boys only heightened the awareness in the black community that justice is not blind when it comes to policing the black community. According to Khalil Gibran Muhammad, “Since 1935, nearly every so-called race riot in the United States—and there have been more than 100—has been sparked by a police incident.”

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s was a response to the Jim Crow social system in American society. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement leads the twenty-first century campaign against violence toward black people by the police. It is a response to the historic experience of African Americans with the United States criminal justice system. BLM began after the 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Florida. BLM received national recognition after it organized protests over the 2014 deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York City. The name of the organization has become symbolic of the historically dichotomous relationship between the police and black and white communities.

White conservatives are quick to assert that the greatest threat to black lives comes from other black people, not the police. Heather Mac Donald, author of The War on Cops, in a 2016 speech, “The Danger of the ‘Black Lives Matter’ Movement,” asserted that BLM only deals with the shooting of blacks by white police officers while ignoring the black-on-black violence in the black community. She said blacks of all ages commit homicide at eight times the rate of Hispanics combined and at 11 times the rate of whites alone. Black-on-black violence is a challenge the black community must address. But these unfortunate statistics allow the White Lives Matter and All Lives Matter countermovements to shift attention away from the fact that blacks are too often killed by police without justification, who are not held accountable for their misdeeds.

Dash cams, body cams, and cell phone videos are now recording incidents that formerly would not have been reported or would have been dismissed as not having occurred the way they did. The April 2015 incident in Charleston, South Carolina, where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man running away from police, was shot in the back and killed is an example of how citizens are helping to document homicides involving the police. A video of the shooting taken by a man at the scene showed the police attempting to plant evidence near the victim in order to claim self-defense. The U.S. Justice Department issued a highly critical report of the Ferguson, Missouri, police in March 2016. The report accused the police in Ferguson of making discriminatory traffic stops of blacks. Traffic fines were a major source of revenue used to support the city government. This practice created high tensions and animosity between the black citizens and police in Ferguson that came to a head with the shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson in 2015. The choking death of Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 resulted in no indictment of NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, who was videotaped applying an illegal choke hold. A task force appointed in 2015 by Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel to study the Chicago Police Department reported in 2016 that the “C.P.D.’s own data gives validity to the widely held belief the police have no regard for the sanctity of life when it comes to people of color.” Mayor Emanuel has promised changes and has appointed a new police chief.

The black community needs and wants the police to enforce law and order, keep the peace, and serve and protect it, just like it does the white community. But too often the police act and are seen as the agents of larger systems of inequality in the justice system, employment, education, and housing. The question is can BLM be a social movement that successfully challenges the current criminal justice system to become fair and just for all citizens of the United States? It may not be BLM that does it, but until changes are made, there will continue to be two dichotomous views of and relationships between the police and the black and white communities.

A luta continua, a vitória é certa (the struggle continues, victory is certain).

Otis S. Johnson


Otis S. Johnson, Ph.D., is a scholar-in-residence at Savannah State University and the former mayor of Savannah, Georgia.