Blacks and Law Enforcement: A History

law enforcement

If you’re black, law enforcement is more likely to kill you.

There seems to be an idea that activists and protesters against brutality are either pointing to a select few recent incidents or are looking at incidents and “racializing” them. I believe this disconnect is due to a lack of understanding of the history between law enforcement and the black community. There is a long and persistent record.


Slave Patrols were organized groups of white men who monitored and enforced discipline upon black slaves in the antebellum U.S. southern states. Slave patrols’ function was to police slaves, especially runaways and defiant slaves. They also formed river patrols to prevent escape by boat. Slave patrols were first established in South Carolina in 1704, and the idea spread throughout the colonies.
With the Civil War lost, Southern whites’ fears of blacks were not diminished. Anxieties about racial control actually increased, and even though slavery and patrols were legally broken down, the patrol system still survived.
Almost immediately in the aftermath of the war, informal patrols sprang into action. Later, city and rural police squads, along with the help of Union army officers, revived patrolling practices among free men. During Reconstruction, old style patrol methods resurfaced and were enforced by postwar Southern police officers and also by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.


After Reconstruction, lynching became a threat used to terrorize blacks and maintain the new, racist social order that was being constructed. Congress had housed many southern Republicans who sought to protect black voting rights by using federal troops. A congressional deal to elect Rutherford B. Hayes as President in 1876 included a pledge to end Reconstruction in the South.
The Redeemers, white racists who often included White Cappers and Ku Klux Klan members, began to break any political power that blacks had gained during Reconstruction. Lynchings were seen as supporting the new status quo, and were carried out in public in the presence of law enforcement often with tacit if not outright approval.

Jim Crow

Jim Crow laws, beginning in the 1890’s, used terror and lynching to enforce formal laws and a variety of unwritten rules of conduct meant to ensure white domination. Often Jim Crow tensions went hand in hand with economic tensions. In 1887, ten thousand workers at sugar plantations in Louisiana, organized by the Knights of Labor, went on strike for an increase in their pay to $1.25 a day. Most of the workers were black, but some were white, infuriating Governor Samuel Douglas, who declared that “God Almighty has himself drawn the color line.” The militia was called in, but then withdrawn to give free rein to a lynch mob in Thibodaux, which killed somewhere between 20 and 300 people.
From 1889 to 1923, most years saw 50-100 lynchings. While the vast majority of lynchings were of blacks, Italian-Americans were the second most common target of lynchings. On March 14, 1891 eleven Italian-Americans were lynched in New Orleans after a jury found them not guilty in the case of the murder of a New Orleans police chief. The eleven were falsely accused of being associated with the Mafia. This incident was the largest mass lynching in US history.

Civil Rights Movement

After World War II, African Americans increasingly challenged segregation, as they believed they had more than earned the right to be treated as full citizens because of their military service and sacrifices. Isaac Woodard was an African American World War II veteran who was attacked by South Carolina police in 1946, while still in uniform, hours after being honorably discharged from the United States Army. His attack and injuries sparked national outrage and galvanized the civil rights movement in the United States.
The attack by South Carolina police left Woodard completely and permanently blind. Due to South Carolina’s reluctance to pursue the case, President Harry S. Truman ordered a federal investigation. The sheriff was indicted and went to trial in federal court in South Carolina, where he was acquitted by an all-white jury.
Beginning shortly after this in 1946, President Harry S. Truman embarked on several major civil rights initiatives: he established a national interracial commission, made a historic speech to the NAACP and the nation in June 1947 describing civil rights as a moral priority, submitted a civil rights bill to Congress in February 1948, and issued Executive Orders 9981 and 9980 on the same day to desegregate the armed forces and the federal government.

War on Drugs

We detail it’s failings here. The drug war has produced profoundly unequal outcomes across racial groups, manifested through racial discrimination by law enforcement and disproportionate drug war misery suffered by communities of color. Although rates of drug use and selling are comparable across racial lines, people of color are far more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested, prosecuted, convicted and incarcerated for drug law violations than are whites. Higher arrest and incarceration rates for African Americans and Latinos are not reflective of increased prevalence of drug use or sales in these communities, but rather of a law enforcement focus on urban areas, on lower-income communities and on communities of color as well as inequitable treatment by the criminal justice system. The mass criminalization of people of color, particularly young African American men, is as profound a system of racial control as the Jim Crow laws were in this country.

Stop and Frisk

Under the Fourth Amendment, police officers can legally stop and detain a person only when they have a reasonable suspicion that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime. Over the years, however, the Police Department has adopted a strategy that encourages cops to stop and question mainly minority citizens first and to come up with reasons for having done so later. This has resulted in people in some neighborhoods being stopped without reason scores of times a year.
The city conducted an astounding 4.4 million stops between January 2004 and June 2012. Of these, only 6 percent resulted in arrests and 6 percent resulted in summonses. In other words, 88 percent of the 4.4 million stops resulted in no further action — meaning a vast majority of those stopped were doing nothing wrong. More than half of all people stopped were frisked, yet only 1.5 percent of frisks found weapons. In about 83 percent of cases, the person stopped was black or Hispanic, even though the two groups accounted for just over half the population.
The NYPD justified the disparity because minority citizens commit more crimes. But as the Judge who ruled that the tactics were unconstitutional stated, “this reasoning is flawed because the stopped population is overwhelmingly innocent — not criminal. There is no basis for assuming that an innocent population shares the same characteristics as the criminal suspect population in the same area.” The evidence clearly showed that the police carried out more stops on black and Hispanic residents even when other relevant factors were controlled for, and officers were more likely to use force against minority residents even though stops of minorities were less likely to result in weapons seizures than stops of whites.

A History of Police and Black People

Since slavery, whether Reconstruction; lynching; The Civil Rights Movement; The War on Drugs; or Stop and Frisk, protesters and activists haven’t been pointing to “a few isolated incidents” to “stir the pot”. There is a long and storied history of corruption, mistreatment and abuse of the black community and communities of color by law enforcement. An understanding of this history will be key in unlocking the meaning behind these protests, and how we move forward to resolve these issues.



Kwaisi France

An 80's baby forged in the 90's and unleashed upon the world in the 21st century, Kwaisi France is a Baltimore raised Brooklyn resident.

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