Black Lives and the Police

Black people in America have been under surveillance ever since the seventeenth century, when enslaved Africans were forced to labor in the tobacco and rice fields of the South. Colonial law quickly made a distinction between indentured servants and slaves, and in so doing invented whiteness in America. It may have been possible for a free African or mixed-race person to own slaves, but it was not possible for a European to be taken into slavery. The distinction helped to keep blacks and poor whites from seeking common cause.

Diamond Reynolds, in a still from her live-streamed cell-phone footage of the moments immediately after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, July 6, 2016
Lavish Reynolds/Facebook
Diamond Reynolds, in a still from her live-streamed cell-phone footage of the moments immediately after her boyfriend, Philando Castile, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, July 6, 2016

The slave patrols that originated in the seventeenth century would be largely made up of poor whites—paterollers, the members of the patrols were called. To stop, harass, whip, injure, or kill black people was both their duty and their reward, their understanding of themselves as white people, something they shared with their social betters. Of course their real purpose was to monitor and suppress the capacity for slave rebellion. While the militias dealt with the Indians, the paterollers rode black people.

Police forces in the North may have been modeled on Sir Robert Peel’s plans for London, but as jobs connected to city politics, the policemen themselves, from Boston to Chicago, were Irish, people who had been despised when they first came to America. That they lived next to or with black people told them how close to the bottom of American society they were. In every city the Irish did battle with their nearest neighbors, black people, in order to become American and to keep blacks in their place, below them. North and South, the police were relied upon to maintain the status quo, to control a dark labor force that was feared.

White southerners during Reconstruction resented black police officers and their power to arrest a white man. Redemption, the triumph of white supremacy, pretty much eliminated black police officers. In W. Marvin Dulaney’s Black Police in America (1996), the story of blacks on American police forces until the 1970s is one of tokenism and distrust by white colleagues.

Meanwhile, police forces and their relation to black people in general is a long tale about the enforcement of whiteness and blackness. When in 1967 Carl Stokes, the newly elected black mayor of Cleveland who had won due to a coalition of black and white voters, assigned black police officers only, no white ones, to black districts of the city…


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