By Dr. Ray Von Robertson
African Americans are marginalized within American society (Bonilla-Silva, 2009; Tonry, 2011). While the aforementioned is not a secret, the connection that the control of Black bodies has to the larger system of White supremacy deserves more attention. Specifically, the myriad ways in which White supremacy – an epistemology and system in which Whiteness is valued over Blackness – sustains a racial contract mandating Black people stay in their places which traction in American society (Meiners, 2007). The racial contract calls for Black people to be perpetually under surveillance and threat, essentially thwarting any potential to the collective dominance of Whites (Chaney & Robertson, 2013; Meiners, 2007). A key component to ensuring Black bodies stay within the parameters White society has carved out for them is the police (Staples, 2011). And the primary mechanism of control, which acts as an extension of White supremacy in the field, is police brutality – a practice which is disproportionately enacted upon Black males (Walker, 2011). Thus, a question for the African-American community, grass-roots activists, laypersons, and scholars becomes “what do we do about this problem?”
To understand the continuance of this form of subjugation, we must take a glimpse into its origins. The over and racialized policing of Blacks dates back to the enslavement of peoples of African descent in America (Vera Sanchez & Rosenbaum, 2011). So, it should come as no surprise that the early biased policing modalities were resisted by enslaved Blacks via several methods: (1) refusing to work; (2) destroying crops; (3) destroying equipment; (4) poisoning and attacking slave masters and other Whites; (5) running away and revolting; and (6) cooperating with indentured Whites and Native Americans to resist with force (Anderson, 2007; Dulvaney, 1996; Karenga, 2010; Rodney, 2011; Roediger, 2010). The punishments meted out by officers (who were typically poor White men with legal sanction to carry a weapon) for “breaking the law” consisted of whippings, maimings, and murder (Loewen, 2007; Myrdal, 1944; Roediger, 2010).
Gunnar Myrdal (1994) as cited in Green and Gabbidon (2013, p. 232) provides a glimpse into early policemen which should be instructive considering contemporary relationships between African Americans, most notably African American men, and police officers:
The average Southern policeman is a promoted poor White with a legal sanction to use a weapon. His social heritage to despise the Negroes, and he has had little education which could have changed him….The result is that probably no groups of Whites in America have a lower opinion of the Negro people and are more fixed in their views than Southern policemen. (Myrdal, 1944, pp. 540-541).
Some will say that “we have an African-American president”, “those individuals who are victims of excessive force are getting what they deserve”, or “it is not my problem.” Unfortunately, the tentacles of White supremacy reach all of us, even if we elect to act oblivious to the reality. Most of us (I include myself in the “us”) have never approached any elected official (Black or otherwise) with a unified African-American agenda, requiring the politician to meet each concern listed on our agenda to procure our vote, which includes eradicating Police Brutality (and the Prison Industrial Complex, for that matter) as one of its major demands. Interestingly, the initial African-American police officers were members of the New Orleans City guard in 1803, policed slaves, and were allowed to have such positions because of their perceived loyalty to the existing racial structure and their perceived willingness to uphold it (Dulvaney, 1996). Two primary reasons African Americans were initially allowed to be officers were: (1) their preference for exhibiting allegiance to the White population; and (2) their status in the city’s unique multiracial society (Dulvaney, 1996). Does this describe “us” as scholars on this issue? Do we engage communities on this issue? Or do we publish articles, books, etc., that no one outside the academic community reads or even know exists? Are we applying our scholarly training to develop and implement the best evidence-based solutions to this problem? Are we perpetuating the stereotype of the professional managerial class “buffer zone” between the ruling-class and the masses?
Lastly, there is no standardized data-base on police brutality, specifically against Blacks, to my knowledge. However, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, in its report titled “Operation Ghetto Storm”, revealed that, in 2012 police, security guards or self-appointed vigilantes’ killed 313 African Americans or one person every twenty-eight hours. Sixty-nine percent of the lives lost were to persons between the ages of 13-31(Malcolm X grassroots movement, 2013). Unfortunately, the movement had to rely on internet reports of deaths of African Americans at the hands of the aforementioned parties which may cause some to question its accuracy/legitimacy. Regardless, the numbers point to a concern that we as sociologists need to devote more attention to. As luminary W.E. B. DuBois said “a system can never fail those who it was never meant to protect.” Will we as academics work to protect the community or remain the professional managerial class and ignore it?
Anderson, S. E. (2007). The Black holocaust for beginners. Danbury, CT: For Beginners.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2009). Racism without racists: Colorblind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in American. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Chaney, C., & R. Robertson. (2013). “Racism and Police Brutality in America.” Journal of African American Studies, 1-26. doi: 10.1007/s12111-013-9246-5.
Dulvaney, W. M. (1996). Black police in America. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.
Greene, H. T., & Gabbidon, S. (2012). Race and crime: A text/reader. Los Angeles: Sage.
Karenga, M. (2010). Introduction to Black studies (4th ed.). Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press.
Loewen, J. W. (2007). Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. New York: Touchstone.
Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (2013). Operation ghetto storm: 2012 annual report on the extrajudicial killings of 313 Black people by police, security guards, and vigilantes. Retrieved fromhttp://mxm.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/operation-ghetto-storm-pdf.
Meiners, E. R. (2007). Right to be hostile: Schools, prisons, and the making of public enemies. New York: Routledge.
Myrdal, G. (1944). An American dilemma: The Negro problem and modern democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers
Roediger, D. R. (2010). How race survived U.S. history: From settlement and slavery to the Obama phenomenon. New York: Verso.
Rodney, W. (2011). How Europe underdeveloped Africa. Baltimore: Black Classic Press.
Staples, R. (2011). White Power, Black Crime, and Racial Politics. Black Scholar, 41(4), 31-4
Tonry, M. (2011). Punishing race: A continuing American dilemma. New York: Oxford University Press.
Vera Sanchez, C.G., & Rosenbaum, D. P. (2011). Racialized policing: Officers’ voices on policing Latino and African-American neighborhoods. Journal of Ethnicity in Criminal Justice, 9(2), 152-178.
Walker, A. (2011). Racial profiling separate and unequal keeping the minorities in line-the role of law enforcement in America. St. Thomas Law Review, 23, 576-619.