And the truth is, it's easy to make a compelling case when you cherry pick statistics, when you don't tell the whole story. So over the next few blog posts, I'm going to try and tell the whoooole story in hopes of getting folks to understand that yes, Black folks are provably and significantly more likely to be beaten or killed by cops. And while there are some crimes one race is more likely to commit than the other, Black folks are way more likely to experience police violence even over crimes that Black and white folks commit at the exact same rates. And finally, I'll provide several examples showing that Black folks don't have to be doing a damn thing to be the victim of police violence.
In this post we're only going to talk about what goes on between police and Black adults, because the issue of policing Black kids is a whole egregious and heartbreaking mess that needs its own post.
So to get to where we are we're going to take a quick trip in the wayback machine to take a quick look at how we got here. Picture it. Dixieland. Reconstruction era. Following the Civil War, people in the South discover that paying Black people to do work means less money for white people, and they're not big fans of that fact. Fortunately, the 13th amendment, the one that banned slavery, gave them a loophole. You can't force just anybody to work without pay anymore, but you can still enslave people in prison. So as soon as the North stops looking, Southerners pass Black Codes - special laws, just for Black folks, with wildly disproportionate sentences, that allow for the arrest, conviction, and enslavement of Black folks. If you're Black, you could get arrested for not having a job, but you could get arrested for selling stuff without permission too. You could get arrested for loitering, being out after curfew, owning a gun, or drinking outside in public. If you got arrested, you went to jail for forever, and lo and behold, you were back at work on a plantation or on a chain gang. It's slavery rebranded.
Once Black folks had been convicted and given inordinately long prison sentences for these new crimes, they could be "leased out" the plantation owners, construction companies and so on. Rules were, lessees could shoot their prisoners if they ran away, and if one died, they'd get another. The conditions were awful and a great many enslaved Black people did die. Folks, inside and outside, who complained were met with the argument that if these folks didn't want to be enslaved in this way, all they had to do was not break the laws. Sound familiar?
Within a couple decades, anti-slavery types started crying fowl on having special laws for Black people, and localities changed things up a bit. Laws about loitering, open container, disturbing the peace and so on would apply to everybody, but cops would have great discretion on whom they applied it to. Prosecutors would have discretion on whom they would charge, and judges would have discretion as to sentences. And judges and prosecutors would just happen to use that discretion to charge and give crazy long sentences to Black folks. There are still different sets of laws for Black folks and white folks, but that fact is no longer officially acknowledged. This system was intentionally designed to put more Black folks in prison than white folks, put them in there for longer, and make money off of their labor. And the system continues to work exactly as designed.
And if you think that cops can't possibly still be getting away with just up and arresting Black folks for next to nothing, take a look at Adrian Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was a Brooklyn cop who had a crisis of conscience when his Sergeant started straight-out telling he and his fellow officers to arrest and cite people on trumped up charges in the mostly Black Brooklyn neighborhood that his precinct patrolled. Schoolcraft started recording his Sergeant saying things like, one Halloween, "any roving bands of more than 2 or 3 people, I want them stopped, cuffed, throw them in here, run some warrants... we'll come back and process them later on." Schoolcraft's sergeant was specifically telling officers to arrest people without cause and throw them in jail, and that they'd figure out what to charge those folks with later. Which is completely, blatantly illegal, but who is gonna believe poor Black folks over NYPD cops? Are those folks going to hire a lawyer every time something like this happens? Schoolcraft recorded officers arresting Black folks for trespassing on public streets. Citing Black folks for open container when they're walking home from church with a bottle of orange juice. Stopping and frisking Black men without probable cause, which was illegal at that time. This all happened in 2009. Not 1909, but two thousand - ten years ago - nine. By the way, when Schoolcraft started bringing these concerns to the people above him, instead of doing anything, they raided his home and had him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for a week.
Any which way you cut it, according to any legitimate source, including our own government, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and get longer sentences for piddly misdemeanor crimes than white folks. And, it turns out, cops are much more likely to assault and kill Black folks in the process of And it isn't getting better. According to The Sentencing Project:
In recent years, black drivers have been somewhat more likely to be stopped than whites but have been far more likely to be searched and arrested. The causes and outcomes of these stops differ by race, and staggering racial disparities in rates of police stops persist in certain jurisdictions—pointing to unchecked racial bias, whether intentional or not, in officer discretion. A closer look at the causes of traffic stops reveals that police are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for discretionary reasons—for “investigatory stops” (proactive stops used to investigate drivers deemed suspicious) rather than “traffic-safety stops” (reactive stops used to enforce traffic laws or vehicle codes). Nationwide surveys also reveal disparities in the outcomes of police stops. Once pulled over, black and Hispanic drivers were three times as likely as whites to be searched (6% and 7% versus 2%) and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested. These patterns hold even though police officers generally have a lower “contraband hit rate” when they search black versus white drivers.But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to the history lesson. Around 1930 the government finds a brand new way to unevenly enforce laws. Now, back then, in most states, you could get cannabis at your local pharmacy - some required a prescription, some didn't. Cannabis was banned in some places, but for the most part it was considered pretty harmless. Then along comes Harry J. Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger is hired as the founding leader of the FBN, and Anslinger hated two things: weed and brown people. Actually, that's only half true. Before he started his campaign against it, Anslinger had said that the idea that cannabis could harm people was an absurd fallacy. Buuut then he noticed how much Black folks and Mexicans liked the stuff. Anslinger said, "Reefer makes [slur] think they're as good as white men," and he warned that marijuana made white women want to have sex with Mexican and Black men. Anslinger encouraged referring to cannabis by its Mexican name, marijuana, in stories about its many ill effects, because he thought it made the drug seem foreign and that much more dangerous. Anslinger's allies in the media, notably his buddy William Randolph Hearst - who hated Black people almost as much as he loved storing his urine in jars - were all too happy to run false or exaggerated stories about the evil things brown people did when high on herb - anything that sold papers and made brown people look bad was a winner in Hearst's book.
In the late 30s, Anslinger succeeded in having marijuana outlawed nationwide and before the ink was dry on the act, the justice system started enforcing it differently for white folks and Black folks. Black folks were more likely to be stopped, searched, charged, tried, and convicted, and once again, received longer sentences, even when it came to pass that Black folks and white folks were equally likely to use the drug. Once again, these drugs were designed to allow the justice system unfairly target Black people, and they continue to work as designed.
You might think things are getting better now that weed is legal in so many states. But that isn't exactly the case. People who got busted for serious weed crimes are still in jail even in places where weed is no longer a crime, and those who aren't in jail anymore still have their criminal records (which can affect employment, student loans, ability to buy or rent a home, and more). And even in places where weed's legal, you've got to have a license to sell it - if you're not a licensed dispensary, selling pot can still be a felony subject to harsh, harsh penalties including prison time. And it just so happens that Black folks don't even own 1% of the legal marijuana industry. The city of LA even created a program designed to provide cannabis licenses to people harmed by the war on drugs, which seemed like a step in the right direction, except that only 20% of the businesses that will benefit from the program are Black-owned.
So pot gets made illegal all over the country in 1937, and now you've got hundreds of thousands of disproportionately Black prisoners all over the country providing free labor in prison workshops - slavery rebranded once again. But the fun's just starting.
In 1971, Nixon kicks off his War on Drugs. According to Nixon aide and Watergate co-conspirator,
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.By now, I probably don't have to tell you that the War on Drugs disproportionately affected Black communities. Black folks and white folks were equally likely to use drugs, but Black folks were far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement over it. Nixon's drug policy walked so his successors' could run, and soon we had the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed draconian mandatory minimums on possession of crack cocaine - a drug favored among Black Americans - while imposing much lighter sentences on possession of cocaine, which is the same drug, except preferred by white folks. The US Sentencing Commission found that crack laws were maybe the most racially skewed laws on the books, with Black people being on the receiving end of 79% of crack convictions. That disparity was eventually addressed with the Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed in 2010 over the fervent objections of - you guessed it - the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriff's Association.
At this point, I might be giving you the impression that the whole problem of racial disparity in our justice system rests on drugs. That cops might lean a little harder on Black folks who do drugs, which may be unfair, but is pretty easily resolved by just not doing drugs. But not so fast. We still haven't gotten to Broken Windows Policing.
Okay, so Broken Windows Policing is a criminological theory that visible signs of disorder in an urban environment encourage more crime. A couple of social scientists back in the early 80s wrote an article called "Broken Windows" arguing that:
Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.But, the authors said, if you repair the one broken window right away, no more broken windows. In a follow-up book, one of the authors of that article opined that what applies to windows might apply to crime. If you intervene then the small crimes happen, they'll happen less often, and crime will go down overall. Clean up vandalism right away. Get addicts off the street and into treatment. Get the community involved in keeping the neighborhood clean and orderly so they'll feel a sense of ownership and police themselves.
Law enforcement agencies were fans of the idea, but didn't maybe understand it so great. Seems cops mostly took the whole theory to mean that they should go into minority neighborhoods to arrest and cite people for what the hell ever they could think of. "Disorderly conduct," which of course means whatever cops want it to mean. Spitting. Riding a bike on the sidewalk. Loud music. Trespassing for sitting on the stoop of a building they don't live in. Or sometimes buildings they do live in - mental health worker Rhonda Scott was arrested for the crime of standing on her own stoop without the ID to prove it, and suffered two broken wrists in the process. Can you even imagine - begin to imagine, walking out onto your front porch and having cops walk up and break your freaking wrists for doing it? I suppose the answer to that question depends on your skin color.
Anyway, Broken Windows leads to more stops, more searches, more violence, more arrests, more charges, more convictions. All disproportionately affecting Black folks, and all having very little proven effect on the crime rate. If you've read this far, you've probably guessed that all this leads to a lot more dead citizens, and of course, those citizens are disproportionately Black. According to CampaignZero.com, "in 2014, police killed at least 287 people who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking "suspicious" or having a mental health crisis."
If you need more evidence that police use of force disproportionately affects Black folks, check out this study from the Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences. Head to MappingPoliceViolence.org for a whole bunch of raw data. And here's a whole mess of data about police use of force policy and training and such.
From 1983 to 2016, the prison population has increased from 250K to over 1.5 million, and even though they make up only 13% of the general population, Black folks make up 37% of the prison population. One in three Black men will go to prison in their lifetime, which means, by the way, that one in three Black men will be disenfranchised for some portion of their life - people in prison can't vote, and many states require former prisoners to pay a fine or make it through probation before they can vote again (and by the way, their job prospects once they get out are way worse than a white man who committed the same crime would be).
- "Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders." Black men's sentences are 19% longer on average and the disparity has not improved at all since 2012.
- "Violence in an offender's criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing."
- "Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance" (sentence below the minimum sentencing guidelines)
If you need to hear it from a conservative, conservative lawyer T. Greg Doucette has been keeping a running Twitter thread of videos of police violence against BLM protesters.
3️⃣9️⃣2️⃣ Oklahoma City, OK: police shoot a black man as he has his hands raised in the air – and the media is streaming live— T. Greg Doucette (@greg_doucette) June 8, 2020
It isn't anyone's imagination. This justice system does not treat Black lives as if they matter. And until there's real, true justice, there's not going to be any peace.