The role of the Police in making Jim Crow policies work

Police Shooting Missouri

At the heart of America’s original Jim Crow system (that the southern states used after the abolition of slavery to  discriminate against its black citizens) was a simple Idea – that the laws might appear to affect all but they would only be enforced against the black community. This required the willing participation of the police so that for example if a black man or woman failed to stand in the gutter with his/her head bowed when a white person passed on the pavement they would be arrested for Jaywalking or for not having a job or any other crime the police officer cared to choose. A white judge and all white jury would tut at the ‘uppitty N***er’ and send them to prison where they were would be hired out on chain gangs to brutal (always) white masters as slave labour. At the same time a white man who committed far more serious crimes such as to shoot or run over a black person would not expect to be convicted of any offence at all by the same system. Over time simply the threat of such action became enough to control all but the most determined members of the black community. It was something you learned as a child and grew up with

When the US government and constitutional lawyers didn’t or couldn’t step in and prevent this kind of breach of the constitution, actual laws began to creep onto the books in these states which were clearly racist such as those demanding segregation of schools and even washing facilities. I published an article a few weeks ago about how the dominant whites in the Southern US controlled the black population to such an extent that they could enforce the most ludicrous of restrictions such as one area where blacks had to make do with chocolate ice cream and could only have (White) vanilla on one day a year (see ‘Black people were denied vanilla ice cream in the Jim Crow south – except on Independence Day’ below)!

What stands out about this is that it required the co-operation of the police force for it to work. As the head of most Local Police Depts (Sheriffs) were elected by (mostly white) local voters this didn’t take long to become a ‘natural’ part of a Policeman’s role.

But surely this was all swept away with along with the other gains of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s and the Police departments role would have changed because it was no longer needed?

There are some powerful arguments why this is not the case

In her remarkable book ‘The New Jim Crow – How the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste’ Michelle Alexander explains how since the 1980’s the war on drugs has been used to disenfranchise a large portion of the black population. Having been arrested and convicted of even minor drug crimes in many southern states they can now no longer vote, live in federal housing or even apply for food stamps. She also talks about the way this set of laws has been implemented differently for blacks and whites for similar offences (think Stop and Frisk) and then goes on to talk about police being given additional help to enforce the law – in a society with a major gun problem – with military grade weapons steered to them under post 9/11 homeland security rules. She is very critical of the way that local Police depts are rewarded with valuable federal grants for each drug arrest and the way police dept are allowed to keep the profits of  asset seizures (from those they convict)

In his recent article ‘Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison’ Alex Tabarrok talks about the way that the legal system and the prison system are conspiring against blacks (and poor whites) by forcing them into debt. Small offences are punished by fines which cannot be paid and then court costs and rules making the person liable for the cost of enforcement (for your security tag for example) become a vicious circle that ends with a prison sentence. In the case of Ferguson Miss. he points out that

“Ferguson is a city located in northern St. Louis County with 21,203 residents living in 8,192 households. The majority (67%) of residents are African-American…22% of residents live below the poverty level. Despite Ferguson’s relative poverty, fines and court fees comprise the second largest source of revenue for the city, a total of $2,635,400. In 2013, the Ferguson Municipal Court disposed of 24,532 warrants and 12,018 cases, or about 3 warrants and 1.5 cases per household.” from a report by Arch City Defenders,

and comments

“You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay. If you have money, for example, you can easily get a speeding ticket converted to a non-moving violation. But if you don’t have money it’s often the start of a downward spiral that is hard to pull out of.””

In her article ’21 Things You Can’t Do While Black’ Lauren Williams lists 21 examples from the last five years of some of the things black people can’t do without others thinking they’re up to no good. It includes Listening to loud music at a gas station, Walking home from a snack run to 7-11, Wearing a hoodie, Driving after swimming and Driving in a car with a white girl.

The role of the police in enforcing these new Jim Crow practices seems pretty much the same as it was before – to ‘defend’ the white community by keeping the black minority ‘in their place’, with the policy being indirectly supported by federal funds and equipment, and locally seized assets The consequences have been the death of as many as one unarmed black man at the hands of the police every 8 days over the past few years.

“We need not look for individual racists to say that we have a culture of policing that is really rubbing salt into longstanding racial wounds,” said NAACP president Cornell Williams Brooks “It’s a culture in which people suspected of minor crimes are met with “overwhelmingly major, often lethal, use of force,”


Black people were denied vanilla ice cream in the Jim Crow south – except on Independence Day

What Was Jim Crow?

The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow

The New Jim Crow – How the War on Drugs gave birth to a permanent American undercaste By Michelle Alexander

Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison by Alex Tabarrok

21 Things You Can’t Do While Black

Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?

Margaret Mead on the Root of Racism and the Liability of Law Enforcement by Maria Popov

What Emancipation Didn’t Stop After All

Black Codes (United States)

There Is an Unbroken Line of Police Violence in the US that Takes Us All the Way Back to the Days of Slavery’

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