The widely viewed video of a Minneapolis police officer killing a Black man by pressing his knee into the victim’s neck for eight minutes offers a brutal encapsulation of the relationship between law enforcement and the minority communities they police. Following another police killing of a black man by Atlanta police, calls from protesters’ to “defund the police” have further intensified, its leaders convinced of American law enforcement’s “systemic racism.”
Is American law enforcement systemically racist? It depends on the meaning of “systemic” and “racist.”
Abundant evidence supports the premise that racism existed in the past in many police agencies large and small. Americans often equate “racist cop” with the civil rights era, assuming all racist cops speak with a southern drawl. The problem with that stereotype (as with most) is its incompleteness. Racist policing in the United States, never confined solely to the south, is not an exclusively a byproduct of segregationism.
Statistical evidence supports concerns about widespread discrimination in policing. Radley Balcko’s reporting in the Washington Post has explored various dimensions of disparate treatment by minorities compared to whites, including suspicion-less police stops, arrests for misdemeanors, drug possession, and school suspensions, finding that Blacks and Hispanics are far more likely to draw police suspicion, and far more likely to be arrested and charged with crimes, than whites.
While progress on race is undeniable, America has certainly not “solved” the racism that allowed slavery to flourish, racist beliefs persist to a greater degree than many white Americans assume. Many police departments have substantially improved relationships with minority communities, the fruit of “community policing” strategies. Americans as a whole, and particularly Millennials, show less evidence of overt racial bias than in past generations. Nevertheless, subsets of Americans, including some police officers, continue to make racist public statements. “Dog whistles” hinting at racist stereotypes abound, sometimes rising to human pitch. Unfortunately, despite public denunciation of such statements, racist beliefs continue to bubble just below the surface.
Political scientists often emphasize the significance of “path dependence” in understanding how systems work. Path dependence stresses the importance of history in understanding institutions. Applied to law enforcement, policing is influenced by their past in the form of an organizational police subculture, norms which may compel an otherwise non-racist cop to look the other way. Anyone minimally acquainted with the origins of police in America is aware its original mandate was not “to protect and serve communities,” but rather to round up escaped slaves, break up strikes, and otherwise maintain a decidedly inequitable economic status quo.
Path dependence does not justify condemnation of police out of hand, but suggests that racist policies and practices in the past exert a subtle influence on the present.
A number of additional factors contribute to racism’s persistent and systemic nature.
Federalism reinforces the systemic nature of racism in several ways. First, federalism as practiced in the United States has produced an incredibly fragmented system of law enforcement. The over 800,000 sworn police officers are distributed among more than 18,000 agencies at the federal, state, and local level. Particularly at the local level, county sheriff and small town police forces comprise little fiefdoms, often deeply resistant to reforms. A few bad apples in leadership positions can work disproportionate mischief, leading to false arrests and fabrication of evidence to justify prosecutions of minorities. In many instances, racist cops dismissed from one agency can find employment in other in adjoining towns or counties.
The steady militarization of police agencies has worsened the relationship between police and minority communities. Beginning with the formation of tactical “SWAT” units in response to the race riots of the 1950s and 1960s, police adopted military principles, tactics, and attitudes. The successive wars on drugs and terrorism incentivized investment in both training and in equipment – body armor, shields, batons, tear gas, and armored personnel carriers – encouraging a mindset in which military principles like “force protection,” contributed to the sense in which police are perceived more as foreign occupiers than keepers of the peace. Frequently, police departments’ limited training budgets are committed to “warrior cop” training programs, a budding cottage industry that preaches a hyper-violent and militarized approach to policing that emphasizes police exceptionalism and implicitly identifies American communities of color as “enemy territory.”
Similarly, “get tough” enforcement of minor crimes cultivates among minority communities the sense they as individuals as continually subjected to randomized harassment by police; however, when killings occur in their neighborhoods, they may experience abnormally long waits before police appear. The extremely low clearance rates for violent crimes in minority communities reinforces the assumption police are acting as occupiers rather than as good faith guardians of the peace.
These debates serve as a reminder that racism is a complex phenomenon, originating not simply in hatred and white supremacist beliefs, but also in fear and misunderstanding, and a near-universal tendency to stereotype those we do not understand, as studies of “implicit bias” suggest.
The overarching factor in sustaining systemically racist police practices are economic practices that distribute vast wealth to limited numbers of people, while tolerating poverty rates most other affluent countries find unacceptable.
American law enforcement is not uniquely racist, but is uniquely powerful. Reform efforts should focus on greater accountability, more training, and reconsideration of the kind of policing most likely to provoke antagonism, rather a series of radical defunding proposals unlikely to draw majority support in any community, let alone nationally. However, in the absence of significant economic reforms to augment better policing, America will place itself on a glide path to the further radicalization of minority communities, and levels of political instability and violence that dwarf the current troubles.
Dr. Ken Hicks is a political scientist and department head of History and Political Science at Rogers State University. The opinions, beliefs, and viewpoints expressed in this column are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Claremore Progress editors or Rogers State University.