“The centuries-long struggle to birth a truly inclusive, egalitarian democracy — a nation in which every voice and every life truly matters — did not begin with us, and it will not end with us. The struggle is as old as the nation itself and the birth process has been painful, to say the least. My greatest hope and prayer is that we will serve as faithful midwives in our lifetimes and do what we can to make America, finally, what it must become.” — Michelle Alexander (author of “The New Jim Crow.“
This is Black History Month and I wonder how many police officers are aware of the history of black people in America. I know it’s not an easy subject to teach cops.
A few years ago, I attempted to teach a course on police-community relations to a number of young men and women (all white) who were about receive a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice to join area police agencies. (You can find part of the syllabus referring to race at the end of this post.)
My thesis was this: You cannot become an effective police officer in America if you do not know and understand this history. Secondly, it would not be unusual for you to join a police department in which most of its activities (usually 40% of urban arrests) had to do with arresting people of color.
Well, a nice try, David. Very few were interested in reading what James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Michelle Alexander, or Bryan Stevenson had to say on the subject. However, the experience taught me even more about race in America and the work ahead of us.
Last month Michelle Alexander wrote an awakening op-ed in the New York Times. Police officers and their leaders need to read not only about black history, but also what people outside of policing, their “customers,” have to say about their attitudes and activities. Here goes…
The Injustice of This Moment Is Not an ‘Aberration’
From mass incarceration to mass deportation, our nation remains in deep denial.
By Michelle Alexander, NYT, January 17, 2020
Ten years have passed since my book, “The New Jim Crow,” was published. I wrote it to challenge our nation to reckon with the recurring cycles of racial reform, retrenchment and rebirth of caste-like systems that have defined our racial history since slavery. It has been an astonishing decade. Everything and nothing has changed.
When I was researching and writing the book, Barack Obama had not yet been elected president of the United States. I was in disbelief that our country would actually elect a black man to be the leader of the so-called free world. As the election approached, I felt an odd sense of hope and dread. I hoped against all reason that we would actually do it. But I also knew that, if we did, there would be a price to pay.
Everything I knew through experience and study told me that we as a nation did not fully understand the nature of the moment we were in. We had recently birthed another caste system — a system of mass incarceration — that locked millions of poor people and people of color in literal and virtual cages.
Our nation’s prison and jail population had quintupled in 30 years, leaving us with the highest incarceration rate in the world. A third of black men had felony records — due in large part to a racially biased, brutal drug war — and were relegated to a permanent second-class status. Tens of millions of people in the United States had been stripped of basic civil and human rights, including the right to vote, the right to serve on juries and the right to be free of legal discrimination in employment, housing, education and basic public benefits.
“Nevertheless, our nation remained in deep denial that a new caste system even existed, and most of us — even those who cared deeply about racial justice — did not seem to understand that powerful racial dynamics and political forces were at play that made much of our racial progress illusory. We had not faced our racial history and could not tell the truth about our racial present, yet growing numbers of Americans wanted to elect a black president and leap into a ‘colorblind’ future.
“I was right to worry about the aftermath of Obama’s election. After he was inaugurated, our nation was awash in ‘post-racialism.’ Black History Month events revolved around ‘how far we’ve come.’ Many in the black community and beyond felt that, if Obama could win the presidency, anything was possible. Few people wanted to hear the message I felt desperate to convey: Despite appearances, our nation remains trapped in a cycle of racial reform, backlash and re-formation of systems of racial and social control…”
Read her entire op-ed HERE.
- What are police officers in your city learning about black history and their role in perpetuating Jim Crow?
- Do promotional reading lists include works by James Baldwin, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Bryan Stevenson?
Here’s part of the syllabus of my course on Police-Community Relations
Race and Difference: The Police Dilemma
- James Howard Griffin: Film: “Black Like Me” (1964): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ww0q4XhxPAA
- James Baldwin:
- “The ‘pin drop’ speech:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NUBh9GqFU3A
- “America’s racial problem:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnIjXmfTSYg
- Malcolm X:
- Debate with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h4PqLKWuwyU
- “I’m a dead man already:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RY17aKZj4DM
- Ta-nehisi Coates:
- “We were eight years in power: an American tragedy:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKWgAy9JdvI
- Michelle Alexander:
- “The New Jim Crow:” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SQ6H-Mz6hgw
- Bryan Stevenson: Videos:
- With Bill Moyers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmcAcy4XHKw,
- “The Talk
David you are so right! When I became Chief of Police of Shreveport LA. in 1987 I had no idea how racially divided a police department could be. I was committed to racial inclusion and gender diversity even way back then. However, within weeks of being sworn in I learned that a black police officer could not book a while man into the police blotter! I was in shock, literally….! I set about changing that and announced new rules which allowed any officer making an arrest to book the individual like anyone else. I would soon learn the true depth of institutional racism in policing up close and personal. That’s another story we should write about. Thanks so much for continuing to focus a lens on the distance we have yet to travel about fairness, transparency, and growth within policing things are just as bad as the the race riots throughout our nation in the early 60’s.
Thanks,Chuck, for putting perspective on this: in 1987, a black officer could not book a white man for a crime; “The past is not dead. It’s not even past” ( Faulkner).
White Cops are still in denial about racism and how they play an important role in fostering and maintaining it in America and then they wonder why they are so hated. Many of them will never get it through their thick heads about it.