Part 3.2:
How that history impacts the world today: policing and mass incarceration

If you'd prefer to learn via audio, you can listen to Part 3.2 here (29 minutes long):

Note: On 6/12, I split this page. I moved the wealth- and neighborhood-related content to Part 3.3 and greatly expanded the police section on this page. On 6/13, I significantly expanded this page again, so I recommend re-reading it if you'd like to learn more about policing and the calls to defund the police.

Black Americans and white Americans use illegal drugs at similar rates.

Yet black Americans are imprisoned on drug charges at 6 times the rate of white Americans.

So, if you hear about black people breaking the law more often on the news, ask yourself this: Is it because they're actually more criminal than white people?

Or is it simply that black people are arrested more often than white people?

As white people, it's easy for us to believe that the police are here to protect us.

(Sure, we might have unpleasant encounters around speeding tickets; but, most of us feel like if we're ever really in danger we can call the police and they'll come to our aid.)

It's very different for people of color. Racial profiling is real. They're not imagining things when they say that police treat them differently.

Compared to white people, black people are three times more likely to be killed in an encounter with police.

  • Even in the United States today, people of color have to be more wary than white people. As a white person, you probably rarely have to worry that someone will feel like you don't belong somewhere simply because of your race (let alone that they'll actively feel unsafe with you nearby)
  • In contrast, people of color live in a world where white people will call the police because they feel that a POC is “trespassing” or “looks out of place in a white neighborhood, coffee shop, or even a college lounge. This happens even if the POC lives in that neighborhood or is a student at that school
  • Racial profiling is real (i.e., when people in positions of power such as police put more suspicion of wrongdoing on people of color than on white people). Black males are 3 times more likely to be killed in an encounter with police compared to white people (Latino and Native American males are disproportionately killed as well)
  • For black men in their 20s, death by police is the 6th leading cause of death (it’s not even in the top 10 for white men in that age group)
    • This includes death by gunshot, Taser, pepper spray, and "hand-to-hand force"
  • The "crime" of "driving while black" (i.e., being pulled over simply due to racial profiling) is real, and it's insulting to black people when white people act skeptical
    • A Stanford University study of 93 million traffic stops from 29 police departments found that black drivers are 20% more likely to get pulled over than white drivers (and Native Americans are even more likely to be stopped than black people)
    • Black drivers are twice as likely to be subject to police searches as white drivers, and they're nearly twice as likely to not be given any reason for the traffic stop
    • An analysis by the Los Angeles Times found that, across Los Angeles, 24% of black drivers and passengers were searched, compared with 16% of Latinos and 5% of whites. Yet, in both vehicle searches and pat-down searches, whites were found with drugs, weapons or other contraband more often than both blacks and Latinos
    • Black people are also far more likely to be subjected to use of force during an arrest (such as being hit, tased, or pepper sprayed). Police use force against black people at 7 times the rate of whites in Minneapolis and 14 times the rate of whites in Chicago
  • This isn't meant to say that all police officers are bad people
    • Rather, just like any other person, they have implicit bias—in other words, simply by having grown up in this country, they have unconscious racist attitudes toward people of color, and that makes them more likely to feel tense during a stressful situation and for the conflict to escalate
    • It's also not just about individual police officers but about the institution of law enforcement itself in the United States

The modern police force grew out of slave patrols, so there's a long history in the United States of police treating people of color differently.

  • As white people, we tend to see police as people who will protect us, so it can be hard for us to understand how people of color see them
  • To understand why there's such a big difference in our perceptions, we need to look further back than modern-day racial profiling
  • This country's police force originated in groups called night patrols, night watches, or slave patrols. In the 1700s and 1800s, their duty was to assist wealthy white landowners in tracking down and punishing escaped slaves. Later, part of their job became to control and intimidate free black people
  • So, night patrols were rightfully feared and hated by black and indigenous people. It was even well known during the Jim Crow era (until 1965) that many police officers were also members of the KKK
  • In other words, the police force in the United States was literally created to serve white Americans and to police black Americans
  • For much of this country's history, the police force's duty was to enforce laws specifically designed to subjugate black people
    • The book The New Jim Crow quotes an Alabama plantation owner after emancipation was passed: "We have the power to pass stringent police laws to govern the Negroes—this is a blessing—for they must be controlled in some way or white people cannot live among them"
    • It might seem like those days are long behind us, but a routine audit of dashcam footage in June, 2020 by a police department in North Carolina revealed a conversation in which an officer referred to black people as "negroes" and said, "We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them (expletive). I can't wait. God, I can't wait" and that a new civil war was needed to "wipe them off the (expletive) map"
    • This certainly doesn't represent the mindset of most police officers, but it's important for us to remember how deeply entrenched some of these beliefs still are

Today, rather than seeing themselves as slave-hunters, many police are trained to see themselves as predators at war.

(This isn't an exaggeration; over 100 police departments across the country have been trained this way.)

  • Beyond the explicit racism piece, there's another troubling phenomenon associated with policing in the United States today: Increasing police militarization has given many police officers the mindset that they're at war
  • Many police departments been allowed to use military-grade weapons on civilians: armored vehicles, stun grenades, sound cannons, tear gas (during a pandemic of a respiratory disease), and more
  • These weapons are terrible. But, the attitudes that many police officers have been indoctrinated with can be even more dangerous
  • For the past 20 years, ex-Army Ranger and self-proclaimed "killology" expert Dave Grossman, has been training police officers at more than 100 departments across the country. He's a highly sought-after consultant (on the road over 200 days a year) who's worked with hundreds of agencies, including the FBI, the DEA, and more. Here are some direct quotes from him:
    • "We are at war. And our cops are the frontline troops in that war"
    • Commenting on Eric Garner, a black man who was killed by an illegal choke hold from the NYPD with the famous last words of, "I can't breathe," Grossman says: "If you can talk, you can breathe. The guy had a heart condition. The lesson is, don’t fight cops when you have a heart condition"
    • "Now you begin the process of orchestrating the instruments together in a symphony of death and destruction"
    • "Once you made the decision to take a human life, you're a transformed creature, you're a predator. What does a predator do? They kill. Only a killer can hunt a killer. Are you emotionally, spiritually, psychologically prepared to snuff out a human life in defense of innocent lives? If you can't make that decision, you need to find another job"
    • "Whenever we survey cops about use of deadly force, they consistently tell us the number one concern is what? ...getting sued... Don't be afraid of getting sued; everybody gets sued. It's just a chance for overtime"
  • Think about what that kind of training does to a person. You're told that you're a predator and you have to not be afraid to kill. You're told that you have to fight against your built-in mammalian resistance against killing your own kind
    • There's another point that isn't a conclusive correlation but seems relevant to point out here: There are very likely higher rates of domestic abuse in the families of police officers
    • There's a commonly-cited pair of studies that claim 40% of police commit domestic abuse against their partners. But, those studies are from the early 90s and don't seem trustworthy enough to use as solid proof. One other study suggested a rate of 24%
    • We should take both those numbers with a grain of salt. But, whatever the exact percentage is, those three studies do seem to point to a general truth that police officers are, to some degree at least, more likely to commit violence against their families
    • And again, it's not that they're necessarily bad people; but, it makes perfect sense that that kind of behavior would naturally come out of a system that trains humans to act like predators at war in their own neighborhoods
    • Perhaps an even more worrying set of facts came out of a New York Times investigation from 2013: Only 1% of police officers who failed a drug test (even for a small amount of marijuana) got to keep their jobs, along with 7% accused of theft. But, 28% accused of domestic violence were allowed to remain in their jobs
    • Domestic violence is terrifying to imagine among police officers because victims can have no one to call for help, especially if they know that many police will protect their own and that a quarter of abusive officers will get to keep their jobs
  • It's not that there are just a few "bad apple" police officers out there using excessive force on civilians (particularly people of color, and especially black people)
    • Rather, a large number of police departments have been specifically training their police not with the mindset of keeping the peace, but with one of being at war. Then, they've equipped them with the military hardware necessary to do just that
  • To be clear, the biggest problem is not with individual officers. Your takeaway here shouldn't be that police are bad people. Rather, all this behavior is the natural result of a dangerous system of laws, training, and structural racism

The "war on drugs" failed in its goal of stopping Americans from obtaining and using drugs. But, it succeeded in giving 1 in 9 black children an incarcerated parent.

Black people represent less than 13% of illicit drug users but 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses.

  • The failed "war on drugs" is another policy that has perpetuated racism and violence
  • Even if you're morally against drugs, the "war on drugs" hasn't succeeded in stopping drugs from getting into the hands of Americans. In fact, while the "war on drugs" has been going on, prices on illegal drugs have fallen and purity has increased. In other words, the "war on drugs" has been extraordinarily expensive and it has not succeeded in its goal
    • However, it has directly resulted in over 200,000 deaths in Mexico. And, it's disproportionately affected people of color here in this country: "African Americans represent 12.5% of illicit drug users, but 29% of those arrested for drug offenses and 33% of those incarcerated in state facilities for drug offenses" (also note that over 80% of drug arrests were for possession only)
      • (Quick note on these numbers: If you're like me, you might look at them and think there's a discrepancy. Earlier, I said that blacks are imprisoned on drug charges at 6 times the rate of whites. Yet here the data shows that blacks are 12.5% of drug users but 33% of those incarcerated on drug charges. 33% divided by 12.5% is not 6. But, statistics can be confusing, and after some thought I understood: Black people and white people might use drugs at a similar rate, but there are a lot more white people in the country. So, if racism weren't at play here, we would expect to see far fewer than 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses be black since the US is made up of 77% white people and only 13% black people)
    • This racial disparity in arrest and incarceration rates further perpetuates the economic disparity between black and white people because criminal records make it much harder to get hired for jobs. 1 in 9 black children has an incarcerated parent, compared to 1 in 57 white children
    • In other words, this is a powerful example of how black men being targeted by systemic racism through disproportionate drug arrests leads to a wide variety of other impacts on black families and black communities
  • Finally, if you still have any doubt that the "war on drugs" has been unjust—especially to black people—consider this quote from John Ehrlichman, a top advisor to Richard Nixon:
    • "The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? 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. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did."
  • Despite all this, the majority of individual police officers are likely good people trying to do their best within a challenging system
    • Although there has largely been a culture of "protecting their own" (known as the "blue wall of silence"), some police officers have also been outspoken about the need for change
    • For example, former CIA operations officer turned police officer Patrick Skinner said: "We need to change our mind-set about what it means to 'police' in America. At this moment of maximal national tension and outrage, when national leaders are calling the streets of America a 'battlespace,' with police officers as warriors who should 'dominate' and give 'no quarter,' I am telling whoever will listen: Police are not warriors — because we are not and must not be at war with our neighbors."
    • Until people like Patrick are listened to, however, police violence will continue to disproportionately impact people of color, especially black men and boys

1 in 1,000 black men are killed by police.

They're killed when they're out for a jog in their own neighborhood.

They're killed in their own homes.

And police are not held accountable.

  • In 2012Trayvon Martin was an unarmed 17-year-old who was shot and killed after being reported “suspicious” while visiting his dad’s fiancée
    • Travyon was not killed by a police officer, but his death was seen as a powerful example of how Americans so often project guilt on black men and boys
    • In particular, the outrage around Trayvon's death was due to a couple of key facts:
    • George Zimmerman, Trayvon's murderer, followed Trayvon around the neighborhood even after the 911 dispatcher told him not to (and even though he had no good reason to be suspicious of him)
    • Then, after shooting Trayvon, Zimmerman was found not-guilty due to a controversial "stand-your-ground" law which said that someone can protect themselves against a perceived threat—even though Zimmerman had been the threatening one stalking an unarmed 17-year-old boy
  • In 2014, several key events (among many others) contributed to the growing uproar over racial violence in this country (and in case it's not obvious, all four of these people were black):
    • Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed with his hands up, leading to the Ferguson protests
    • Sandra Bland was found dead in her jail cell after having been pulled over and dragged out of her car simply for failing to signal a lane change
    • Tamir Rice, age 12, was killed by police while playing with a toy pellet gun. It was realistic-looking, but they shot him within seconds of arriving (even though the person who had called the police told the 911 operator that the gun might not have been real)
    • Eric Garner was killed by police with an illegal choke hold while saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times
  • Black Lives Matter was birthed out of Trayvon Martin's death, but it really started trending after Michael Brown was killed. BLM came to stand for the need to address systemic racism and violence against black people, especially by police
    • The Black Lives Matter movement is not a way of saying that white lives don't matter or that the lives of police aren't important
    • Rather: Our society is organized such that it's already clear in many ways that white lives matter. In contrast, black people have been oppressed for hundreds of years in a wide variety of ways. Specifically, they're killed three times more often by police. So, "black lives matter" is a way of shining a light on that reality and saying that black people matter too—as full humans who deserve respect, dignity, safety, and fair treatment
    • Saying "all lives matter" is a way of (often unintentionally) moving the focus away from the struggles of black people and instead suggesting that all races face similar challenges. Looking at the data, that's simply not true
  • In 2020, several key events led up to the major protests across over 400 cities:
    • February: Ahmaud Arbery, was out jogging in his predominantly white neighborhood when he was hunted down and murdered by two white men (again, they weren't police, but they also weren’t arrested until the graphic video went viral)
    • March: Breonna Taylor was an EMT who was killed by police officers in her own apartment
    • April: The CDC showed that black Americans made up 30% of COVID-19 patients (despite being only 13% of the population). Worse, they showed stats like Wisconsin’s, where black people are 40% of COVID-19 fatalities but only 6% of the population. This item is not related to police, but it shows black Americans were already grappling with some very real effects of structural racism when George Floyd was killed
    • May: Christian Cooper was bird watching and asked a white woman, Amy Cooper (no relation), to leash her dog per the park rules. Amy called 911 and lied, saying “an African American man is threatening my life” (this is reminiscent of incidents from the past, such as when Emmett Till, age 14, was brutally murdered in 1955 after a white woman fabricated a claim against him)
    • May: George Floyd was arrested on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill at a market, and during the arrest the white police officer knelt with his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, murdering him while Floyd repeatedly said he couldn’t breathe
  • All of those incidents are connected, because they all came out of a system of institutional racism
    • The officer who murdered George Floyd had 18 complaints filed against him already. But this isn’t just a case of a few “bad apple” police officers. Police violence against black people has been happening for decades across the country
    • And, according to Mapping Police Violence, 99% of police killings from 2014-2019 did not result in officers being charged with a crime (let alone convicted)
  • Police unions make it incredibly hard to discipline and fire officers, even for egregious misconduct
    • A few years ago, police in Cleveland (where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed) started having to file a report every time they unholstered their gun and pointed it at someone. Their union head fought against it because he felt that the paperwork might make officers hesitant to pull out their guns
    • As the Washington Post reports: Since 2006, at least 1,881 police officers have been fired for offenses like: sexually abusing a 19-year-old, challenging a handcuffed man to fight for a chance to be released, and shooting an unarmed man. Those three officers were among the 451 (nearly 25%) who successfully appealed and won their jobs back thanks to union contracts

There's a centuries-old myth that black people are especially violent and prone to attacking white people.

The Justice Department's statistics branch has proven that that's not true (rather, violent crime is correlated with class rather than race).

Yet the myth continues to be spread by white supremacists, and it has deadly consequences.

  • The idea that black people are commonly attacking white people is a very old and false myth that's been spread by white supremacists. This fear that black people are violent and commit a disproportionately high amount of violent crime against white people was used first to justify slavery and then later lynchings
    • Black people were said to be inherently violent against white people, but the opposite was never said despite all the violence perpetuated by white people in lynchings
    • It's worth saying again: Huge crowds of white people regularly beat, hung, burned, and tortured black people. Yet black people were the ones said to be violent
  • It's commonly believed that black people commit more crimes than white people. But class (i.e., low socioeconomic status) correlates much more strongly with crime than race does
    • You'll learn in the next section that the median black family has ten times less wealth than the median white one. So, black people on average tend to grow up under much more challenging socio-economic circumstances than white people (e.g., in single-parent households, low-income neighborhoods, having a lack of positive role models, etc.)
    • Again, that’s because black people have had their rights and wealth systematically seized from them throughout American history, and they've historically only been allowed to work certain types of jobs, send their kids to certain schools, etc.
    • A lot of that institutionalized hardship only started changing as recently as the 1960s—less than two generations ago
  • And again, often it's not that people of color are committing more crimes but simply that they're arrested more often for them. Black people in New York are 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, even though there's not much evidence that they consume any more marijuana than white people do
  • Modern white supremacists talk a lot about "black on white" crime, yet the Justice Department showed in 2017 that the majority of violent crime was committed by people of the same race as their victims (the rate of "black-on-white" violent crime is four times lower than the "white-on-white" variety)
  • There's another element to this, too: Beyond just the false facts about "black on white" crime, simply calling it "black on white crime" or "black on black crime" is racist. It's just "crime." We don't call it "white on white" crime, even though the majority of crimes against white people in white communities are committed by other white people
  • The fact is that there will be more crime in neighborhoods where there is more poverty, fewer jobs, and less infrastructure. And, this is even harder in neighborhoods with a lot of people of color because many don't trust the police (for good reasons explained above)
    • As a POC living in a dangerous neighborhood, it can be extremely challenging to decide whether to call the police when you feel unsafe, knowing how common it is for them to turn against you and arrest or shoot you, even in your own home
    • It's been proven time and time again that police officers face very few consequences for use of force against black civilians
    • People of color are not crazy to be afraid of police. And if we white people believe in justice and equality for all, we should be pushing our police force to provide the same level of service to people and communities of color so that we can begin to reverse the centuries of harm that have been perpetuated on them

So, what's the solution?

  • The solution to solving crime, particularly in segregated neighborhoods, is not more police and more violence
  • As explained above, crime is not correlated with race but rather with socioeconomic level. There is more crime in neighborhoods that are racially-segregated, with fewer jobs, more poverty, and less infrastructure. Therefore, one solution is to fix the economic disparity
    • As of 2018, US police departments operated 849 mine resistant vehicles valued at nearly $700K each, not to mention their aircraft, utility trucks, combat assault vehicles, and other military equipment
    • That money could instead be spent on improving schools and infrastructure in areas with high crime rates
  • Another step in the right direction is strong police reform—for example, on June 13, Colorado passed a police reform bill that included things like: 
    • Requiring officers to use body-worn cameras
    • Banning chokeholds and carotid control holds
    • Charging officers who fail to stop other officers from using excessive force
    • Removing the qualified immunity defense so that people can sue officers for civil rights violations
    • Permanently taking away an officer's board certification if they plead guilty to excessive force or failure to intervene, and maintaining a public database of those officers
  • Those are important. But the bigger solution here is to stop using police as generalists who bring a gun to a huge variety of situations, most of which don't require it
    • This is what's behind the call to defund police departments, which has become increasingly demanded in the protests around George Floyd's murder
    • To be clear, completely defunding and eliminating police departments is likely too radical a step to take in the short term
      • (Although, many people do feel like incremental reform has been tried over and over again and has yet to be successful, largely because of the racist origins of policing in this country and the continual tie of law enforcement to racist and violent policies like the war on drugs, as explained earlier)
      • (Here is another excellent exploration of all that—click the "right arrow" just to the left of the vertical line to advance through the slides)
    • A better way of thinking about defunding might be "unbundling the police department"—to remove the bloat of policing and separate out its functions
  • Police handle everything from traffic accidents, to domestic violence, to speeding tickets, to investigating murders, to medical calls, to policing schools. Why should the same person be fulfilling all those varied roles? How can we expect the same person to skillfully act as a warrior sometimes and a calm mental health facilitator at other times?
    • Instead of sending in armed police officers to deal with all those diverse situations with varying needs, some of the money spent on police (especially police militarization) could instead be spent on other more specialist roles such as social workers, conflict resolution specialists, and people better-suited to dealing with challenging situations without resorting to violence
    • For example, in Eugene, Oregon, the CAHOOTS program provides mobile crisis intervention by people who specialize in mental health. Sending in that type of expert rather than an armed police officer makes a lot more sense for issues involving suicide attempts, substance abuse, conflict resolution, and a variety of other situations
    • In Portland, here's what one of the leading candidates for city council (and a black man) recently sent out: "If we were designing a public safety system from scratch, we would not invent the system we have today. Instead of sticking with the status quo or tinkering around the margins, let's build the public system we want. For me, that means a public safety system that has zero tolerance for racism. I want a public safety system that focuses on prevention, rehabilitation, and restorative justice. Portland should demilitarize its police force. It is never appropriate for police to shoot tear gas, flashbangs, and sound cannons at Portlanders peacefully protesting. And too often, Portland sends a cop to respond to a crisis when we should have sent a social worker"
    • This article includes four ways we could augment law enforcement with more specific roles: specialized traffic patrol officers, community mediators to handle minor disputes, a mobile crisis response unit for working with populations who are homeless or dealing with mental illness, and experimenting with community self-policing
  • The city council of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was murdered, just unanimously voted to abolish its police department and replace it with a community-led public safety system
  • At the same time (June 12, 2020), the New York City Council cut $1 billion from the NYPD's budget
  • In Seattle, the police abandoned a precinct on June 8 (2020) and handed over the area to the protesters there, who have claimed the area as a peaceful place managed by the Seattle people. There, protesters are handing out free food, creating art, and discussing how to design a city without a traditional police department
  • So, dramatic change is possible, and it's happening. Now is an excellent time for us to take a step back and imagine what role we actually want a police force to take in our society today