Ferguson Burning: Race and the Law in America

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of  racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

To say that the application of the law in America is highly racialized is an understatement. In the eyes of many Americans, blackness is the unofficial color of criminality, and black men have long been stereotyped as a criminal class epitomized today by the image of what sociologist Kelly Welch calls the “young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug” that’s gonna come and kill whitey!! Indeed, the interconnection between race and crime in American culture is so historically ingrained — so culturally potent — that every time white police officers shoot a black man, the resulting fallout threatens to unleash a powder keg of racial anxieties that literally stretch back to the colonial era.

Thus, when it comes to crime and the law, the issue of race exists whether we want it to or not. As Welch notes in her 2007 article, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” “perceptions about the presumed racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race does not even need to be specifically mentioned  for a connection to be made between the two because it seems that ‘talking about crime is talking about race.'”*

The ramifications of this fact are currently on full display in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen year-old black man named Michael Brown. As always in such cases, reports of what actually happened are conflicting. A friend of Brown’s claims that the officer treated Brown belligerently, ordering him to “get the fuck off the sidewalk,” after which an altercation ensued and Brown tried to flee the scene, only to be shot by the officer. By contrast, the police claim that Brown assaulted the cop, and that after a struggle during which Brown tried to take the officer’s gun, he fired on Brown in self-defense.

But whatever happened, the fact that even the police admit that Brown was unarmed has brought long-standing racial tensions to a boiling point in Ferguson, and the resulting anger has resulted in multiple days of neighborhood protests and a rash of rioting and looting of store fronts that have turned Ferguson into a de-facto war zone. Using language that echoes the outrage following the Trayvon Martin verdict — which allowed pudgy, would-be Batman George Zimmerman to walk free — protesters have demanded justice for Brown, whom they believe was racially profiled and killed by white police officers who simply assumed that Brown was a potential criminal. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, maintains that her son was a good-natured individual who had just graduated high school and was preparing to attend local Vatterott College. She and the protesters believe that Brown was killed for the “crime” of being black.

Brown’s killing has sparked national attention, even resulting in the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black Americans have been posting dueling, side-by-side “good” and “bad” pictures of themselves to bring attention to the news media’s tendency towards portraying blacks in a criminal or “thuggish” light. Incidents like the Brown killing inspire a rash of strong feelings precisely because they are the product of an American tradition that has historically linked crime to blackness.

Throughout American history, being black quite simply meant that you could be punished more harshly for crime than a white person could. During the colonial era, when the southern American colonies developed into full-blown slaveholding societies from the seventeenth century onward, slaveholders deemed it necessary to sternly punish black slaves to deter individual acts of defiance as well as wholesale slave rebellion. Separate penal codes were enacted for slaves that permitted extracting confessions by torture, and blacks were sentenced to death much more frequently than whites. And colonial slave punishment was brutal: whipping, castration, branding, and amputations were common. The race-conscious makeup of colonial criminal justice set clear patterns for the future racialization of American justice.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

During the nineteenth century, as slavery spread further west and became the most important bedrock of the southern economic and social system, deviance and criminality became further associated with the threat of rebellious blacks. In his book The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere, historian Robert Cottrol notes that, “the racial rational for slavery in a society that otherwise celebrated freedom meant that the barriers between black and white had to be made more rigid, less permeable.”* One of these ways that racial barriers were made “less permeable” was the criminalization of blackness itself.

In the antebellum South, heavily armed, all-white “slave patrols” stalked the countryside in search of potentially wayward and runaway slaves who might disobey the tenant of white supremacy. These were the forerunners of “stand-your-ground law” motivated twenty-first century vigilantes and trigger-happy cops. After the Civil War abolished slavery, southern whites sought to reinstate racial dominance over blacks by associating blackness with deviancy. Whites characterized black males especially as sexually deranged potential criminals who wanted nothing more than to kill white men and rape white women. These charges resulted in thousands of vigilante lynchings in the South and beyond. When millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of better opportunities during the Great Migration, northern prejudice coalesced to concentrate blacks into segregated urban communities that, over the decades, became sights of racial strife and rioting.

One of the worst race riots in American history occurred a mere fourteen miles away from Ferguson, Missouri in an Illinois town that, in one of those eery historical coincidences, is called East St. Louis. Many blacks fleeing the racial intolerance of the Deep South settled in the industrial city of East St. Louis hoping to find work and a better overall life. The city’s white residents resented the influx of black newcomers and, as a result, racial tensions simmered. Those tensions exploded on July 2 and 3, 1917. Following a rumor on July 1 that a black man had killed a white man, the city’s white population went berserk. Rampaging white mobs — which included police officers — looted and torched black homes and businesses. Drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson reigned for nearly a week, and the chaos got so bad the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell the violence. When the riots finally stopped, white rioters had caused three-million dollars in property damage, razed multiple neighborhoods, killed hundreds of black residents, and forced seven thousand more to flee across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.

Historian Charles Lumpkins calls the July 1917 East St. Louis race riot an “American Pogrom,” referencing how Europeans had long targeted Jewish communities for spontaneous acts of violence and property damage. “The East St. Louis pogroms were but one episode in a violent and protracted struggle by various white factions to maintain legalized racism in the South and to reconfigure white supremacy into a form appropriate for the urban industrial North,” Lumpkins writes.*

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

The situation is obviously different in the case of the Michael Brown killing, but the same tensions and racial demographics that led to the 1917 race riots are still at play in 2014, albeit in forms that reflect how race and the law interact in contemporary American society. The mass-migration of blacks to northern cities helped create the racial tensions that, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, resulted in multiple violent altercations between whites and blacks. The subsequent rise of the black male as “menacing street thug” stereotype stems from a historical association of blackness with criminality that, when mixed with criminal statistics and race-based cultural perceptions, has combined to create a fuse that police gunshots often ignite.

As Welch writes, “blacks do account for a disproportionate amount of crime arrests and are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated.” But to claim that such statistics are clear evidence of an alleged black proclivity towards crime is a tenuous conclusion that can’t help but be clouded by centuries of historical baggage. Welch notes, for example, that “public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality,” and that “linking race with criminality” only “fuels the practice of racial profiling by criminal justice officials.”*

We don’t yet know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Obviously, black people — just like people of all shades — commit awful crimes. But if you want to know why there’s such an uproar over the police killing of an unarmed black man, and if you want to know why these incidences seem to happen enough that such uproars are now common, consider the long history that has inextricably wound race and the law together in American life.

* See Kelly Welch, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23 (Aug., 2007): 276, 286.

* See Robert J. Cottroll, The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and the Law in the American Hemisphere (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2013), 10.

* See Charles Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2008), 1, 8.

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  1. You identify yourself as an historian, yet you write, “By contrast, the officers claim that Brown assaulted them, and that after a struggle during which Brown tried to take their guns, they fired on him in self-defense.” But surely you know that there was only one police officer present? Why don’t you edit and correct this really egregious error? It is significant. NO ONE claims there were two officers present.
    Had there been two witnesses on the police side to balance the multiple other (ie. Black) witnesses, several assumptions would be more easily questioned. It is less likely that Mr. brown, visibly high, would have behaved as he did in the face of more force. It also likely that Officer Wilson would have felt quite so threatened by whatever happened.

    • Thanks for reading and good eye noticing my mistake: I clearly pluralized when there was, as you note, just one officer who shot Brown (I’ve since corrected the piece). I was aware of this when I wrote the piece, but for whatever reason, I pluralized. (although I did discuss Darren Wilson, the sole shooter, in a follow-up post). So yes, I make mistakes on occasion, as I’m pretty sure most humans do. That said, the overall point I was making in this post still stands.

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