The year 2014 was an especially tumultuous year if you happened to be a black person or a police officer in the United States. The high-profile killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice revealed the continued high cost of existing-while-black in America, while the cold-blooded murder of New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by a mentally ill sociopath named Ismaaiyl Brinsley on December 20 has left New York City’s police force embroiled in a dispute with the city’s black community over issues of police safety and the NYPD’s checkered history with people of color. As the Big Apple’s police force tries to move forward in the wake of the brutal slaying of two of its own, the tensions between minorities and cops that so ravaged America in 2014 once again bubbled to the surface of the national consciousness.
But amidst the tensions in New York, a small group of protesters braved the cold and debauchery of New Year’s Eve to hold a vigil reminding America that #BlackLivesMatter. Because, above all else, the historical association of blackness with crime in America is at the heart of the controversies between police and minority communities that wracked the nation in 2014. This piece will explain why the interconnectedness of blackness and criminality in U.S. history continued to fuel tensions between police and the black community in 2014.
As the bodies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice lie alongside those of thousands of other black men taken out by America’s ivory-wrapped justice system, one thing remains abundantly clear: the U.S. has moved beyond the need to have a “conversation” about race and has lunged head-first into the intervention deep end. You can’t converse about something that you don’t understand, and what far too many white Americans don’t understand is that, in the land where All Men are Created Equal, black lives have always mattered less than white ones. In the U.S., blackness has historically been associated with criminality, and to the nation’s trigger-happy white majority, crime still wears a permanent blackface. Citizens like Brown, Garner, and Rice were killed because they were perceived as the worst kind of threat to white America: a black one.
But lest you think that this paralyzing fear of rage-filled blackness is something new, you can take sub-zero comfort in the knowledge that, from the beginning, race has always been inseparable from the issue of crime and punishment. The notion that black criminality is something different — something more primal; more savage than even the most heinous of white transgressions — is deeply encoded into America’s historical DNA.
There’s a cultural notion that slavery was America’s original sin — a sin redeemed through the blood and fire of the Civil War. But if slavery was America’s original sin, then the racism that underlay the peculiar institution was the violent Cain that slew its equality-prone national Abel. The ever tiresome call for a “conversation about race” in the wake of more black men being felled by police is actually a continuation of America’s long-unheeded need to critically reflect on the historical legacy that, to this day, still defines blacks (if not explicitly, then implicitly) as unequal to whites under the law — and singles them out for mortal retribution. The modern sound of bullet-riddled black bodies hitting the pavement echoes back to previous eras when chattering mobs gathered to mock the strange fruit hanging from trees in America’s heartland; when the snap of the lash unleashed howls that dissipated into the wailing wind.
Since the seventeenth century, American justice systems have reserved special — and more brutal — punishments for black criminality. In the colonial era, as slavery cemented its hold on the economy and culture of the South, blacks accused of crimes weren’t just breaking the law: they were fomenting potential rebellion against their white masters. Then, as now, the specter of black violence threatened to upend established racial hierarchies. The American colonies created separate penal codes for slaves known as slave codes, and these codes encouraged legalized brutality.
White colonists extracted black confessions via all manner of torture; including whipping, burning, branding, castration, and amputation. Blacks were sentenced to death at a far greater rate than whites in the American colonies, and the earliest slave codes provided a template for future racial violence, in which the worst notions of violent crime became associated with blackness. As historian Manfred Berg writes, “The slave codes singled out blacks for extremely cruel punishment, thus marking black bodies as innately inferior. By degrading blacks to hapless objects of nearly unlimited physical violence…whites demonstrated their beliefs that blacks must be less than fully human.” During the antebellum era, slavery expanded further into the South, and with its expansion came a collective belief that blacks were a potentially violent rocky coast in a sea of white dominance. In a region that relied on institutionalized violence to keep its human property in check, the fear of black rebellion nurtured an incessant white paranoia.
In the decades before the Civil War, local and statewide militias sprouted up throughout Dixie as a means of squelching alleged black deviance. Known as slave patrols or plantation police, these vigilante groups first formed in seventeenth century South Carolina but soon became widespread. The patrols were usually composed of a group of white local yokels of varying repute, and they roamed the back roads and countryside — in Zimmerman-esque fashion — looking for wayward blacks who were in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. Slaves caught by the patrols had to produce a pass, signed by their masters, detailing the period of time during which they were allowed to stray from their home farm or plantation.
The patrols ostensibly sought to strangle black criminality in its cradle before it could grow into the demon of insurrection, but abuse flourished: female slaves were frequently raped and patrollers often didn’t think twice about using sticks, lashes, and other weapons to cleave chunks of flesh from captured slaves’ backs. In her definitive history, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas, historian Sally Hadden notes how slaves became “easy and immediate targets of racial brutality,” as slave patrols signified “the creation of racially focused law enforcement groups in the American South.” This trend became more pronounced during the first half of the nineteenth century, during which the increasing sectional hostility between free and slave states raised the specter of slave rebellion fomented by abolitionist radicalism.
In the months leading up to the Civil War, the perceived threat of black criminality nearly turned the entire white South into a squirming mass of porcelain anxiety. Spurred by the fear that the deviant black hordes in their midst, fueled by delusional visions of Yankee-spurred liberation, would unleash a race war, the white master class decided to get proactive.
Take the example of Mississippi, the Deep South state where enslaved blacks outnumbered whites 55 to 44 percent. The election of Republican Abraham Lincoln — a staunch opponent of slavery’s western expansion — to the U.S. presidency in 1860 unleashed the paranoia that has long been festering beneath the surface of race relations in this black majority state. The plantation-rich counties along the Mississippi Delta, where thousands of slaves endured broken backs and broken spirits as they dredged swampland and harvested cotton amidst dark clouds of malaria-packing mosquitos, was ground zero for fears of black crime.
In 1861, rumors of a slave insurrection roused the white population of Adams County (one of the wealthiest counties in America at the time thanks to its concentration of human chattel) into a panic. In response, all-white vigilance committees (the local slave patrols) arrested, tortured, and executed dozens of slaves in Natchez and the nearby Second Creek plantations for supposedly plotting to burn the city down, murder white men, and rape white women. Louisa Lovell, one of the county’s many privileged white southern belles, described how the vigilance committees were “constantly on the alert arresting and confining suspected [black] individuals — many around us have been found guilty and hung.” Lovell even had sentinels posted around her home. “It is indeed a tumultuous time,” she concluded, “no one is safe.”
Of course, in this racially charged environment, the truth wasn’t safe either: it lay as a casualty alongside the dozens of lash-painted black bodies. The so-called Second Creek Insurrection was almost certainly the product of white delusion fed by a war that threatened to unleash the horror of black freedom. White inquisitors obtained slave “confessions” through torture and took the records of this supposed plot. Nonetheless, the Second Creek Insurrection demonstrated a pattern of white fears of black criminality that would only increase in the war’s aftermath.
The demise of slavery necessitated new ways for a white supremacist society to clamp down on black freedom in the decades after Confederate surrender. One way to do this was by creating a cultural meme — drawn from antebellum traditions — that cast blacks as an inherently criminal class. To unreconstructed racists South and North, emancipation and Republican Party policies bequeathed undeserved rights unto blacks, and, as the legacy of slave patrols and vigilance committees already demonstrated, the realm of formal law was never enough to regulate the all-important color line.
Thus, during the Reconstruction era, white-hooded domestic terrorists who dubbed themselves the Ku Klux Klan rained bodily violence and property destruction on blacks who dared to assert their constitutionally guaranteed post-war rights. When the end of Reconstruction finally re-solidified white rule in the South, old (white) sectional rivals agreed to a “reconciliation” policy that cast the Civil War as a heroic struggle between honorable Caucasian factions while ignoring the war’s still-unfinished legacy of tumultuous race relations.
Lost in this orgy of white feel-goodness were African-Americans, whose day-to-day experiences still revealed the very real limits of black freedom. As historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad writes in his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, black freedom fueled “far-reaching anxieties among white Americans.” As the nineteenth century came to a close, Jim Crow laws and a broader cultural system of racial surveillance further institutionalized the criminalization of blackness in the eyes of white America. Muhammad notes that, for whites of all backgrounds, from southern conservatives to northern progressives, “African American criminality became one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or acceptance of racial violence as an instrument of public safety.”
The association of blackness with criminality that was forged in the nineteenth century still drives much of modern U.S. politics. It’s no coincidence that Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice all lived in racially segregated cities. As historian Thomas Sugrue observes in The Origins of the Urban Crisis, “Central-city residence, race, joblessness, and poverty have become inextricably intertwined in post-industrial urban America.” Following the twentieth-century Great Migration of African-Americans northward, the cultural meme of the rebellion-obsessed rural slave gave way to the tamer, but no less consequential image of the lazy, violence-prone, black urban criminal. Indeed, the Great Migration brought what had traditionally been a southern white “problem” — a large population of “unruly” blacks — to the North, and Yankee reactionaries reacted with their own brand of segregationist policies. Over the course of the twentieth century, through a combination of redlining, white flight, discriminatory housing laws, and the “creative destruction” of deindustrialization, America’s cities became poverty traps for many blacks who couldn’t follow whites into prosperous suburban enclaves.
Moreover, the spark of white rage that once fueled the slave patrols, vigilance committees, and Klan activity that monitored southern black deviance in the past proved plenty adaptable — albeit to specific regional circumstances — above the Mason-Dixon Line. One only need look at the 1968 presidential campaign of George Wallace, Alabama’s flamboyant arch-segregationist, to understand how racially charged “backlash” politics played out on a national basis.
Speaking to a rapt audience of over 20,000 at New York’s Madison Square Garden on October 24, 1968, Wallace warned that, “Anarchy prevails today in the streets of the large cities of our country.” And while he claimed that he wasn’t “talking about race” — and blamed urban social unrest on a motley assortment of anarchists, activists, militants, revolutionaries, and communists — the implicit threat posed by black criminality underlay the entirety of his campaign. Wallace tipped his hand when he promised New Yorkers that, “Not one dime of your federal money is going to be used to bus anybody any place that you don’t want them to be bussed in New York or any other state.” That “anybody” was, of course, African-Americans, and Wallace was throwing a huge political bone to northern whites who didn’t want blacks, whom they associated with poverty, violence, and crime, attending schools with white kids on the government’s orders. Wallace railed against all manner of agitators, including liberals of all colors, but when he dog-whistled “law and order” to white America, he didn’t need to invoke segregation. All it took was a reference to “busing” to convey what group threatened those cherished American pillars.
Even a fleeting glimpse of much of white America’s response to the recent police killings of black men reveals just how ingrained the historical association of blackness with criminality has become in U.S. society. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, for example, stated that while it was “a horrible thing” that Michael Brown was killed, he could have avoided death had he “behaved like something other than a thug.” A cruise through the right-wing internet sludge-o-sphere highlights similar knee-jerk thoughts: Michael Brown was “a criminal and a thug,” just like “Trayvon Martin was a little thug, well on his way to a prison cell.” A bar owner in St. Louis even thought it was humorous to offer a “Mike Brown Special,” consisting of six shots for $10.
These types of reactions vividly demonstrate how black life is devalued in a society that has always relied on violence to snuff it out. Sometimes, black life isn’t even worth the tragedy of retribution; it’s brushed away with a wink-and-a-nod to a white populace that’s already in on the joke that black lives are criminal lives, and deserve to be treated with contempt and mockery. As the New York Times notoriously stated, Michael Brown was “no angel:” he swiped some cheap cigars from a convenience store, and for that, he apparently deserved to die. One less slave to foment rebellion; one less thug to poison the streets.
In America, black bodies aren’t mourned; black lives aren’t nuanced, and black feelings aren’t respected. But this is nothing new. Since the colonial era, blackness has been associated with criminality, and the crime of being black has been special grounds for violent punishment. Just as white Americans in the antebellum era couldn’t fathom what it meant to be marked as dangerous chattel that had to be endlessly monitored, suppressed, and punished, whites in modern America can’t understand what it means to be marked for suspicion, fear, mistrust, and even death based solely on the color of their skin.
Certainly, there are black people who are criminals, just as there are white people who are criminals. No one has ever suggested otherwise. But white people who are criminals are just that: criminals. Blacks, on the other hand, are black criminals; their skin color an instantly recognizable symbol of everything white America has feared over the centuries. Until that history is fully understood; until that history is connected to the contemporary world it created, more Michael Browns, more Eric Garners, and more Tamir Rices will fall to the ground, the victims of a culture that rarely gives a second thought to the idea that black life is better off dead.
* See Manfred Berg, Popular Justice: A History of Lynching in America (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011).
* See Sally Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
* See Khalil Gibran Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).
* See Thomas Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).