After Barack Obama was elected as the first African American president in a historic election in 2008, several pundits asserted that the country was entering a post-racial era where race would no longer be a determinant of life outcomes. But the seemingly unending collection of police videos and social media posts of African Americans who have died at the hands of police is a tragic reminder of how race continues to shape Black lives. The names Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Freddie Gray, Renisha McBride, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Philando Castile and Sandra Bland are part of growing roll call of Black death forever seared into our collective memory.
Many have asserted that these incidents represent an upsurge in police violence and have responded with sustained as well as episodic protest over the past two years. Historians and criminologists, however, argue that police violence against Black communities has always been disproportionate relative to the white community. So rather than an upsurge in police violence, what we are experiencing is increasing public awareness and politicization due to the ubiquity of video recordings that capture encounters and are shared globally through the power of viral social media.
It is instructive to bear in mind that during the Jim Crow era, violence against African Americans and the complicity of law enforcement were often documented in the form of photographs that were widely shared as festive postcards. The major difference between then and now is that Blacks lacked formal citizenship rights that in theory would have provided due process. With the gains of the Civil Rights Movement and increasing calls for respecting the human rights of African Americans, continued deaths at the hands of police raise disturbing questions about the nature of Black citizenship and a remarkably resilient ideology of racial difference. National data suggest that unarmed Black men are seven times as likely as unarmed white males to be shot and killed by police. In addition, African Americans are more likely to be stopped, searched, arrested and convicted.
So why does the pattern of racially iniquitous policing persist? The root causes of the disparity are systemic reflecting a pervasive ideology rooted in centuries-long white supremacy that views Black citizens as an undifferentiated “other”– criminally prone, violent, less deserving of constitutional protections, and an ever-present threat. This is in stark contrast to white Americans who are viewed as individuals, generally non-threatening and deserving of protection.
The videos document a disturbing pattern of police misconduct and have forced a contentious national conversation on race and policing by organizations like Black Lives Matter. Historically tragic deaths of Blacks during encounters with police were viewed with suspicion by segments of the larger white society who sided with police and invoked the notion that those killed were somehow deserving of the outcome.
The most recent deaths at the hands of police are the first time in American history, where the mistreatment of Black citizens by police can’t be easily ignored or downplayed. Social media has enabled the proliferation of citizen journalists who have made the country uncomfortably aware that police abuse is not an anomaly but rather a national pattern that continues to disproportionately impact Black lives. As such, thousands have been spurred by these deeply unsettling images to engage in protest. Americans have witnessed, perhaps for the first time since the freedom rides, sit-ins and marches of the civil rights movement, a joining together across racial lines of a nascent movement demanding far reaching reforms against the racial double standard in policing.
However, until we implement far reaching structural policy prescriptions, the litany of “tragic” deaths of Black Americans will continue to expand. A number of initiatives can be implemented to substantially reduce discriminatory policing. Collectively, these reforms have the potential to fundamentally change how policing is conducted in America:
- Adopting body and dashboard cameras would increase transparency and improve relations with community residents
- Diversifying police forces to mirror the communities they serve. This has been found to significantly reduce the number of violent encounters
- Providing police with ongoing training on racial bias. This would render salient the endemic stereotypes that associate Blacks with criminality and violence and undoubtedly shape life and death decisions by officers
- Creating federal guidelines to require local departments to comply with policies regarding the use of force as a means to decrease potentially volatile encounters
- Increasing police oversight by citizen review boards to foster accountability as citizens would independently hear complaints, audit data, recommend disciplinary action, subpoena records and identify areas of concern
- Reducing the over-criminalization of Black communities by curbing arrests for minor violations and eliminating traffic stops for minor infractions. This would substantially reduce encounters and the possibility of police violence
In retrospect, those who argued that the U.S. entered a post-racial age after President Obama’s election represent a pervasive misunderstanding of the ways in which race is profoundly embedded in American society. The reform of police interactions with Black Americans is one important step to address deeply entrenched structural discrimination that continues to perpetuate Black inequality. However, for Black lives to truly matter we must creatively address how other institutions in American society—educational, health care, political, job markets, media and financial services—continue to unduly disadvantage African Americans. By doing so we would begin the long overdue process of marshaling our political will to finally end entrenched racial inequality.
This post appeared as part of a Roosevelt House series on race and law enforcement. To read the rest of the series, click here.
Professor Browne is Chair of the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican/Latino Studies. He has taught at the university level since 1997 and joined the Department in 2001. He received his undergraduate degree from Cornell University and Master’s degree from UCLA. Trained as a sociologist, he earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University.
His research, scholarship and teaching concerns issues related to Black Diasporic communities with a focus on poverty, gentrification, Africana sociology, social movements and second generation immigrants. His most recent publications focused on the impact of the Great Recession on Black and Latino communities in New York City. Prof. Browne is currently completing a manuscript on the impact of gentrification in Central Brooklyn. He is the recipient of several grants and awards for his research including: the George M. Shuster faculty fellowship, several PSC-CUNY awards, and the CUNY Diversity Projects Development Fund. He is a Roosevelt House Faculty Associate, and a member of Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship Program and the Thomas Hunter Honors Program.
Prof. Browne is the former book review editor for the journal Wadabagei, and is currently vice-president of ATIRA Corp., a think tank focused on the African Diaspora. He has served as a consultant to several foundations and community based organizations around the issue of capacity building and neighborhood change. He is a longtime resident of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in Brooklyn, New York.