With the latest Black Lives Matter uprising dominating national attention, those who find the movement unsavory or uncomfortable are coming out of the shadows with claims that systemic racism in the United States is either overstated or a complete myth, including within the American policing system. It is evident that a large amount of this dissent stems from two issues: a gross oversimplification of the Black Lives Matter movement’s mission and ignorance of the history of America’s criminal justice and policing systems. I’ll take on the latter here.
A Sordid History
Many assume that the American policing system was founded with the sole purpose of upholding laws and has been an entity that has existed more or less since the country’s founding. This notion is largely incorrect. Modern American police departments were borne out of slave patrols and night watches, both of which were designed with the express purpose of controlling and monitoring minorities. Settlers of New England appointed Indian Constables to police Native Americans, and as America expanded its frontiers, the St. Louis Police Department was founded to protect St. Louis residents from Native Americans. The very first slave patrol was developed by the colony of Carolina in 1704 to help landowners in maintaining economic order and recovering and punishing escaped slaves. This was the foundation that was used to build modern police departments all around America.
Unlike what history textbooks in public schools will have us believe, the attitudes that perpetuated the “need” for slavery didn’t vanish after the Civil War ended. In fact, violence against Black Americans actually increased with the creation of vigilante groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Shirts, that resisted Reconstructionism. Even after policies like the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were passed, racism didn’t just vanish from America. Systemic racism still persists pervasively, whether it be in educational inequities, police brutality, or job discrimination. To put it simply: The system that America runs on has never existed without racism.
Prejudice against any minority is fueled and perpetuated by the fact that any ideology, political, religious, or otherwise that is utilized by masses fuels a need for a specific level of mythology to create order and in that search for order comes the capacity to oppress those considered ‘lesser than’ or as ‘the enemy’. In America’s society, that oppression falls onto minorities.
To quote Israeli historian and author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari (his book is free to read on Internet Archive); “The modern age has witnessed the rise of a number of new natural-law religions, such as liberalism, Communism, capitalism, nationalism, and Nazism. These creeds do not like to be called religions and refer to themselves as ideologies… If a religion is a system of human norms and values that is founded on the belief of superhuman order, then Soviet Communism was no less a religion than Islam.”
So how does this relate back to systemic racism in America?
America is so soaked in systemic discrimination that this article would turn into a dissertation if I tried to explain its effects item by item, so I’m going to focus on where it is most pertinent: the criminal justice system.
As cited previously, American police forces were borne out of slave patrols, which predisposes them to target minorities. Further, the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution allows slavery to be utilized as a punishment for crime in a criminal justice system that is infamous for targeting Black Americans. Other horrendous results of systemic racism include things like the ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy, the War on Drugs, the fact that Black Americans make up 34% of the American prison population despite making up only 13.4% of the general population, and the shocking citation that Black people are seven times more likely to be convicted of murder than white Americans.
There is no easy or fast solution to this issue since it’s deeply ingrained in centuries of history. However, it is important to acknowledge the fact that this issue is very real and deeply systemic. Dismissing it outright because it makes us uncomfortable is not how it will be solved. The first step to addressing this problem is acknowledging the reality of this issue and then taking a hard look at our own biases, both implicit and overt, and considering how they will affect the groups we hold bias towards. A good starter is asking ourselves two questions: How does my privilege separate me from other, less privileged individuals? How can I use my privilege to help those who lack it?
There is no formula. Unlearning bias is a deeply personal, complex, and laborious process but it’s a vital one if we are to create and live in a just and equitable world together.
Sadie Rose Honchock is a rising high school senior and founder of Young Artists for Justice, an initiative where young artists donate works to be sold with all proceeds going to a designated cause or charity. In her free time, she writes fiction, shows dogs, and draws. She hopes to one day be a staff lawyer for the ACLU.