Black, White & Blue
Scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad talks with Brian Balogh about how many ethnic groups have shed their criminal reputations through police service, and the more complicated legacy of early African-American officers.
PETER: Welcome to the show. I’m Peter Onuf here with Brian Balogh.
BRIAN: Hey there, Peter.
PETER: [INAUDIBLE] Ed Ayers. Hey, we spoke this week to a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. His name is Thabiti Anyab– I’ve got going to say this right now.
THABITI ANYABWILE: Anyabwile.
THABITI ANYABWILE: Nobody calls me that, by the way. So at best, I’m past Thabiti. And lots of folks will just call me Pastor T.
PETER: When he was growing up in Lexington, North Carolina, in the 1970s, Pastor T used to daydream about what he was going to be when he grew up.
THABITI ANYABWILE: And my mom would pretty much always say, you can be anything you want to be in the world, including President of the United States. And I don’t know that I believed the president bit.
PETER: Oh, why not!
THABITI ANYABWILE: And so one day, one morning, I said to my mother, I want to be a police officer! And my mother’s face turned to marble, and she looked at me, and her voice dropped a couple of octaves, and she said, you will not be a police officer! And I was taken aback. And I asked why. And her comment to me was, I will not have you locking up our people. And that was the end of the conversation, and the end of any day dreaming about becoming a police officer. And of course, what she was beginning to introduce me to was a long narrative, a long history, of tension, conflict, mistrust, mistreatment between the police and African American communities.
PETER: That history was, in part, a family history. A generation earlier, Pastor T’s grandfather came home from World War II only to be greeted by a throng of clan members.
THABITI ANYABWILE: When stories were told of cross burnings and things of that sort, part of that story would be not just that the Klan burned a cross or rode through at night, but part of that story would be that you didn’t get any support from the police officers, or in fact many of the police officers were themselves Klansmen.
PETER: But that reflexive mistrust of police officers is not simply a product of family lore. These types of stories have been told by countless African Americans going back many, many generations.
THABITI ANYABWILE: If we look at the longer history of African American engagement with police forces in this country, whether that police force is returning runaway slaves, or whether that police force is enforcing segregation, one could understand the African American sojourn here as in part living in a police state.
PETER: Pastor T has children of his own now, two teenage girls and a seven-year-old son. And so we couldn’t help asking him what he would say to his own kids now if they told him they wanted to become cops. Would he discourage them, as his mother had discouraged him?
THABITI ANYABWILE: That’s a really good question. No, I don’t think I would tell them that. I don’t think I would pass on my mother’s counsel. We can’t ever hope for our institutions to continue to grow and to get better unless we send good people into them. I think the calling to be a police officer is as much a calling as is the calling to be a pastor. They are as much servants of God. And so I don’t think I would discourage him from that, if that’s what he felt like he wanted to give his life, too. I think I’d do my best to encourage him and help him to be wise in that.
BRIAN: On August 9, an unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a white police officer in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting of Michael Brown touched off mass protests that were met with a startling show of force by the Ferguson police.
The circumstances of the shooting are still not clear. But regardless of what’s still to come, the events of last month highlighted, once again, the deep mistrust of police that many Americans had been living with for years. So today on the show, we’re taking on this history of mistrust with an hour on the relationship between police and the communities they serve. We’ve got the story of how efforts to clean up corruption in the LAPD ended up putting cops above the law. We’ll hear what happened when a group of senators told the nation that police were to blame for riots in the 1960s. And we’ll look at the reasons police departments were created in the first place. A hint– it wasn’t to fight crime.