Segment from Serve & Protect?

Running the Riot

Legal scholar Alasdair Roberts talks with Peter Onuf about the beginnings of municipal police departments in the U.S., which were organized not to stop or solve crime, but to maintain public order.

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Over the past few weeks, Ferguson has come to stand in for a problem afflicting towns and cities around the country, namely the stark racial disparity between police and the people they’re policing. Ferguson is a town that’s 67% African American, but only 4 of its 53 police officers are black. There are a lot of explanations for this disparity, but what’s clear is that it represents a real departure from the way minority groups used to move through the ranks of urban police. For immigrants in the 19th century, it basically amounted to a patronage system. You give me a job on the police force, and in exchange, I help turn out my fellow countrymen to vote for you in the next election. And I do that again and again if you need it.

MALE SPEAKER: If you’re talking about the Irish of the 1840s, they are displacing over time a German immigrant of an earlier generation.

BRIAN: This is historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: If you’re talking about Southern Italians of the 1890s and the turn of the 20th century, they’re vying for spots against a very entrenched Irish immigrant and Irish American police force. So depending on where you are in your American journey depends on how quickly one can ascend to the ranks of the men in blue.

BRIAN: It was in this way that a succession of immigrant groups, groups that at first were thought of as being especially prone to criminality, effectively shed that reputation, moving into positions of political and economic power eventually.

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Those uniforms represented an arrival, so to speak, for the community of being fully incorporated or Americanized or even assimilated to this country. They were able to essentially decriminalize their own community by virtue of both representing law and order when necessary but also demonstrating that the state itself cared about them and the social contract.

BRIAN: What happens when African Americans begin moving north in large numbers? Let’s say during World War I or served during World War II, did they have those same opportunities to become police officers?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: They did, over time, but their options were far fewer, meaning that the number of slots on any given police force, New York City, for example, had a very small number. In fact, so small a number in the beginning, single digits. And these were truly token opportunities. More interestingly, they were usually attached to the increasing presence of African Americans or Caribbean immigrants in particular neighborhoods. So if you look across the country at the turn of the 20th century, or even in the great migration period in the north, you’ll see that most black officers are only policing the black community, which also further limited their options.

To a degree, that was true for other European immigrants, as well. But those barriers to policing beyond the ethnic ghetto fell much quicker than they did for the black one.


KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: Well, because black police officers outside of the south in particular, it was not socially acceptable for them to police white communities. So regardless of their rank or title, they were generally restricted to only policing the black community.

BRIAN: But in those instances where African Americans were police officers in their own communities, did that alchemy work in a similar fashion?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: It didn’t work because black people were only policing black people. But going back to the mixed communities of European immigrants, if you’re an Italian American or an Italian immigrant and you’re in a heterogeneous population of Irish and Jews and Polish Catholics and others, whatever stigma was attached to your particular subgroup eventually sheds because people get to know you as Officer Kelly, or I like to joke, Officer Giuliani. So this is the Irish and the Italian book end to the process of not seeing the particular European nationality as particularly threatening. Not for nothing, Ray Kelly represents a tradition of Irish Americans, a former commissioner of police here, and Rudolph Giuliani represents a tradition as a chief law enforcement officer, as a former federal attorney, of Italian American succession.

But outside of the south and across the north and west of this country, you still have never had a heyday of ethnic succession following black people into our police forces. They are, to this day, overwhelmingly white even though in our inner cities, in our urban communities, the population is not nearly as white as are the police forces.

BRIAN: I want to drill down into that, Khalil. I was listening to cable news. I don’t even remember which channel. And I heard a pundit talk about there not being black police officers in Ferguson because there wasn’t a tradition of policing in the black community. How would you respond to that fellow?

KHALIL GIBRAN MUHAMMAD: I think when we talk about tradition, we can document with great evidence tremendous optimism and interest in participating in all forms of civil society, including policing, and that these were always perceived to be jobs for people who had good hearts and were committed to their own upward mobility. And so African Americans have always pursued these jobs commensurate with their own American dream aspirations.

And it’s only in the midst of the last 30 or 40 years, in the wake of the great disappointments of economic and social mobility since the civil rights movement, that we can introduce this variable of community distrust of policing. It’s not to say that after Americans didn’t distrust policing at the turn of the 20th century. But they did so far less today because they could imagine a world without segregation prior to the civil rights movement. The problem you have now is we live in a post-civil rights moment and it’s really kind of hard to imagine what does America look like without this new form of Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander frames it?

So all I’m suggesting is that perhaps there is something to be said about less enthusiasm among 15 and 17-year-olds for joining police forces given policies like stop and frisk. But that’s not representative of a tradition. That’s representative of the contemporary realities of discriminatory and abusive policing in black communities.

BRIAN: Khalil Gibran Muhammad is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. He’s the author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

PETER: It’s time for a quick break. But stick around. When we get back, mob rule in the streets of Philadelphia. The police were nowhere to be found because they hadn’t even been invented yet.