Culture Wars/Current Controversies

How racist policing took over American cities, explained by a historian

Modern policing systems were developed in England in the early 19th century, during the early period of the Industrial Revolution, for the purpose of controlling what were called the “dangerous classes,” i.e. workers. In America, the racial caste system was enacted parallel to the system of class stratification, so class subordination overlapped with racial subordination. A cop once told me that the purpose of the police is to protect the middle class from the lower class in order to secure the loyalty of the middle class to the ruling class.

By Anna North

Eugene Williams, a 17-year-old black boy, was stoned to death by white people in 1919 after he swam into what they deemed the wrong part of Lake Michigan.

In response, black people in Chicago rose up in protest, and white people attacked them. More than 500 people were injured and 38 were killed. Afterward, the city convened a commission to study the causes of the violence.

The commission found “systemic participation in mob violence by the police,” Khalil Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and author of the book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, told Vox. “When police officers had the choice to protect black people from white mob violence, they chose to either aid and abet white mobs or to disarm black people or to arrest them.”


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