When the System is Rooted in White Supremacy
“The system worked in the sense that it performed the function it was designed to perform; to kill Black people and either justify it, cover it up, or both. This is the system, this has always been the system, and yes: the system worked.”1
We often hear that the atrocities police commit against people of color are just a matter of a few bad apples. The cop who shoots and kills an unarmed black person was a rogue; a rare rotten apple to be weeded out of the bushel. Sure, the cop may have been clad in body armor the Terminator himself would envy, but perhaps he thought [insert non-lethal object here] was a weapon, and feared for his safety. Perhaps the suspect even had a criminal record and the cop had to make a “split-second” decision to end their life. If only the victim had not been a criminal. If only the victim had followed instructions. If only the victim had been more polite, they might still be alive today. Or, just as common, if only this one bad apple cop had been trained properly or removed from the force, the system would have worked correctly. Whether in the form of victim-blaming or a failure-of-the-system rationale, these justifications paint a distorted picture of the true role of police in society.
Make no mistake about it, when police engage in violence against people of color, they are doing just what they were intended to do. It is not now nor has it ever been a failure of the system due to a few bad apples. If you’re black or brown or poor in this country, the police were never there to protect and serve you. The institution of policing is fundamentally rooted in the creation and maintenance of an economic class system for which white supremacist ideology provides an integral driving force.
Modern-day police forces in the United States trace their roots to slave patrols in the South and the emergence of wage-labor capitalism in the mid-to-late-19th century.2 “Slave patrols helped to maintain the economic order and to assist the wealthy landowners in recovering and punishing slaves who . . . were considered property.”3 In Northern cities, municipal governments run by the upper class hired thousands of armed men to violently quell the revolts of wage-workers, many of whom were immigrants. During Jim Crow, police targeted black people for crimes of poverty, removing them from their communities and locking them in jails and prisons.5 Today, that tactic endures; police continue to haunt black and brown neighborhoods, disproportionately arresting and filling the United States’ monstrous prison archipelago with poor people of color.
Despite the prevalence of victim-blaming and failure-of-the-system justifications when a cop kills yet another person of color, the primary purpose of the police remains the same as it has always been: “to enforce order among those with the most reason to resent the system – in our society today, disproportionately among poor black people.”7 It’s time to stop with the victim blaming and realize that the entire bushel is rotten.