As protests continue in Ferguson, Professor Julian Chambliss reflects on the historical racial divide that has shaped white and African-American experiences differently.
“Hands up, don’t shoot” has become a motto of the protests in Ferguson. (Photo by Joe Raedle, Getty Images)
As the details of the grand jury testimony come to light and pundits on both side of the issue make their public statements, I am reminded of the stark reality of how race defines policing differently for Americans. With recent research from the Pew Research Center highlighting that African-Americans and whites view police conduct and accountability differently, the decision from Ferguson merely adds to African-American’s belief that they should mistrust authority and affirms white ambivalence about black complaints.
Why? Since 1877, African-American experience has been defined by white efforts to control them in public space. While slavery’s end meant African-Americans were no longer property, the rise of Jim Crow segregation defined how African-Americans were allowed to participate in society. Today we dismiss the historic racist practice that said this is acceptable for whites, not for blacks; but the impact shapes our experience. Agrarian in thought and practice, the South evolved after Reconstruction by relying on an idealized image of “country” life that replaced slavery’s brutality with a halcyon view of white sacrifice, honor, and fealty. This regional redemption narrative was infused into the broader national dialogue through popular culture. Whether the idyllic plantation vision of Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus & Brer Rabbit stories or brutish stereotypes presented in D.W. Griffith’s classic silent film Birth of the Nation, African-Americans were trapped in stereotypical roles that portrayed African Americans as either children or fiends.
Denied equal education and constrained in employment opportunities after slavery’s end, African-Americans were nonetheless a needed part of the South’s economic plan. Blacks in rural counties continued to serve as agricultural labor, while African-American migrants to Southern cities found employment opportunities restricted to menial jobs. Beyond low wages and racist bosses, the New South economy also relied on the criminalization of African-Americans. For decades, “loitering” or “vagrancy” laws placed black men in jeopardy. As recently explored in Douglas Blackmon’s Slavery by Another Name, hundreds of thousands of African-Americans were arrested and then leased to work in industrial mines and work camps across the South. Using these laws affirmed white supremacy, continuing the racist practice of using black bodies to bolster the Southern economy. Southern rhetoric about criminality among African-Americans after the Civil War deftly omits this historical truth.
Americans rightly condemn the violence Southerners used to enforce their control today. But African-Americans share a cultural memory that links policing to the unfair treatment. African-Americans see a pattern of the “law” failing to combat the racism that suppressed their voices, controlled their bodies, and destroyed their property for decades. Often the target for that violence was black men, with special emphasis placed on controlling young black men. Monitoring black youth so they would “know their place” was central to segregation. While Southerners allowed white and black children to socialize in their pre-teen years, the onset of adolescence meant interactions must change and reinforce the prescribed racialized social order. The historic case of Emmett Till in 1955 hammers this point home. Till’s murder in Mississippi was prompted by his “flirting” (speaking) to a young white woman in a manner deemed “inappropriate” by local men. The men who killed him were schooled in the language and practice of the Ku Klux Klan.
Civil Rights activism may have stripped the KKK of its power and dismantled the outward signs of Jim Crow segregation, but control of black male bodies continues through policies linked to an endless war on drugs and crime. The documented disproportionate arrest and sentencing among African-Americans for drug possession is well known. In an effort to “protect” the community and stop crime, the police observe, assess, and intercede in the lives of young males every day. Shockingly, we accept that minority youth should accept this surveillance while refusing to acknowledge the societal conditioning that makes them objects of suspicion. Despite studies showing discrimination in employment, policing, and housing, white Americans today seem shocked that the black community cannot easily accept the decision from Ferguson.
While black and white critics speaks of an “epidemic” of the unarmed shooting of African-American males, for communities of color these recent incidents are a reminder that black experiences remain defined by white judgment about the value of black bodies. Americans of every background will protest this verdict, but revoking the license to criminalize black and brown bodies requires recognition of the historic roots that inform our experiences. The gap between what society expects and what we experience is so racialized that refusing to acknowledge this fact guarantees that white and black frustrations will continue with tragic results.
Julian Chambliss is an associate professor of history at Rollins College. His teaching and research focus urban history and culture in the U.S. He also serves as coordinator of the Africa and African-American Studies Program at Rollins, and coordinator of the Media, Arts, and Culture Special Interest Section for the Florida Conference of Historians.