Peniel E. Joseph is a professor at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs, and author of Waiting 'til the Midnight Hour: A Narrative History of Black Power in America
The extraordinary past week of violence witnessed in the United States is the direct result of 50 years of racist criminal justice public policy and an even longer history of racial oppression in the justice system. In a span of three days, two black men – Alton Sterling of Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota – were killed in police shootings that went viral on social media, culminating in nationwide protests that ended in further tragedy in Dallas on Thursday night when five police officers were ruthlessly killed by sniper fire.
The week's litany of horrors are not rooted in one single incident, but a deeper history of race and criminal justice.
By virtue of their original standing as a species of property during the system of antebellum slavery, black Americans have always had a star-crossed relationship with legal and legislative systems of justice. Slavery's aftermath of Reconstruction featured constitutional amendments designed to ensure black freedom and citizenship that were subverted by Black Codes and legal manoeuvres that stripped African Americans of voting rights.
The convict-lease system was the most brutal of these mechanisms, arbitrarily arresting and incarcerating black men and women, whose labour was then "leased" to private businesses that paid local municipalities a fee for the service. The high cost of this unpaid black labour was broken bodies, agonizing deaths, and lost trust between the black community and law enforcement.
The black relationship with law enforcement has historically been not only adversarial but exploitative as well, with blacks being used to generate resources for local municipalities – a practice that continues to this day via private prisons, mass incarceration, and federal Byrne grants to law enforcement – and as cultural scapegoats. In the late 19th and early 20th century the practice of lynching blacks for largely fictitious assaults against white women and became a symbolic marker of black criminality.
The grotesque spectacle of lynching normalized horrific brutality against black bodies in one era, just as the videotaped killings of black people do in our own.
During the civil rights movement's heroic period, Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer turned the shame and humiliation associated with arrest and incarceration into a badge of honor, a public act of civil disobedience and defiance that exposed the corruption of the justice system as well as the larger society. Black Power activists such as Black Panther leader Huey Newton put America's entire legal and political system on trial as racist and unworthy of the nation's founding ideals.
The black freedom struggle of the 1960s triggered roiling political debates over race, crime, and policing. Between 1964 and 1968, U.S. cities experienced more than 350 separate incidents of civil disturbance, what critics called riots and activists characterized as rebellions. The largest of these occurred in Watts (Los Angeles), in 1965, and Newark and Detroit two years later. The scope and power of these eruptions dwarf the Los Angeles riots of 1992 and explosions in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore last year.
America's post-civil-rights landscape criminalized black people and whole communities on an unprecedented scale, setting the stage for a system of mass incarceration that echoes aspects of the post-Reconstruction convict-lease system and the spectacles of lynching. The nationalization of federal crime policy in the 1960s incentivized states, cities, and local municipalities to fight crime through arresting poor black people.
President Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs in the 1970s that New York State governor Nelson Rockefeller attempted to win through draconian sentencing policies – including mandatory minimums – that would become national policy by the 1980s.
Although blacks historically were disproportionately targeted by law enforcement, this relationship grew more intimate and deadly via the Ronald Reagan era War On Drugs. The crack epidemic frightened and shamed government officials into enacting bi-partisan legislation that dramatically increased the number of blacks in jail. American went from roughly 500,000 prisoners in 1980 to 2.3 million 30 years later, the biggest prison state in the world, with almost half of its inmates being black.
Things got worse for blacks in the 1990s, as the young neoliberal president Bill Clinton double-downed on punitive race-based policy measures through a crime and welfare reform bill that made it impossible for ex-offenders to transition back to families via federal assistance, employment aid, education, housing, food stamps, and mental and physical health insurance.
The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014 helped inspire a Black Lives Matter movement that argued that the criminal justice system represented a gateway to racial oppression. Organizing hundreds of demonstrations across the nation that have shut down highways, inspired a new generation of social justice activists, and placed the issue of black equality at the centre of a national conversation the BLM movement also pushed for policy changes that have resulted in a consent decree between the Justice Department and Ferguson and prodded President Barack Obama to visit a federal prison and advocate criminal justice reform.
The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile evoke the past spectacle of lynching but with a twist, since these images are widely broadcast to spur protest in citizens and inspire shame in public officials.
Peaceful demonstrators and good police officers are not to blame for these tragedies, which reflect a larger historical and policy context that politicians, thought leaders, clergy, and activists must confront in order to transform American society.
If this week of horrors is to have lasting significance it will come through enacting bold policy reforms that will memorialize the dead and their families by ensuring that such events remain relegated to our national past.