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Police Training Should Start With a History Lesson on Slavery Laws

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A recent study on police interactions shows what black Americans already know: Police interact in a less respectful manner toward them than they do white Americans. Based on police-camera audio from the Oakland, Calif., Police Department, this evidence is being used to support a change in police training regarding how to teach police to show respect toward all citizens. Give me a break. Police training should really start with an American history lesson on slavery laws.

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Why? The uncomfortable truth about why there is a cultural chasm between the way blacks and whites view the police is that the black experience with the police today is directly related to how the police treated slaves. The view of police by black Americans is rooted in a history that goes beyond the Rodney King tape, released a quarter of a century ago, or the tapes of the shootings of Terence Crutcher, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile or Walter Scott. Harvard professor Stephen Carter has already written about the slave patrols, and the fact that the police system we have today grew out of a community organization of Southern white men who desired to maintain slavery by terrorizing blacks and controlling them with violence.

The historical distrust between the black community and the police goes beyond the origins of the police and how they continued to actively support white supremacy, participating in and condoning lynching during Reconstruction. Past the killing of innocent blacks, there is the immunity police have for their actions. Police are virtually assured that they will not bear any punishment for killing a black man, woman or child, regardless of the circumstances. This security is also rooted in slave laws.

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Even if a slave owner or the slave patrol were to kill a black slave or free man, there were many justifications within the law that basically erased the crime. The 1705 Virginia Slave Act declared that it was not murder for a white man to kill a Negro slave, and most Southern states had similar laws until the late 18th century. Justifications for slave homicide included when a slave “forcibly” resisted arrest or resisted any order of any patrol or officer of the law, “in such a manner as to cause reasonable fear of loss of life, or of great bodily harm.” It should be noted that the government does not even keep track of today’s justifiable homicides by police.

At the end of this trip down history lane is the judicial system, which includes jurors who consistently acquit white officers who use the standard defense for the death of black citizens: “I was in fear for my life.” Sound familiar? The similar language of the slave codes and the arrest laws in certain states should cause citizens to pause and consider if our laws support homicides that are in fact unjustified and grounded in racial hostility. While these laws may explain the behavior of police, what explains the consistent outcome of “not guilty” by citizens?

The fact that many whites trust police more and believe that there is anti-police bias in the black community is actually counter to the plain facts of American police conduct. Police have been killing blacks with legal freedom from punishment for over three centuries. When whites learn and accept the truth about the terrorism that has been a large part of police culture, which has bred anti-black bias, we may be closer to improving police training. And perhaps we will be closer to a more complete education of citizens—which could change how we respect one another.

The Root aims to foster and advance conversations about issues relevant to the black Diaspora by presenting a variety of opinions from all perspectives, whether or not those opinions are shared by our editorial staff.

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Jessica Dixon Weaver is an associate professor at SMU Dedman School of Law and writes about the intersection of race, family and the law. She is a 2017 Dallas Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. 

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DISCUSSION

Hoyo Afrika

“I was in fear for my life.”

Part of this sentiment actually was brought with them from Europe. Greco-Roman philosophers, due to their ignorance of geography and how large Africa beyond the Sahara actually was, imagined that Africans were monsters and creatures that were not quite human. The worst offender of this bunch was the Roman philosopher and historian Pliny the Elder. According to Frank Snow’s Before Color Prejudice: The Ancient View of Blacks:

Included among the inhabitants of the inner Africa, according to Pliny the Elder, were the Trogodytae, who had no voices but made squeaking noises; the Blemmyae, who had no heads and their mouths and eyes attached to their chests; the Himantopodes (Strapfoots) with feet resembling leather thongs, who crawled instead of walking; and noseless and mouthless tribes, who through a single orifice breathed, ate, and drank by means of oat straws (Snowden 51).

Since most of Western civilization is based on the writings of Greco-Roman thinkers, it is easy to see how much views would be transmitted to the plantations of North & South America. When one isn’t seen as human, it is far easier to dismiss their pain, their travails, etc. I remember one Rasta telling me that Medusa was actually based on African medicine women who grew their hair out into locks and would often use a snake they kept in a satchel as part of their ceremonies. It is easy to see one Greek traveller seeing such a ceremony and bringing back some baloney to his Greek homies about how African women have snakes for hair.