8. The History of US Policing
Updated: Aug 28
And the Connection to Current Issues in Education
The Academy for Teachers recently offered a class for educators called "The History of Policing in the United States," taught by Harvard Professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.
In preparation for the course, we were asked to review some materials. The most compelling of those for me was was this interview with Prof. Muhammad about the origins of American policing on the Throughline podcast. The interview was conducted on June 4, 2020, days after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The Academy for Teachers live-streamed the lecture given by Prof. Muhammad and the Q&A session that followed. That video is included on this page.
The live class was also great, but actually felt slightly rushed to me and I would have loved to hear more from Professor Muhammad about why he feels that it is vital for American educators to understand the history of US policing. However, as I mentioned, the Throughline interview was incredibly eye-opening and simultaneously deeply painful. It led me to draw several parallels between problems that plague American policing and those that affect our education system. Just talking about such parallels is challenging and extremely uncomfortable for many educators, so I decided to capture a few thoughts here with hopes of engaging in conversations that prompt action from all of us. The following notes are my fairly raw reflections, ideas, and wonderings that have emerged from the unforgettable historical data that Prof. Muhammad shared with us.
Here are a couple of key takeaways that I gathered:
When we see our fellow Americans' lives senselessly ended at the hands of police, or when we view vastly disproportionate criminal justice statistics by race, we are shocked. But this is how policing was designed, from the very first "Slave Patrols."
There are numerous parallels between policing and school discipline, particularly for BIPOC students. What if, rather than being shocked at disproportionality in education, we open our minds to the possibility that American education was also designed to operate this way and is succeeding in doing what it was designed to do, not failing.
Just as it is not possible to effectively teach increasingly diverse, interconnected, and globally aware American youth without knowing the history of slavery, segregation, or civil rights - none of us can be fully effective without the knowledge that Professor Muhammad presents - a comprehensive history of American policing. This is especially true if we teach a community that is directly affected by the injustices of the criminal justice and carceral systems.
Reflections based on the historical data shared by Professor Muhammad
Professor Muhammad's Teaching:
Professor Muhammad immediately jumped into the question: "When did 'police' first arrive in American society and in what form?" He taught about pre-Civil War Slave Patrols, which were groups of White people charged with ensuring that other Whites were safe from slave rebellions or any bodily harm that Black slaves may inflict. These enforcers took an oath to apprehend runaways, generally terrorize slaves in order to deter revolts, and to police and discipline slave-workers. In fact, in many regions, participation in Slave Patrols was mandatory and those who refused to participate could face consequences. Thus, from the earliest days of policing, White American civilians were entrusted with regulating Black bodies as they saw fit, for their own benefit, with no limits or regulations.
We learned that, while the 13th amendment was passed in 1865 and did indeed ban slavery and involuntary servitude, it continued to permit these forms of oppression for anyone convicted of a crime. Thus, to circumvent the supposed intentions of the 13th Amendment, Black Codes and the more well-known Jim Crow Laws were created. As long as a former slave could be arbitrarily charged with a crime, this "free" individual could be subject to servitude once again, with absolutely no legal recourse.
My Interpretations and Ideas:
We need to examine history to understand why things are happening in the present. We frequently act shocked and bewildered when we see unarmed people of color murdered by police, often without even being suspected of a crime, or when we learn about egregious sentences for low-level offenses. But to be shocked is to believe that the system was not meant to operate that way. However, history shows us that the police system is doing exactly what it was designed to do when it was first formed. At no point in history have we seen a law passed or a systemic change that would indicate that things should be any different than they were 200 years ago. So we should not be surprised that Black bodies continue to be policed and regulated violently. Nor should we be surprised when we protest what seem to be utterly avoidable assassinations and a large percentage of the country responds with indignance and anger at the mere suggestion of wrongdoing.
We don't look at history enough to challenge why certain things are the way they are in our schools. Most of us never even ask why we're off in the summer even though we're no longer an agrarian society, or why we have such rigid bell systems or why we start school at an hour that science suggests is not developmentally appropriate for teenagers. How about the history of suspensions and Zero-Tolerance discipline policies? I discuss their origin as measures to prevent guns from entering schools in an earlier post. But that's rarely how suspension is used as a consequence in school these days. Again, to be shocked at the appalling racial disproportionality in school discipline, especially in terms of suspensions, is to be uninformed about the history of school discipline. BIPOC students continue to be policed in schools and excluded from school buildings as soon as those in power can invent the circumstances or loopholes that allow it. Look at the school discipline codes of districts around the country - I've linked New York's here. From suspending to keep guns out of our buildings, we moved to suspending for any seriously violent offenses. But look very closely at this code of conduct. Take a look at page 25 - if a student is removed from a classroom on four occasions during a semester, that student must be suspended on the next occasion in which he or she would have been removed from class. Now turn to page 32. For what offenses can a student be removed from a classroom?
Failing to wear a school uniform
Wearing clothing or headgear that is deemed "disruptive to the educational process"
Who typically gets removed from class for wearing hoodies or hats? Are we seeing the parallels for how we police Black and Brown bodies? The page continues...
Engaging in "verbally rude or disrespectful behavior"
So, for the completely subjective determination of being rude or disrespectful, a child can be removed from class, multiple times, and ultimately SUSPENDED from school - excluded from learning amongst peers, alienated from the community. This is one reason we see that Black students are suspended at higher rates and for longer durations than their White peers, even in the absence of any violent actions. When we incorporate restorative practices and prioritize relationships and connection, there is a far lower probability that an adult arbitrarily deems a child rude or perhaps ignores a cultural difference in forms of expression, leading to the exclusion of the child from the community.
Thinking about all the times I've seen school leaders scheme to figure out how they will get a "problematic" child out of their buildings, or how many times I've seen staff in charge of special education actually advocate for the suspension of a child with a learning or behavioral disability in order to trigger a hearing from the district office that may lead to the child's transfer to another facility, I can't help but compare these instances in schools to Professor Muhammad's highlighting of the Black Codes that emerged as "workarounds" to the 13th amendment. "If we can't get them out this way, we'll get them out some other way - we'll build a case of repeated insubordination, disrespect, rudeness, failure to dress appropriately."
I'll be honest - I consider the behavior of many school leaders to be quite heinous when they move heaven and earth to ensure that their students follow rules that govern appearance and expression. I'm especially queasy now that I've more closely studied our country's history of policing Black bodies and movement. But as a restorative practices coach, I would never approach a school and tell them what their policies should be around dress code, uniforms, hairstyles, headgear, shoes, etc. What I earnestly believe in is using restorative practices to build a community that, in all policies, including those pertaining to appearance, reflects the values of the students of the school and their families and surrounding community. While engaging their constituents, founders and school leaders can also express the values that they would like the school to embrace and the rationale behind their proposed policies. When staff and families discuss whether sagging pants should be allowed and what should be done about it, there is far less chance of having mass suspensions over the appearance of children. When school leadership listens to families who state that wearing head wraps and scarves is culturally appropriate and not deemed "unprofessional," students don't have to be kicked out of school due to an accessory. So let's build relationships and figure it out together rather than going straight to the policing of children's bodies and movements.
Professor Muhammad's Teaching:
Our Instructor then made a powerful point about how, after these grave injustices in policing are carried out, there are those who then cite the crime statistics as evidence that the races and ethnicities represented most heavily are inferior.
For example, this statement was made in 1896 by Frederick Hoffman, a self-professed progressive.
To me, Hoffman's sentiments tie in directly with Ibram X. Kendi's categorization of the version of racism often practiced by modern-day, well-intentioned progressives: Assimilationism.
I discuss how assimilationism shows up in our schools in this post.
The Professor then commented on and presented some statistics on Broken Windows policing. He noted that such initiatives, such as Stop, Question, and Frisk, required police to stop and detain (mostly Black and Brown) people for things like having a bicycle on the sidewalk, alcohol on their front porch, etc. Nearly 9 out of 10 people stopped were never convicted of anything and a minuscule percentage of those stopped actually had a weapon, the discovery of which was the purported aim of the stops.
Professor Muhammad: "When a school has a tight budget are they going to hire more security officers or guidance counselors? They hire more security and tell them to Nae-Nae with the kids." (He was commenting on what it looks like to remove police from schools and the need to divest in security and invest in things like mental health support.)
Prof. Muhammad also recommended two resources to help understand the School-to-Prison Pipeline:
Carla Shedd's book, Unequal City
Monique Morris's documentary, PUSHOUT
My Interpretations and Ideas:
The discussion of Broken Windows policing really reminded me of school leaders who announce that they wish to "Sweat the Small Stuff." They ask their staff members to be 100% united in catching every minute infraction, such as not sitting up straight, having a backpack in the aisle, or having a small red marking on shoes that should be all white. If such violations are observed, consequences must be immediately doled out. These schools believe that if these infractions go unpunished, the entire culture will devolve into chaos. All order will cease and any learning will be impossible. Unfortunately, they end up with robots with no internal locus of control - just students who jump when the punishments are severe enough or the rewards are appealing enough. The students who can't hang are permanently excluded from the community. Those who remain perform adequately enough on standardized tests to confirm for the school leaders that they've been right all along and the policies remain intact.
I mentioned above that the Throughline interview was not only thought-provoking but also deeply painful. Professor Muhammad describes some extremely disturbing anecdotes, such as the 1919 murder of a Black teenager named Eugene Williams. The boy was in Chicago's Lake Michigan when he crossed the unofficial color barrier and was stoned to death by White men. When the police arrived they refused to arrest the murderers identified by eyewitnesses. While we don't typically have incidents of this gravity in our schools, I believe that it still behooves us as anti-racist educators to seek parallels within the education system.
For example, I mentioned above that it is nonsensical to be shocked by unjust police activity when that's how policing was designed in our country. But does it make sense to be shocked by the racial "achievement gap" or disproportionality in school discipline or the criminalization of BIPOC youth in American schools? To be surprised is to believe that there was some moment in our country's history - some awakening, some new law, some universal policy - that transformed schools into houses of equality. When was that moment? Certainly not prior to the Civil War. After the Civil War, we had the Jim Crow era to guarantee another century of inequality. We then had the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, declaring "separate but equal" to be acceptable, but we know that non-White children did not have access to the resources that White children had during that time. The country then reacted hatefully to the 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ending legalized segregation in schools. The backlash included willful violation of the ruling by many districts, White flight from cities, redrawing school districts, redlining in order to deny mortgages and other services to Black families, and the election of segregationists to powerful offices. That ruling was just sixty-six years ago. What's been the turning point since then? If we believe that schools today are somehow immune to the country's history of White supremacy, what intervention can we credit with having changed the entire system?
I'm certainly not aware of such a turning point; hence, there remain so many parallels between what we see in schools and what we see in policing. But I'm an eternal optimist; I genuinely believe that Restorative Practices, if effectively implemented throughout the country, would erase these atrocities and disparities from our educational system. If we focus first on building loving, respectful, communities and then replace exclusionary, inequitable, and unjust punishments with restorative measures to repair harm and heal the community that's been built, we can completely reverse the prevailing trends. If we could convince policymakers around our nation to act urgently toward providing adequate funding and training for all schools to adopt Restorative Practices, that would be our turning point.
Hemanth Venkataraman aka Mister V
I am a school culture consultant who guides educators to effectively implement restorative practices in order to transform school culture and maximize educational outcomes for all students.