Racial discrimination against people of color, recently compounded by the brutal murder of African American George Floyd in the US police custody in Minneapolis, has a history of nearly 400 years in the United States, says an academic at Michigan State University.
The 46-year-old Floyd died on May 25 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, after a white officer pressed his knee on the African American’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he suffocated.
In a video captured at the scene, Floyd gasped for breath and said, “I can’t breathe,” as police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck while three other officers just looked on.
Floyd’s death has reignited deep-rooted indignation over US police brutality toward black Americans and revived the Black Lives Matter movement not in the US alone but in a global scale.
The case of Floyd was the latest as black Americans across the US have always lived in fear of law enforcement officials that monitor their every behavior, attack them on the street and in their homes, and kill them for the slightest alleged provocation.
Jennifer Cobbina, a criminal justice professor at Michigan State University, said in an interview with the USA Today’s website on Sunday that law enforcement officials in America have a much longer history of killing black people.
“Too often people look at the contemporary issue, the issue that is going on right now but not understanding that all that is happening is seeped in 400 years of legacy of injustice,” Cobbina said, adding, “These past grievances, past harms by law enforcement, need to be addressed before even attempting to move forward.”
Sally Hadden, a history professor at Western Michigan University, said the US was a British colony in the 1600s and used a watchmen system, where citizens of towns and cities would patrol their communities to maintain order and prevent burglaries and arson.
As the slave population increased in the US, slave patrols were formed in South Carolina and expanded to other southern states, according to Hadden.
Slave patrols were tasked with hunting down runaways and suppressing rebellions amid fear of enslaved people rising up against their white owners, who were often outnumbered. The patrol was a volunteer force consisting of white men who surveyed and attacked black people and anyone who tried to help them escape.
“Everything that you can think of that a police officer can do today, they did it,” Hadden said of slave patrols. “The biggest thing is that they were race-focused as opposed to the police today, who should be race neutral in their enforcement of law.”
Seth Soughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law, also said slave patrols were not designed to protect public safety in the broadest sense but, rather, to protect white wealth.
Soughton, whose research has focused on excessive police force, went on to say that after the abolition of slavery in 1865, slave patrols were done away with and modern police departments become more common but African Americans were still heavily policed by law enforcement officials.
Moreover, the law professor pointed to the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that terrorize black communities, carry out lynchings and destroying black schools.
Soughton said some law enforcement and other government officials became KKK members, especially in the South.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which is a civil rights organization in the United States, said from 1980 to 2015, the nation’s prison population climbed from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million, with black Americans making up 34 percent of all inmates.
After the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, the Justice Department is said to have curtailed programs to investigate local police departments for racism and excessive force.
Floyd’s death has reignited long-felt anger over police killings of African-Americans and unleashed a nationwide wave of civil unrest unlike any seen in the US since Martin Luther King Jr’s 1968 assassination.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike have blasted the killing of Floyd, and Americans of all ethnic backgrounds have over the past week poured into city streets demanding justice for the 46-year-old.
“What’s becoming very apparent is that black people aren’t the only group in this country that is concerned about the levels of police brutality in the United States,” says Lionel Kimble, a history professor at the University of Iowa whose research focuses on black civil rights.
“The country is going to have to take a hard look in the mirror and talk about how we police people, in what role the police play in supporting inequality in our society.”
US civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday against Trump, after police fired tear gas to clear peaceful demonstrators outside the White House before the president walked to a church for a photo op earlier this week.