Policing in Black Communities (Part 2): The Political Influence

Daytona Everett

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In part one of our NBC Palm Springs multi-part series, we learned about the history of slavery in America and how the black community was treated by police from the beginning.

In part two, we dive deeper into the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the growing political influence on law enforcement in the mid-1900’s.

“If we defined racism as the notion that certain groups are inferior, well then there’s a connection between seeing a particular group say, African Americans, as inferior, more irresponsible, more prone to immoral behavior, more unintelligent, lazy, etcetera,” CSUSB History Professor Marc Robinson said. “Those kinds of inferior qualities then overlap with notions of criminality and notions of a population that demand more aggressive kind of policing,” 

Quickly, the KKK, a rising vigilante group started taking its own aggressive action. With pointed hoods and burning crosses, the KKK enforced racist Jim Crow laws through lynchings and scare tactics, terrorizing black communities.

Often, police officers were members. Recordings from Rocky Mountain PBS revealed some staggering statistics.

“I would say 75 percent of the police department belonged to the Klan,” Robert Maiden, a Colorado police officer in the 1920’s, said.

“You didn’t get a promotion if you weren’t a member of the Klan,” Ray Humphreys, a Denver Post reporter in the 1920’s, said.

The flame of the KKK slowly died down but the fight to enforce segregation in the South was pushed on through politics.

“You have got to keep the white and the black separate!” Those famous words came from Bull Connor, Birmingham’s commissioner of public safety during the civil rights movement.

Through the use of police dogs and fire hoses, Connor backfired at civil rights demonstrators which brought national attention to the civil rights movement.

“Would you say that the racism in the past is better or worse than what we see in policing today?” NBC Palm Springs asked the experts.

“Their emphasis on the behaviors, generally concentrated on communities and communities of color has validated pre-existing notions that people have about these communities,” Rafik Mohamed, Dean of CSUSB’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said.

“Those kinds of behaviors are exactly what the American public has been calling for, what politicians have been campaigning on,” Robinson said.

Mohamed said the war on drugs is a perfect example. Nixon’s campaign focused on fighting the “drug epidemic in America” but decades later, one of Nixon’s top advisors would admit to Harper’s magazine the alleged true reason behind the push.

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people,” former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman told Harper’s writer Dan Baum.

“You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities,” Ehrlichman said. “We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

That concept would continue for years to come with the Reagan administration.

Stay updated on NBC Palm Springs for the final part of this series.

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