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Hidden in Plain Sight: Racism, White Supremacy, and Far-Right Militancy in Law Enforcement

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tags: racism, Police, White Supremacy, Law Enforcement



Efforts to address systemic and implicit biases in law enforcement are unlikely to be effective in reducing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system as long as explicit racism in law enforcement continues to endure. There is ample evidence to demonstrate that it does.

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White supremacy was central to the founding of the United States, sanctified in law and practice. It was the driving ideology behind the European colonization of North America, the subjugation of Native Americans, and the enslavement of kidnapped Africans and their descendants. Policing in the early American colonies was often less about crime control than maintaining the racial social order, ensuring a stable labor force, and protecting the property interests of the white privileged class. Slave patrols were among the first public policing organizations formed in the American colonies. Put simply, white supremacy was the law these earliest public officials were sworn to enforce. Even states such as New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois that banned slavery enacted racist “Black laws,” which restricted travel and denied civil rights regarding voting, education, employment, and even residency for free Black people. The U.S. Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required law enforcement officials in free states to return escaped slaves to their enslavers in the South. 

When slavery was finally abolished in the United States after the Civil War, de jure white supremacy lived on through Black codes and Jim Crow laws. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, an openly racist law halting Chinese immigration and denying naturalization to Chinese nationals already living in the United States.  The Immigration Act of 1924 was also explicitly racist, codifying strict national origin quotas to limit Italian, eastern European, and nonwhite immigration. The law barred all immigration from Japan and other Asian countries not already excluded by previous legislation. 

As the United States expanded westward, government agents enforced policies of violent ethnic cleansing against Native Americans and Mexican Americans. In the early 20th century, Texas Rangers led lynching parties that targeted Mexican Americans residing in Texas border towns on specious allegations of banditry. Where the laws were deemed insufficient to dissuade nonwhites and non-Protestants from exercising their civil rights, reactionary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan used terrorist violence to enforce white supremacy. Law enforcement officials often participated in this violence directly or supported it by refusing to fulfill their duty to protect the peace and hold lawbreakers to account. By the 1920s, the KKK alone claimed 1 million members nationwide from New England to California, and had fully infiltrated federal, state, and local governments to advance its exclusionist agenda.

Many states outside the Deep South maintained “sundown towns” where police officers and vigilante mobs enforced official and quasi-official policies prohibiting Black (and often other nonwhite) people from remaining in town past sunset. Into the 1970s, there were an estimated 10,000 sundown towns across the United States. Police enforcement of white supremacy was never just a regional problem.

Hidden in Plain Sight

In 1964, civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner went missing in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer voter registration drive, shortly after being released from a Philadelphia, Mississippi, jail where they had been taken to pay a speeding fine.President Lyndon Johnson ordered FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to send FBI agents to find them. Searchers found the bodies of eight black men, including two college students who were working on the voter registration drive, before an informant’s tip finally led the agents to an earthen dam where Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner were buried. After local law enforcement refused to investigate the murders, the Justice Department charged 19 Ku Klux Klansmen with conspiring to violate Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s civil rights. Two current and two former law enforcement officials were among those charged. An all-white jury convicted seven of the Klansman but only one of the law enforcement officers. 

While the Mississippi Burning case was the most notorious, it was far from the last time white supremacist law enforcement officers engaged in racist violence. There is an unbroken chain of law enforcement involvement in violent, organized racist activity right up to the present. In the 1980s, the investigation of a KKK firebombing of a Black family’s home in Kentucky exposed a Jefferson County police officer as a Klan leader. In a deposition, the officer admitted that he directed a 40-member Klan subgroup called the Confederate Officers Patriot Squad (COPS), half of whom were police officers. He added that his involvement in the KKK was known to his police department and tolerated so long as he didn’t publicize it. 

 

Read entire article at Brennan Center

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