Blogs > Jim Loewen > Lessons from Mississippi for Police in Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee …

Aug 30, 2016

Lessons from Mississippi for Police in Ferguson, Chicago, Baltimore, Milwaukee …

tags: racism,violence,Ferguson


By Jamelle Bouie - File available on Flickr here in the set. This is the individual photo., CC BY 2.0,

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

In 1967 I lived in the Mississippi Delta, researching the lives of Chinese Americans. Mississippi had more Chinese residents than any other Southern state, and how they fit into a social structure built for two races posed important sociological questions. Most wound up running grocery stores, usually serving the black population, which was in the majority in Delta towns.

            A grocer in Vicksburg, whose store provided something of a social center for its neighborhood, told me what happened when customers created disturbances that warranted his calling the police. "They always ask about the race of the people. If it's white, they send a white officer; if it's black, they send black." This made sense to the grocer and to me as well. Many whites simply wouldn't put up with being arrested by a black officer in the Mississippi of 1967, and blacks too got along better with officers of their own race.

            What was obvious in Mississippi in 1967 remained to be discovered in Ferguson, Missouri, as we all learned in August, 2014. Ferguson had just three African Americans among its 53 police officers when it became infamous for its style of policing of its two-thirds black citizenry. If Ferguson had been obeying the same rule that Vicksburg followed half a century ago, then we could infer that the average white person required 30 times as much policing as the average black person!

            Of course, Ferguson never bothered to learn what Vicksburg knew so long ago. Stemming from its days attempting to become a sundown suburb (1940-60), the Ferguson police department routinely sent white officers to deal with black disturbances. By the way, 1967 Vicksburg was, like Ferguson, a majority black city controlled by white elected officials. But these officials were pragmatic. They knew that good relationships between police and community benefited the police and the community.

            Unfortunately, leaders of some other Mississippi communities thought differently. Allen Thompson, mayor of Jackson, the state's largest city, militarized his police. He oversaw the purchase of a helicopter, SWAT gear, and even an armored vehicle — an earlier version of the vehicles that the federal government has been helping communities get in the last few years. Quickly dubbed "Thompson's Tank," it became a flashpoint of racial confrontation during civil rights demonstrations and during disturbances.

            Jackson provided the policing model Ferguson and St. Louis County relied on after the shooting of Michael Brown. Not until the governor put Captain Ron Johnson of the State Police in charge of security did the Vicksburg model prevail in Ferguson. Even then, statements by Ferguson's police chief imply that he remained stuck in the Jackson mindset.

            I mentioned that Ferguson was a sundown suburb. Sundown towns are called that because they did not allow African Americans after dark. Ironically, from its earliest days, Ferguson had a few black residents. In 1940, for example, 38 African Americans called Ferguson home, and though some were live-in servants in white homes — which do not violate the taboo — others lived in their own households. Then, like suburbs across the United States, Ferguson moved toward becoming all white. St. Louis County got carved into dozens of small communities, reifying into law divisions based on race and class. Ferguson put a chain across the main street connecting it with Kinloch, the tiny black suburb to its west.  Realtors refused to show homes to black would-be buyers. Police followed motorists who "did not belong in Ferguson"; DWB (“Driving While Black”) became an offense. The tactics worked. Between 1940 and 1960, the black population of the St. Louis metropolitan area doubled. Meanwhile Ferguson cut its black population in half, to just 15 persons.

            In the 1960s, black population pressure combined with the 1968 "Fair Housing" law finally broke the barrier. By 1970, 165 African Americans lived in Ferguson. At this point, as in other former sundown suburbs like Riverdale, outside Chicago, or Hawthorne, near Los Angeles, whites had ideological reasons to leave. After all, they had defined blacks as inferior, problematic, to be kept out. Now African Americans had breached the city limits. Many white Ferguson residents responded by moving to sundown exurbs farther out.

            Like many former sundown towns, Ferguson now faces what we call "second-generation sundown town issues," the foremost of which is its overwhelmingly white police force. Ironically, the disturbances in Ferguson, the resulting scathing report on its police force from the U.S. Department of Justice, and Ferguson’s new black voting majority offer Ferguson a way out.

If Ferguson can transcend the legacy from its sundown past, it may set an example that might help overly white police forces like Baltimore’s and Chicago’s transcend their pasts. Of course, black cops are no panacea. An African American officer can be just as disrespectful, just as short-fused, and just as scared as a European American officer. Still, the generalizations about black folks that mark too many all-white conversations to this day – and stain too many police emails – are harder to utter in a setting that is, say, half black. Moreover, there is one way in which an African American officer cannot easily be as disrespectful toward African American citizens, and that is racially.

            In that sense, then, the Ferguson police force was not competent. No overwhelmingly white police force can be competent in a majority-black city. Please note: I am not arguing against the competence of a white individual. Nor do I suggest that police forces should be all black or even overwhelmingly black. I have been a fan of racial integration since I started considering the world thoughtfully, which was in 1954, and I remain one today. But given what Vicksburg knew, half a century ago, we can make no argument for “color-blind policing.” Not only do Ferguson, Baltimore, Chicago, Milwaukee, and a host of other cities need to seek civilian review, cams, training in community relations, etc. – they also need to integrate.

Copyright James W. Loewen 2016

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