How Did We Get Here?

Policing and the Legacy of Racial Injustice

Last updated April 30, 2021.

This series of Teaching Ideas is designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues,  engage with nuanced sources that reflect a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.

The ongoing deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement have fueled a national reckoning aimed at confronting systemic racism in policing, the disproportionate use of excessive force against Black Americans, and more broadly, the history of racial injustice in the United States.

Examining the history of policing and racial injustice in the United States can help students more fully understand how historical legacies shape current events. Many scholars locate the origins of racism in policing—and other forms of racism in the criminal justice system—in the treatment of enslaved people before the Civil War, including the use of slave patrols. According to the Equal Justice Initiative article Presumption of Guilt:

To this day, we have not adequately confronted the legacy of racial injustice and instead have let it evolve into the widespread presumption that people of color are suspicious, dangerous, and criminal—that young Black men are to be feared, monitored, and even hunted.1

Use these Teaching Ideas to help students grapple with the legacies of racial injustice and to explore fundamental questions about the nature of safety, justice, power, and human behavior, such as:

  • How do we hold a classroom conversation on policing that values students’ identities and experiences?
  • How do we avoid over-simplifying the issues or relying on stereotypes about the behavior and intentions of different groups of people, including both those impacted by biased policing and law enforcement officers themselves? 
  • How do we hold individuals responsible for their actions, while also holding the systems that create bias accountable?
  • How can we ensure the safety of all people in our society?

Discussing sensitive issues, such as policing and racial injustice, with your students can be challenging and requires first building a foundation of trust and shared norms with your class. We recommend you use our guide Fostering Civil Discourse: How Do We Talk About Issues that Matter? to help you prepare your class to engage meaningfully in this topic.

This series contains the following Teaching Ideas:

Note: All of the Teaching Ideas in this series contain notes suggesting remote learning adaptations as well as student-facing Google Slides.

  1. Preparing for a Conversation about Policing and Racial Injustice

  2. The History of Slave Patrols, Black Codes, and Vagrancy Laws

  3. Exploring Contemporary Experiences of Policing and Racial Injustice

  4. Creating a Society That Ensures Safety for All


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