This is the second Teaching Idea in a series designed to help students think critically about the long and troubling history between law enforcement and Black Americans, while not stereotyping or criminalizing all police officers. Use these Teaching Ideas to help your students bring a historical lens to these complex issues, engage with a range of experiences with policing, and consider ways to build a society that ensures the safety of all people.
Contemporary issues surrounding policing, the criminal justice system, and racial injustice have deep historical roots, and examining even a piece of this history can help students more fully understand how historical legacies shape current events. Many scholars locate the origins of biased policing—and other forms of bias in the criminal justice system—in the treatment of enslaved people before the Civil War. 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
This Teaching Idea provides students with a brief overview of the history of policing in the early United States and then examines how laws—and the biased enforcement of those laws—were used to control the lives of Black Americans in the South following the Civil War.
After the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, white people in power in the South sought new ways to maintain control over Black people’s lives and labor. By the fall of 1865, most Southern state legislatures passed a series of laws known as Black Codes, which severely restricted the freedom of Black people living in the South. According to historian Khalil Muhammad:
The black codes, for all intents and purposes, criminalized every form of African American freedom and mobility, political power, economic power, except the one thing [they] didn't criminalize was the right to work for a white man on a white man's terms.2
These laws required all Black people, whether free or enslaved before the Civil War, to sign annual labor contracts with white employers. If they did not, or if they did not fulfill the terms of these contracts, they would be deemed vagrants and fined or imprisoned. While Black Codes were repealed during Reconstruction (in 1866), similar laws targeting Black Americans were enacted as the Reconstruction period ended. New vagrancy laws once again criminalized unemployment, and other statutes allowed for harsh punishments for even the most minor crimes. These laws were enforced in racially biased ways, as the police and judicial system targeted Black Americans.
Note: The example in this Teaching Idea focuses on the South after the Civil War, but it is important to note that laws in the North have also been designed to create and maintain racial boundaries. Police have been involved in the use of violence against Black Americans to create and enforce racial segregation in both the North and the South, for example, during the period of racial violence that erupted across the United States following World War I.
Note: What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.
Ask students to read the first seven paragraphs of Time Magazine’s article How the U.S. Got Its Police Force, stopping at the end of the paragraph that begins: “In the South, however, the economics that drove the creation of police forces . . .”
Then, ask your students:
Share the following passage from historian Khalil Muhammad, excerpted from the Throughline podcast episode American Police:
Perhaps the most revealing aspect of the way slave patrols functioned is that they were explicit in their design to empower the entire white population, not just with police power but with the duty to police the comings and goings and movements of black people . . .
[The slave patrol system] seems to have really effectively mobilized . . . not just land-owning whites who own[ed] slaves but people who didn't themselves own slaves. It gave them, both the men and presumably also the . . . white women in these societies, a sense of superiority almost over this whole class of people that they were now in charge of patrolling.3
Discuss with students:
Remote Learning Note: Students can read the two texts individually and asynchronously, using the Slides for this activity. Then, students can discuss the questions during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.
If your students are unfamiliar with the history of Black Codes and the Reconstruction era, you may want to start by sharing a few bullet-points with historical context. For example:
Play the PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name from 13:38 to 18:25. (This video is available to stream on Facing History’s website.)
Then, ask your students to read the following passage from the article Presumption of Guilt, published by the Equal Justice Initiative:
The myth of racial hierarchy—the belief that Black people are inferior—was created to justify the enslavement of Black people. Enslavement could not be sustained as legitimate without a false narrative about Black people being less human or worthy of freedom that would make it justifiable.
That racist belief survived the formal abolition of slavery and evolved to include the belief that Black people are dangerous criminals. This was reinforced during the decades of racial terror lynchings that followed enslavement when white people defended the torture and spectacle murder of Black people as necessary to protect their property, families, and way of life from Black “criminals.”
Criminalizing Black people was the basis for convict leasing, a system created to provide cheap labor after slavery was abolished. Southern lawmakers passed “Black Codes” so that African Americans could be arrested for “crimes” like loitering and forced to work in white-owned businesses and plantations throughout the South.
States passed laws to segregate Black people, banning them from sharing public accommodations, barring them from interracial relationships, and humiliating them by restricting them to marginalized spaces.
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.
New language has emerged for the non-crimes that have replaced the Black Codes—driving while Black, napping while Black, jogging while Black. All reflect incidents in which African Americans were mistreated, assaulted, or arrested for conduct that would be ignored if they were white.4
Remote Learning Note: Students can watch the video and read the text individually and asynchronously using the Slides for this activity. Then, students can discuss the questions during a synchronous session or asynchronously during a defined time period in an online discussion forum.