Just as the history of the United States has been rife with pandemics, its history of the use of unwarranted or excessive force by police officers against its civilian population has also been widespread and sadly historic. However, unlike the current coronavirus pandemic, there doesn’t appear to be white coated boffins working away in a laboratory to find a cure to the disease of systemic and institutional racism.
As the memorial service for the late George Floyd took place in Minneapolis, many speakers talked of putting an end to the disproportionate use of force against African American’s. Most notably, the civil rights leader and founder of the National Action Network, Rev. Al Sharpton, who delivered a eulogy denouncing racism and calling for the criminal justice system to finally be held accountable.
As he gave his poignant and stirring speech, he pointedly stated “The reason we could never be who we wanted to be and dreamed of being is you kept your knee on our neck,” and it would be hard to argue that the knee of institutions who are supposedly there to protect and serve, has not been pressing down on the collective jugular of African American communities for many decades, but where did it all begin?
Although the United States has a sordid history with regards to its treatment of African American’s, and minorities in general, beginning with transatlantic slave trade and supposedly ending with the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865, it was a different movement of people that has helped shape modern attitudes to this social minority, despite being a statistical majority.
Referred to as the ‘Great Migration’, beginning in the early years of the twentieth century many African American’s began leaving the hostility and violence of the rural South and began moving into urban areas of the North and West. This mass migration would be most prevalent in the post Second World War years.
Many believed that because the legislation that freed them was created and subsequently ratified in the northern and western states, they would find more freedom and considerably less persecution and violence. Unfortunately, most white communities, and their white police departments, were unaccustomed to and unprepared for the presence of African Americans.
Sadly, much like their southern counterparts, the majority of white communities in the north and west shared the deeply ingrained stereotypical view of the black man and woman as somehow being subhuman. There arrival in these communities were met with the same fear and hostility they had so desperately tried to escape.
Exacerbating this problem were the attitudes of the authorities who intrinsically believed that African Americans, especially the men, had an inherent tendency towards criminal behavior and that would require them to keep an almost constant eye on them, lest their communities fall into mayhem and chaos at the hands of a seemingly genetically inferior people.