Bringing The World Home To You

© 2021 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

The History Of Policing And Race In The U.S. Are Deeply Intertwined


For much of this hour, we've been focusing on policing in this country. We've been digging into the changes many citizens are demanding, and we've been talking about what obstacles may stand in the way. But now we want to take a step back to ask about the history of policing in the U.S. How did we get here?

Here to tell us more about that is Keisha Blain. She is an associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and a W.E.B. Du Bois fellow at Harvard University this semester. She's with us now from Cambridge, Mass.

Professor Blain, thanks so much for talking with us.

KEISHA BLAIN: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So could we just begin in the very early days of policing? Where did the kind of metropolitan police force as we know today first begin in this country, and why?

BLAIN: So generally speaking, we point to the period of the 1830s with the creation of the police force in the city of Boston. And this particular police force, we identify it as the first because it was publicly funded and supported. But if we even look a bit earlier, we could, for example, point to a group like the Charleston City Watch and Guard, which was formed in the 1790s. And this was created primarily to control the movement of the slave population at the time.

We generally don't go back that far just because within the context of modern policing, we're thinking about police forces that are fully funded, that are full-time. And through that lens, we generally point to the 1830s. And by the 1890s, every major city in the United States had a police force.

MARTIN: Talk to me, if you would, about the origin of some of these forces being rooted in the slave patrols of the South. How did that work?

BLAIN: So I mentioned earlier the Charleston City Watch and Guard. And that provides one of the earliest examples of how this works because this was a period of slavery. And also, in the city of Charleston, as we know, the majority of the people living there at the time were black people. So the minority white population - they were very terrified about the possibility of slave uprisings and revolts, so they wanted to make sure that there was some sort of group ready to control, to make sure that people were being closely monitored, especially when they were working outside of the purview or the control of the enslaver.

So those slave patrols then began to police, and particularly focusing on the control of black people. As we move past the period of slavery and we get into the period of Reconstruction and even the period of Jim Crow, we then go into the creation of these groups that are functioning much like the slave patrols. And now, rather than upholding slavery, their job is to make sure that the black codes are being reinforced, which are the laws and policies similarly meant to control the lives and movement of black people.

MARTIN: When did policing become a profession that had - you know, you had to have specific training, you had to take a test in some places? When did that happen? Or has that never really happened in the United States? I mean, one of the things that is a feature of policing in the United States is there's no national police force with one uniform set of standards. So when did people start to see themselves, this particular job function, as a profession?

BLAIN: I would say if we look at the period of the 1960s in particular, we begin to see the kind of training that comes within a context of - so Lyndon B. Johnson's war on crime - so 1965 onward, the process of militarizing the police. So the training then shifts in a particular direction that's meant to supposedly address issues of urban poverty.

And so even though it's - we can point to various moments in the history, whether in the 19th century or even in the early 20th century, where we begin to talk about policing as a sort of professionalization. But I think in the modern context, the 1960s onward represents a key moment.

MARTIN: Why is there no national standard around policing in the United States? I mean, obviously, there are different licensing boards around other professions, but we don't seem to have any kind of sense of national standards around policing. Do you have a sense of why that is? Why is that?

BLAIN: Well, I think there's so many differences as you move from locale to locale, from space to space. And oftentimes, it is very much linked to the demographics - you know, who's actually in these communities. Certainly, there's a question of resources. There's also the class dynamics.

And so all of these, I think, mean that as we shift from place to place, it's certainly hard to imagine a kind of national force or a process that would function the same way for each particular place. All of these factors combined explain why we don't have a sort of national kind of policy that could transcend different places and spaces.

MARTIN: So now that you've brought us up to date on the history, I'm going to wheel around and ask for your opinion. I'm going to ask you why you think it is that the kinds of strategies and tactics that we have seen have persisted, despite the fact that they cause so much pain, trauma and, frankly, unrest. I mean, how many episodes of severe unrest in this country have been sparked by police violence against black people in particular? I mean, thinking of the Detroit, 1967 - you know, the current, you know uprising - I mean, this is many - many of these incidents have been caused by episodes of police violence directed at civilians. So why do you think it persists?

BLAIN: I think the fundamental problem is structural racism. And this is something that we have not actually dealt with. And so we keep having conversations about how we might tweak this or tweak that. Maybe we'll pass some policy that's anti-chokehold, and that sounds wonderful. But if you don't actually get to the root of the problem, then you'll find yourself in the same place over and over again, even if you pass a hundred different policies that say, don't choke a person; don't place your knee on a person's neck.

In the end, the system has to be radically changed. And I think we're at a moment where we're having these kinds of conversations. But we haven't actually had those conversations at a national level for a long time, so I think this is a moment of change.

MARTIN: That was Keisha Blain, associate professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh and currently a fellow at Harvard University. She joined us via Skype.

Professor Blain, thank you so much for being with us.

BLAIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

More Stories