Ugly American Tradition

Policing black Americans is a long-standing, and ugly, American tradition
Vanessa Holden and Edward E. Baptist, March 6, 2019, The Washington Post



In recent years, news cycle after news cycle has focused on Americans, many of them white, who took it upon themselves to police their black neighbors. A white Yale graduate student called campus police officers to report a black student sleeping in a common room. A white golf course proprietor called the police on a group of black women because, apparently, playing a round too slowly is a crime. Twelve-year-old Reggie Fields was reported to the police for mowing a lawn. Stephanie Sebby-Strempel ultimately pleaded guilty to third-degree assault after harassing an African American teenager who dared to go swimming while black. And on Feb. 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood vigilante, killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

These incidents are not historically unusual. What’s new is the outcome, at least in some of the cases. For virtually the first time, white Americans have faced social disapproval for being caught on camera in the act of treating utterly normal behavior by black people as criminal. But people like “BBQ Becky” are not new. 

They continue a long tradition that began in slavery. 
From the 1600s to 1865, white Americans watched Africans and African Americans, checked to see if they fit the description of specific fugitives from slavery, stopped, questioned and seized them — and got rewards for doing so. The pattern established by white policing of African Americans’ movement during slavery is something that many remain all too eager to continue.

Together with three other historians, we’ve been helping to build a free and interactive database of all the fugitive slave ads from U.S. and colonial history. The ads reveal how white Americans trained and incentivized themselves to police black Americans’ movements.

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