Because of the current focus on the Black Lives Matter movement and the killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many others, it’s easy to think of police brutality as a primarily modern issue, especially when it’s not something one might experience every day like many Black Americans do. However, history illuminates a completely different, bleaker reality.
According to Shannon King, associate professor of history at Fairfield University and this year’s history lecture speaker, “Part of what’s happening, then and now, is that African Americans are not only being victims of police brutality but even in cases of crime in America … they’re not protected. That is a long pattern that we have not been able to address.”
King’s work, pertaining mostly to Harlem, explores the role of liberalism in institutionalized racism and police brutality, though his research starts in the 1920s and 30s, which is very unusual for this topic. “What I want to do is bring the discussion of so-called ‘liberal law and order’ further back from the ’60s to the ’30s, and I want to start at the very point when scholars begin talking about liberalism,” he stated.
This unique work does not go unnoticed, either. According to Professor of History Gregory Shaya, COVID-19 widened the choice of speaker. “The pandemic meant that we couldn’t bring anyone to campus — but it also meant that we could invite scholars from anywhere in the world,” he pointed out. However, this only speaks to the relevancy of King’s work. “We want these events to speak to the campus more widely and to show the ways in which history can help us to understand our world. In 2020 — as we look at the Black Lives Matter protests and the continuing struggle against racism and anti-Black violence — Professor King’s work on police brutality and liberal law and order is poignant and revealing,” he said.
Though King, a former professor at Wooster, started his research long before the recent surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s hard not to compare and contrast the past he studies with and against recent events.
According to a chart created by the Bureau of Justice, “From 2008 to 2018, the imprisonment rate dropped 28 percent among Black residents, 21 percent among Hispanic residents and 13 percent among white residents.” However, according to the same chart this statement accompanied, roughly 1,000 per 100,000 Black residents and roughly 500 per 100,000 Hispanic residents were imprisoned than those of the white majority in the United States — and these people are those who are not killed in interactions with the police.
Statistics like these, along with recent public trials that result in acquittals and fines rather than convictions, highlight the alarming notion that police are biased against people of color.
However, there may be some hope for the future. According to King, “At least, temporarily, we’ve never seen so many white Americans — and even a diversity of people of color — participate in a movement around police brutality.”
At least for now, it seems, the United States is crawling towards a just system for people of color, at least in public opinion. But that same country is still far from a fair and equitable system for all.