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OPINION

George Floyd and the history of police brutality in America

By recognizing the long history of racism in the justice system, Americans can grasp why deaths like George Floyd’s are symptomatic of a larger failure of American justice.

Graffiti on a wall depicting a portrait of George Floyd at Mauer Park in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district on Saturday.
Graffiti on a wall depicting a portrait of George Floyd at Mauer Park in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district on Saturday.DAVID GANNON/AFP via Getty Images

The horrific death, captured on video, of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck, spotlights the longstanding crisis of racism in policing.

To understand the protests that have erupted across the United States, one needs to understand the deeply troubled history of policing and race. Police brutality, racial discrimination, and violence against minorities are intertwined and rooted throughout US history. Technology has made it possible for the level and extent of the problem finally to be publicly documented. The anger expressed in the wake of Floyd’s killing reflects the searing reality that Black people in the United States continue to be dehumanized and treated unjustly.

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George Floyd.
George Floyd.Offices of Ben Crump Law/NYT

Law enforcement officers have long used their authority to control the behavior and movement of Blacks. Before the Civil War, slave patrols were tasked with tracking runaway slaves throughout the United States. After abolition, Blacks were detained and punished for infractions that would otherwise have been considered trivial had they been committed by whites. Policing was tied to the use of force by a justice system aimed at maintaining a social hierarchy based on a belief in the racial superiority of whites. For more than a century after the Civil War, police officials were often secret members of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Police relations with minority communities today reflect this deep legacy of racism.

In 2019, data compiled by the National Academy of Sciences showed that Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites. Police tend to target Blacks on suspected infractions more than white suspects. This is especially evident in drug-related offenses. Despite having similar rates of drug use as white Americans, Blacks are disproportionately arrested and convicted on drug offenses. Between 1995 and 2005, Blacks constituted 13 percent of drug users but accounted for 46 percent of drug convictions.

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Racial profiling is an indicator of continuing racism in the criminal justice system. Research shows that police rely on the relationship between neighborhood demographics and suspects to identify “out-of-place” individuals in predominately nonminority areas. As Shytierra Gaston of Northeastern University concludes, “Race serves as a marker of where people ‘belong’, and racial incongruity as a marker of suspicion.”

The 1980s “Broken Windows” theory of policing posited that cracking down on small-scale infractions like vandalism, public drinking, and loitering prevented more serious crime from occurring in neighborhoods. This resulted in discretionary enforcement, with minority communities targeted most often, leading to controversial tactics like stop-and-frisk, which disproportionately impacted Black and Latino men.

Implicit bias on the part of officials within the criminal justice system and society at large remains a consistent pattern. A 2004 study by researchers at the American Psychological Association found that Blacks are often associated with descriptive adjectives such as “dangerous,” “aggressive, “violent,” and “criminal." These negative stereotypes affect policing decisions.

Through our work on the Renewing Rights and Responsibilities Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, we highlight the historical roots of racial discrimination and their current impact on American society. By recognizing the long history of racism in the justice system, Americans can grasp why deaths like George Floyd’s are symptomatic of a larger failure of American justice.

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As horrendous as watching George Floyd’s murder was, we found, as a Black woman and a white man, that the most hurtful aspect was watching commentators, public officials, and some of our fellow Americans attempting to invalidate or outright dismiss the grievances against systemic racial discrimination that have cost so many lives in our country.

Like clockwork, the public narrative changed from focusing on the deadly actions of a police officer and the system that so often shields miscreant officers like him from accountability, to scrutinizing the victim’s past and demonizing the protestors. It was as if this justified the murder and absolved the country of centuries-long racial injustice. The current protests are a glimmer of hope for change, but if history is any guide and change does not occur, the nation may soon be talking about another unarmed Black victim of police violence.

Kadijatou Diallo is a Master of Public Policy candidate and a research assistant at the Harvard Kennedy School. John Shattuck is director of the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center Project on Renewing Rights and Responsibilities in the United States.