Race and crime statistics discussions always end with White people emphasizing that Blacks have higher crime rates and Black people stressing that concentrated enforcement leads to increased crime detection, arrests and thus, higher crime rates. It’s similar to Donald Trump’s outlook on COVID19 testing, where he loathed testing for the deadly disease because positive cases would be recorded in records and thus, inflate the numbers. The convenient stalemate about Black people and crime statistics is advantageous for the status quo and I find it suspicious that academia allows a subject so ripe with easily verifiable details to remain unexplored.
So what came first?
Were Black people so criminal that they caused government to focus its enforcement in Black areas? Or, did the government criminalize Black people by focusing the Justice System on them?
To answer this question we must first ask another question. That question is, could slaves be held responsible for immoral actions and cultural ills developed during slavery? Surely no one would hold slaves to any moral code, right? The state of slavery is an act of war itself and an enslaved person can use any means, including theft or murder, to free his or herself. No moral person would rightfully feel a slave should be limited in the means he or she can use to gain his or her freedom, right? Since slaves can’t be held responsible for their actions, we must begin Black people’s moral, social and legal obligation sometime after they became free and thus, in charge of their own development. Although Abraham Lincoln emancipated the slaves during the Civil War, I feel their true freedom began on August, 20, 1866 when President Andrew Johnson declared an end to America’s near implosion. I believe this because a slave couldn’t possible enjoy their freedom so long as hostile soldiers fighting to enslave them still hold any territory. Even after the last Confederate soldier surrendered, Black people would just be beginning their process of unraveling the mental chains White men had been wrapping around their brains for centuries. Ending the war was just unlocking the latch to a lock and chain system designed to make Black people as ineffective at helping themselves as possible. This unwrapping process continues today.
The next question is, how long do marginalized humans have to acclimate to their newly acquired freedom? Surely one must give people some amount of time to adjust their minds and internalize the social norms of a society. Being that slaves weren’t generally allowed to read or write and each plantation’s individual systems of crime and punishment varied greatly and were nebulous at best, it would be unreasonable to expect slaves to understand the rules and laws of American society on their first day of freedom. Europeans never acclimated to any society, ever; they simply imposed their own legal and social norms everywhere they went. Surely some grace period must be applied to the newly-emancipated slaves, right? At minimum it would take several generations to bring African Americans up to American speed. And this would under unhindered circumstances.
The third question is, what obligations does the society at large have in helping acclimate its new members to its social and legal norms? For a society to divest human beings of their cultures, a technique slavers used to guard against cooperation between slaves in gaining their freedom, it must have some degree of obligation to restore what was lost or replace it with something of equal value. The Freedman’s Bureau was America’s answer to this question yet it was similar to today’s organizations to address homelessness; they simply exploited the fact of emancipation and did little to help emancipate slaves. Just like housing organizations in Los Angeles began with the cause of building housing units for the homeless but are now spending over $700,000 on some of these units, the Freedmen’s Bureau simply exploited the cause, requesting more and more funding then using those resources to dominate the defeated Confederate states by attempting to take land and give free benefits to the ex-slaves. The Freedmen’s Bureau was far from purpose-driven and did very little to emancipate slaves’ minds and prepare them for American life.
So, given that slaves received their freedom on August 20th, 1866 and that it would take decades and steady, good faith social support to acclimate Black people to American life, it’s very telling that the first laws criminalizing Black people actually came before their freedom. On November 22nd 1865, eight months before Black people gained their freedom, the state of Mississippi passed their first post emancipation, anti-Black law, the “Act to regulate the relation of master and apprentice relative to freedmen, free negroes and mulattos.” This law re-enslaved ex-slaves’ kids and Black orphans by giving custody of those kids to their previous owner if the court decided that his or her newly emancipated parent couldn’t support them. With the anti-Black bias courts show today, I’d imagine back then, courts simply aided plantation owners in ripping Black children away from their parents and re-enslaving them. This law would also keep parents on the plantation because who would want to live a free life without their child? The whole point of life is to prepare ones progeny for a better future; leaving a child behind to endure slavery would be counter to the whole point of parenting. The re-enslaved child was “bound by indenture” until 21 years of age for males and 18 years of age for females and it was criminal for those children to escape that enslavement. The next act, passed on November 24th, was the “Vagrant Act,” which criminalized not working. Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography,Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, describes the horrible conditions of slavery from the slave’s perspective. They were nearly starved to death and worked to exhaustion nearly every day of their lives.
Answer: They will rest, or, in the words of the American government, be criminally vagrant.
It was through no fault of their own that White men enslaved them, subjecting them to those conditions so they couldn’t reasonably be held responsible for their reaction once released; especially by a government that mindfully institutionalized White male laziness in the form of slave holding.
The next law, passed on November 25th 1865, was called “The Act to Confer Rights on Freedmen and for other purposes.” This law embodies the nature of how the American government uses laws to criminalize Black people. It did “confer right on freedmen” but the “other purposes” part is most telling. This law provided, “that freedmen, free negroes might acquire and hold, and dispose of personal property in the same manner and to the same extent as white persons,” however the “other reasons” part provided that a Black person couldn’t marry a White person or they would be imprisoned. In other words, it was criminal to marry the people whose legal status you aspire to. This law also set criteria for the definition of “Black,” making anyone with a Black relative three generations back, a “negro.” Now here’s the good part! This law provided that “if the laborer should quit the service of the employer before the expiration of the term fixed in the contract, he should forfeit his wages for that year up to the time of quitting.” HUH? It gets even better. This law provided further, “for the arrest of any freedman, free negro or mulatto quitting the service of an employer and for the determination of the question whether the quitting was for good cause or not and for the disposition to be made of the deserter.”
NOW WAIT!!! You mean a White employer could work newly emancipated ex-slaves, withhold wages for the whole year, and if that Black person quit, the White employer got to keep their ex-slave’s unpaid money and have them jailed for quitting? Or let’s put this a different way; Black ex-slaves had to choose between returning to slavery or being criminalized for being free.
There’s no doubt that Mississippi criminalized Black freedom and designed laws to engender pseudo-slavery conditions. It along with South Carolina were the first two liberated Confederate states to pass new laws designed to give Black people the freedom required by Northern states. Soon after, the five other Ex-Confederate States followed suit with their own Black Codes. So to get back to the central question, what came first, Black crime or enforcement focused on Black people. I can definitively say without a doubt that America criminalized Black people before they even got their freedom. The enforcement began before Black people had a chance to even try. Slaves walked directly from the plantation to the prison.
Many characterize America’s Reconstruction period, the time after the Civil War and before Jim Crow laws, as a time where Black people ruled. The father of political science, John W. Burgess, even called reconstruction policies, “putting the white race of the South under the domination of the Negro race.” The White supremacists I debate surely feel Black people controlled the South, however only one state, Mississippi, ever elected a Black Senator, and the highest ratio of Black-to-White politicians in Congress during Reconstruction was seven out of 292. This is hardly enough power to affect national policy or thwart efforts to criminalize Black people. White males remained in power even when the United States was at its weakest point. Those White males used their power to keep Black people enslaved and when that enslavement encroached on other White males’ interests, they fought each other, ended the formal institution of slavery while preserving as much of its characteristics as possible. Today when White men argue that Black people’s criminality caused higher enforcement, they are dead wrong. The criminality began before Black people were free, had a chance to learn what law was or become lawful. Police were on the streets arresting Black people for vagrancy when their only work options was as “voluntary” slaves with their old slave masters. They were arresting Black people for quitting their jobs when their employers wouldn’t pay them. America initiated emancipation by criminalizing Black freedom then labeling Black people criminals.
This outlook is still alive. In many states today marijuana is legal. Marijuana was the bane of my existence in the 90s and 2000s. Police pulled me over hundreds of times looking for marijuana. I was often made to sit on the curb while they ripped my car apart looking for the very substance that White men today build business empires around and trade on the Stock Exchange. As I transitioned into my upright lifestyle, mingling with White America and having close White friends, I got a good look at their lifestyle when marijuana was still illegal. Law enforcement definitely had a double standard in enforcing marijuana laws. Police didn’t incessantly shake White people down looking for marijuana all the time like they did us. I know White drug dealers that have been in business for over 20 years and never been arrested. Police were criminalizing Black people over an activity they tacitly allowed White people to do, that the country is increasingly accommodating and will eventually completely legalize. Same country, same activity, two different principles leading to two different dispositions practiced on two different race groups. America’s original form is anti-Black. It’s laws were automatically anti-Black. As soon as it looked like Black people would become human in the eyes of the law, that same law put a crosshair on them and wrapped its negative consequences around their very existence, thereby criminalizing them. Today, the Law enforcement institution causes increased Black criminality through its overall hostility towards Black people and propensity to seek and find Black criminality even when its not there. My recent post on how police increase Black crime can be found here. After doing research I can say without a doubt, that America criminalized Black people first, not the other way around.