In America, Laws and Police Protect and Continue the Horrific Legacy of Slavery

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Top: Image of four slave catcher police force from 1839. Bottom: Image of George Floyd being apprehended by Minneapolis police officers right before his murder by officer Derrick Chauvin..
Top: Image of four slave catcher police force from 1839. Bottom: Image of George Floyd being apprehended by Minneapolis police officers right before his murder by officer Derrick Chauvin..

Criticizing China, Venezuela, Iran, North Korea and Russia, America finds itself in deep trouble, and without leadership.

Events strongly echoing more than 200 years of slavery—most of America’s history—should not surprise. Current events are important remnants of slavery.

Some politicians dispute slavery’s relevance. But it DOES matter; it is in front of our noses.

America practiced a particularly inhumane form of slavery first promoted in the 1660s by the English government (NOT capitalists) in New York and other colonies through the slave-trading Duke of York (New York’s namesake). He brought 100,000 slaves to the New World, branding many with his initials, “DY.”

American slavery was unlike Dutch, French, Spanish and African slavery, which at least recognized slaves as humans, not things. America was one of the last slave societies in the New World. By the time of the Civil War, America not only was the largest slave society in the New World; it had more slaves—four million—than all other New World countries combined. Proportionately, that is equivalent to 40 million slaves today—California’s population, double New York’s.

Just as America’s police today, slavemasters beat slaves to death for minor offenses, including insolence, for which white citizens received little or no punishment. This arose, and continues to arise, from deep-seated white fear of badly mistreated African-Americans. A man selling illegal cigarettes is choked to death. A man holding a cell phone is shot and killed, not wounded, in his own backyard. A woman is shot attempting to defend herself against what she believes to be burglars breaking into her home in the middle of the night, but actually turn out to be police using a no-knock warrant. A man accused of passing a counterfeit $20 bill suffers vicious public execution, without trial, by a poorly-trained police tyrant, undisciplined after many complaints.

A black man jogging in a white neighborhood is chased down by self-appointed white patrollers in trucks, and is shot as he seeks to evade them.

Now, another man is shot in the back twice while fleeing from arrest for a minor offense. Yet, the police knew exactly how to find him—they had his driver’s license and his automobile. What a waste!

This latest action provides a strong echo of slave laws authorizing patrols to capture slaves off their masters’ premises and, if the slaves resisted, to kill them. Maryland had such a law “indemnifying” any officer (and any other white person) who killed a resisting slave.

These laws are illustrated in the following excerpt from the legal treatise, A Sketch of the Laws Relating to Slavery in the Several States of the United States of America, by Philadelphia Judge George Stroud in 1856:

My chief objection to these laws is, that they furnish a pretext, and (may I not say ?) an inducement, to an ignoble mind to oppress and to tyrannize over the defenceless slave. He must patiently endure every species of personal injury which a white person, however brutal and ferocious his disposition… may choose to offer.

Several of the slave-holding states have adopted laws which are highly objectionable for the reason just given. The subjoined may be taken as a specimen:— “If any slave shall happen to be slain for refusing to surrender him or herself, contrary to law, or in unlawful resisting any officer … who shall apprehend or endeavour to apprehend such slave or slaves, &c., such officer … so killing such slave as aforesaid, making resistance, shall be and he is by this act indemnified from any prosecution for such killing aforesaid, &c.” Maryland Laws, act of 1751, chap. 14, § 9.

That law was enacted in 1751, 270 years ago. For all practical purposes, given the reluctance to discipline police misconduct no matter how extreme, it still is fully in effect today across America.

This has been taking place ever since the American colonies were founded. It did not end with the Declaration of Independence. It did not end with the Constitution (which actually protected slavery). It did not end with the Civil War. It did not end with the ratification of the 13th Amendment. It did not end with the enactment of the Civil Rights Laws of the 1960s.

Too often, unrestrained police brutality has occurred over and over throughout America, with little to inhibit it. I have seen it occur throughout my life. I have heard senior police officers disrespect African-Americans with racial epithets in my presence, and then flatly deny it when I complained to the Department.

Few juries, dominated by whites, would find a police officer guilty of a crime. The Supreme Court provides police significant immunity protection. Police unions and union contracts protect them. Complaint and discipline records are kept secret or are expunged within brief time frames. Clearly, appropriate training is lacking. Close-knit police cultures protect violent officers. Although there are many conscientious police officers—and we very much do need them—they too often are overridden internally by union officials and other officers.

What is different today? Widespread accessibility of camera-ready smartphones to citizens willing and able to use them, combined with police body cameras and private cameras. Suddenly, police behavior has become a matter of public record. And a good thing it is!

It is time for a change. This is not a call to “defund” police, whatever that means. It is a call for careful thinking and action about how to restructure police training, administration and discipline and to negotiate union contracts that protect the public.

African-Americans should be able to respect the police in their neighborhoods. African-Americans, just like everyone else, need decent police protection. As matters stand right now, however, African-Americans fear the police and disrespect them—and with good cause.

America has always treated African-Americans with brutality and disrespect. Like today’s police slayings, troublesome slaves were burned at the stake, some roasted over slow fires to magnify their public torture. They were broken on the wheel, gibbeted alive in chains, and as thousands of runaway slave advertisements demonstrate graphically in describing fugitive slaves, ears cropped, noses split, teeth knocked out, limbs mutilated like Kunta Kinte. Slaves were burned at the stake as late as 1827—more than 50 years after the Declaration of Independence. In 1831, heads and body parts of slaves who dared to revolt were posted on spikes on Virginia roads. Likewise, in Louisiana in 1811. In North Carolina in 1831, slaves—including slave children—were marched along a head-lined road known as “N____ Head Road” as warning against not being submissive.

George Floyd’s head is displayed by cell phone imagery.

White Americans need to come to terms with this—African-Americans have constantly and consistently been seriously mistreated in America from the time they arrived on slave ships to the present time.

It continued after slavery with lynchings, burning of black property, denial of voting rights and education, and extreme brutality at the hands of white mobs. It continues today.

Not only do African-Americans live with constant police violence and harassment, but with other harmful government policies in many areas. The most important is in denial of suitable educations. This denial destroys millions of young African-Americans’ futures. It affects African-Americans throughout their entire lives in the form of what is effectively forced servitude in low paying jobs well beneath their actual capabilities and highly vulnerable now to loss due to the pandemic and automation. It results in lower incomes and wealth accumulation. The statistical evidence is dramatic. African-Americans earn only a tiny fraction of the incomes of whites, and are able to accumulate only a trivial fraction of the wealth of whites.

The failure to provide a decent education touches all aspects of daily life—jobs, business formation, housing, retirement savings.

Everyone—everyone—bears responsibility for America’s decrepit schools for disadvantaged youth. Another significant vestige—it was illegal to teach slaves to read and write. African-Americans have never, in more than 400 years in what is now America, had equitable educational opportunity. Some politicians oppose indispensable restructuring of education funding mechanisms. Clearly, however, simply throwing money at incompetent school boards does not work, and has failed over and over.

Real education reform also requires fundamental revamping of educational governance, teacher training and incentive pay, and aggressive implementation of school choice to foster active competition through charter schools and vouchers giving African-Americans access to the same private schooling that is available to white students. Without such serious competition from charter schools and private schools, public schools are completely unmotivated and unable to reform themselves.

Once again, powerful public employee unions are at center stage, this time teachers unions that adamantly oppose the reforms necessary to overcome educational racism in America. Shamefully, they blame African-American parents, but they did not educate those people either. Politicians are terrified not only of police unions, they are like deer in the headlights when it comes to teachers unions.

Like slavemasters providing slaves meager food and clothing, some politicians arrogantly collect votes from poorly-educated poverty-stricken African-Americans by offering desperate people government bread crumbs (if they don’t vote “our way,” they “ain’t black”).

Well-educated self-sufficient African-Americans, thinking for themselves, however, are not the submissive voters politicians expect.

America is incapable of resolving its racial issues. Deep and pervasive bigotry, discrimination and mutual distrust remain from slavery, heightened by these continuing police incidents. Too many politicians of all stripes benefit from keeping deprived African-Americans “in their place.”

Are things better than 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified? Sure, in some areas, but not fundamentally. I recall similar police killings from the 1960s (man shot holding Bible).

Unfortunately, this scenario will be repeated, and repeated again. On a fundamental level, little will be done. The failure to undertake genuine education reform, by itself, guarantees a continuance of inequality.

America’s slavery chickens are coming home to roost, courtesy of smartphones.

Unlike he who fails miserably in leadership, this commentary does not advocate violence.

Robert Doty R.W. Doty is an author who has been researching and writing a book about slavery for the past year, tentatively titled Slave Heroes Fighting America’s Reign of Terror: The Encyclopedia of American Slavery.

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