My newest research project, which will become my third monograph, is tentatively titled “How We Got Here: Slavery and the Making of the Modern Police State.” Intended for a general audience, this project argues that modern-day systems of policing, surveillance, and punitive control of Black communities are traceable to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when white people desperately sought to control a large unfree population who refused to submit to their enslavement.
Despite growing public awareness that mass incarceration has its roots in slavery, and that racial bias infects all aspects of our criminal justice system, our nation has yet to reckon with the reality that contemporary systems of policing and mass criminalization have powerful, significant histories that originated in white fear—not merely of Black people, but also of Black resistance and the very notion of Black freedom. After all, at the heart of slavery lay a terrifying conundrum—an epic struggle between the slaveholders who sought to extract labor, loyalty, and submission from their human property and the enslaved people who longed for freedom and were willing to obtain their liberation by any means necessary.
Slavery, Thomas Jefferson famously quipped, was akin to having a “wolf by the ear”—slaveholders could not release their grip on it, but they also knew that formidable Black rage boiled beneath the surface which could not be fully contained.Black people’s desire for liberation and the inevitability of Black resistance haunted white people, driving them to extreme measures. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, white Americans lived in a constant state of terror, nervously worrying when and where the next uprising would occur. To curb their fears, white authorities enacted laws to monitor and control Black people’s movements, interactions, and even their cultural activities. Gripped with anxiety, they passed a network of laws, policies, and social practices, such as slave patrols, that remain endemic in how this nation still fears Black Americans as violent, criminal, and untrustworthy.
Creating a precedent for state policing and social control that tormented future generations of Black people in America, colonial, state, and federal authorities implemented a complex web of legal codes, patrols, and militias that monitored and governed Black people’s lives in sickening detail, regulating their movement and ensuring that whites felt empowered to use all means—legal and extralegal—to control Black lives. Ultimately, this project argues that if we ever hope to defeat and destroy the systems of social control that plague Black people’s lives, we must have an honest reckoning with the omnipresent white fear that has created, sustained, and fortified them. A portion of this research appears in a chapter co-authored with Michelle Alexander (author of The New Jim Crow) in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story.
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