Policing Black Communities: From Selma to Ferguson*

Randall G. Shelden and Tanesha Buckley

* Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, Washington, DC, November 20, 2015


As so many commentators have noted, Ferguson and the fate of Michael Brown, was not just an isolated incident.  Indeed, it represents the entire country and the near apartheid conditions that exist in this so-called “post-racial America.” This paper addresses the relationship between the police and black communities within an historical context.  In the 1960s sociologist Robert Blauner wrote about what he called “internal colonialism.”  Using the concept of colonialism, he makes the argument that the “internal” variety has much in common with the colonialism itself. His analysis fits what is happening in America today.  As a case in point, in Ferguson the black community the relationship with the dominant group tends to be, as Blauner noted, “administered by representatives of the dominant power.” Variations of such “internal colonies” remain today in many inner-cities where poverty is extremely high and most black children attend highly segregated schools.


Two Nations, One White and One Black

Almost 50 years ago the Kerner Commission, in their report on the riots of the 1960s, stated: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, and one white— separate and unequal” (United States, 1968).

And so it remains today. Today most large urban areas are highly segregated, Baltimore being just one of many (to which I will return shortly). For example, a recent report noted that New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country (Civil Rights Project, 2014). The report noted that in general that “Segregation is by far the most serious in the central cities of the largest metropolitan areas; the states of New York, Illinois and California are the top three worst for isolating black students.” Moreover, “Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, while white and Asian students typically attend middle class schools.” In Detroit, more than 80% of the city is Black (Hoenig, 2013), with the infamous “8 mile road” serving as the dividing line (Chinni, 2002).

Nationally, about 3 million blacks attend schools that are 90% or more minority (Hannah-Jones, 2014). A recent report finds that “African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago” (Strauss, 2013). In his latest book, Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol reports that black students in urban areas attend schools that are almost 100% black (Kozol, 2006). More specifically, Kozol writes that:

In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of the students were black or Hispanic (Kozol, 2005).


Jamelle Bouie (2014), reporting in Slate notes that in 2011 “more than 40 percent of black students attended schools that were 90 percent minority or more” up from 35% in 1991.  This is particularly high in the northeast and Midwest.  In New York it’s about 64%, while in New Jersey it’s 49% and in Pennsylvania it’s 46%; in Illinois it’s 61%, Maryland 53%, and Michigan 50%. Moreover, over half have poverty rates above 90 percent, in contrast to merely 2% of white and Asian schools.  Ironically, schools in the South are far less segregated. Yet another study found that the “typical white student attends a school that is nearly 75 percent white, but only one-eighth Latino and one-twelfth black” (Breslow et al., 2014).  Another report noted that in 1989 “black students typically attended in which 43 percent of their fellow students were low-income; by 2007, this figure had schools risen to 59 percent” (Rothstein, 2013). Lack of educational opportunities continues to plague blacks and other minorities. For instance, blacks have a much higher dropout rate than whites (Child Trends, 2015) and 13% of blacks between the ages 16 to 19 are not in school and not high school graduates, compared to 6% of whites (Kids Count Data Center, 2015).

According to several reports, blacks are the most segregated racial group in America (Bratt et al., 2006). Blacks are “hypersegregated” (e.g., clustered in a specific geographical area, rarely see anyone from another racial groups in their neighborhoods, etc.) in most of the largest metropolitan areas across the U.S., such as Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, DC. Hispanics are also highly segregated in many cities (Massey and Denton, 1993; Rima and Iceland, 2004).

It goes without saying that in these areas the poverty rate is well above the national average. According to the National Poverty Center 38% of black children and 35% of Hispanic children live in poverty (National Poverty Center, 2015). The income and wealth gap between blacks and whites remains as large as ever, as recent data show (Inequality.org, 2015). No matter how you define it (e.g., living in poverty or living in “low income families”), black youth are far more likely than whites to face severe handicaps because of poverty (and it should be noted that most of these children live in a family headed by a female).

Poverty is a fact of life for most black children, as noted in a recent study that noted, among other things, that in 21 states “children eligible for free or reduced-price lunches were a majority of the students in 2013.” The study noted that the states with the highest rates were mostly those in the South (Southern Education Foundation, 2015).

The blatant discrimination illustrated by such a high rate of poverty is directly connected to the criminal justice system and especially the “school to prison pipeline” which starts in the early years of a child’s life (Kim et al. 2012).

There are other large differences between blacks and whites, including how long they will live. Recent data show that white men live five years more than black men and white men who graduate from high school are expected to live 14 years longer than black men who drop out (Friedman, 2014). Turning to Baltimore, a recent New York Times study shows that “Among the nation’s 100 largest jurisdictions, the one where children face the worst odds of escaping poverty is the city of Baltimore….” (Leonhardt et al., 2015). A New York Times editorial notes “that those who grew up in recent decades in Baltimore earn 28 percent less at age 26 than otherwise similar kids who grew up in an average county in the United States.” The editorial continues, noting that: “As shocking as they are, these facts make perfect sense in the context of the century-long assault that Baltimore’s blacks have endured at the hands of local, state and federal policy makers, all of whom worked to quarantine black residents in ghettos, making it difficult even for people of means to move into integrated areas that offered better jobs, schools and lives for their children” (Editorial Board, 2015).

Racially segregated neighborhoods, poverty, poor schools, subpar housing, drugs, gangs and a history of racism becomes the context of what we have been witnessing. Throw into the mix a history of police serving as an “army of occupation” as if the neighborhoods were “internal colonies” (which I have discussed previously), plus the blatant murders of black males by the police (not to mention the high arrest and incarceration rates for blacks and other minorities) and you get the results we’ve seen (NAACP, 2015; Shelden, 2014). 

Internal Colonialism

“This is the hate that hate produced.”  No this statement was not made by someone in Ferguson, but rather it came from someone at the scene during the Watts riots in 1967. As Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Rioting is the language of the unheard.”  This came from one of his many speeches.  The complete quote is as follows:

It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard (Democracy Now, 2014).


To better understand what is happening and the role of the police in predominantly black communities, it might help to resurrect a 1969 article by sociologist Robert Blauner who wrote about what he called “internal colonialism.”  His article appeared in the journal Social Problems and it was called “Internal Colonialism and Ghetto Revolt.” Using the concept of colonialism, he makes the argument that the “internal” variety has much in common with the colonialism itself.  He said that there are four components of colonialism.  First, “Colonization begins with a forced, involuntary entry. Second, there is an impact on the culture and social organization of the colonized people which is more than just a result of such ‘natural’ processes as contact and acculturation. Third, colonization involves a relationship by which members of the colonized group tend to be administered by representatives of the dominant power. There is an experience of being managed and manipulated by outsiders in terms of ethnic status. A final fundament of colonization is racism. Racism is a principle of social domination by which a group seen as inferior or different in terms of alleged biological characteristics is exploited, controlled, and oppressed socially and psychically by a superordinate group” (Blauner, 1969: 396).

I think this description describes what is happening in America today.  As a case in point, in Ferguson the black community the relationship with the dominant group tends to be “administered by representatives of the dominant power.” Looking at news coverage of the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, I was struck by the obvious fact that just about everyone in control were white males, including the governor, the district attorney and the vast majority of the police.

It has long been noted by scholars and citizens that the policing of black communities are distinctly different than in white communities. As Weitzer notes (2015, 3): “In middle-class and affluent communities, a police presence is typically episodic and, on the rare occasions when officers are called to the neighborhood, they are likely to treat residents with a measure of respect.”  But in direct contrast, in black and other disadvantaged communities, residents are far more likely to be stopped (often because they are more likely to engage in various illegal survival techniques, such as selling drugs), “but are also much more likely than their white counterparts to be stopped repeatedly” (Ibid.).

Speaking of the district attorney, it seemed obvious that, unlike what most often happens, he did not really seek an indictment, but rather almost went out of his way to discourage an indictment. Indeed, as the Washington Post noted, between 2009 and 2010, U.S. prosecutors “pursued 193,000 cases” and out of “more than the 30,000 cases they didn’t prosecute, 11 cases were because a grand jury did not return an indictment.” That represents less than 0.1% of the 30,000. This jives with a report that noted that in less than 3% of cases do grand juries refuse to indict (Goldfarb, 2014). It is even rarer when police officers are indicted for killing a citizen (Madar, 2014).

As so many commentators have noted, Ferguson and the fate of Michael Brown, was not just an isolated incident.  Indeed, it represents the entire country and the near apartheid conditions that exist in this so-called “post-racial America” – a concept that claims race doesn’t matter anymore.  I don’t know who came up with this absurd idea, but it is totally divorced from reality.  Tim Wise, a frequent writer on the subject of race, interjected this comment about the term: “To me, ‘post-racial’ is little more than a nonsense term devised by people (mostly white, frankly), who would simply rather not deal with the ever-present reality of racism and ongoing racial discrimination” (Wise, 2012).

The enforcement of law can be viewed as one among many attempts to control the black community.  Over the years police departments have used many different methods to do this.  One is the popular “stop and frisk” procedure, which is about as racist as you can get. For example, ACLU report (2015) noted that in New York City between 2002 and 2015 the police stopped more than 5 million citizens. The vast majority (more than 85%) were either black or Latino, and about 90% turned out to be completely innocent of any crime.  But as the report notes, a data base has been built up with personal information on every person stopped.

Another common method is the “pretext stop” which has been described as follows:

A pretextual stop is commonly defined as the use of a power granted to the police for one reason (e.g. ensuring safe driving conditions) for an entirely unrelated purpose (e.g. ‘fishing expeditions’ for evidence.) More specifically, a pretextual stop is the use of a traffic stop to conduct further police action that is not justified by probable cause or reasonable suspicion. These pretextual stops are almost universally frowned upon because they grossly overstep the generally accepted bounds of police action (Rocher, 2014, para. 2).


It was this kind of situation that led to the killing of Walter Scott in Charleston, South Caroling on April 7, 2015. The shooting was caught on tape and went viral.  The officer involved has been indicted for murder (Berman, 2015; Berman et al., 2015).

          Many times the “pretexts” are simply ridiculous, as in the case where a Rhode Island black man recorded such a stop when he was pulled over.  After repeatedly asking the officer why he was pulled over, he was told that the reason was an air fresher he had hanging from his rear view mirror was “obstructing his view of the road” (Johnson, 2015).

          These sorts of incidents have been described by Weitzer as procedural justice which “can make a big difference in citizens’ willingness to cooperate with officers, in their evaluation of the contact, and in their overall opinion of the police” (2015, 2). This type of procedure takes place “when officers give citizens a reason for a stop, treat them courteously, allow them to explain their actions, and demonstrate that police procedures are fair.”  However, if “a person is verbally demeaned, given no reason for being stopped, told to “shut up” detained in public for a long time, subjected to excessive force, or given a “rough ride” in a police van,” then the result is most likely a guarantee “that he or she will define this treatment as unjust and that these experiences will spill over and color the citizen’s general opinion of the police” (Ibid.). 

From Selma to Ferguson

The film “Selma” has received its share of criticism, as are all films. I don’t want to go into all the criticisms, but the reader should consult a recent review by Brittney Cooper (2015) who challenges New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd’s “clueless white gaze.”

The film was one of the best I had seen all year and was riveting and emotional.  But it was the central issue that was important to me, namely, the right to vote.  This right is maybe one of the most important of all our rights for it allows us to participate in the democratic process.  While it may be merely symbolic since the elections are often a waste of time and are controlled by the wealthy, it is important since blacks and Latinos overwhelmingly vote democratic.  And this can be a huge difference in both local and national elections.

But there is another reason why the film is important.  This is because it is current.  As the old saying goes, “the past is prologue.”  What happened in Selma is happening today.  There has been a concerted effort to reduce or in some cases eliminate the black vote.  While in the days of Selma it was the “poll tax” and making them answer silly questions that virtually no white person could answer (like in the movie where a black woman – played by Oprah Winfrey – was asked to name every judge in Alabama), today it is “voter ID.”  Indeed, as a recent article notes, ever “since the 2010 elections, 22 states, almost all controlled by Republicans, have passed laws restricting the right to vote” (Hartman, 2015; Brennan Justice Center, 2015).

Furthermore, back then it was part of a long history of “Jim Crow.”  Today Jim Crow has made a comeback, not only with voter ID laws but the daily operations of the criminal justice system.  This includes the high incarceration rate for blacks as illustrated in a recent book by Michelle Alexander (2012) in addition to the recent shootings of blacks by the police in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. A quote from hip--hop artist T-Dubb-O sums up the current feelings of many black males in the St. Louis area: they “know how old they are from the tone of the police” as follows: “ When you're 8 or 9, it's, 'yo, where are you going?' and when it's 'get down on the ground,' you know you've turned 15" (Pinckney, 2015).

The blatant mistreatment of blacks by the criminal justice system was visually illustrated in the movie but also in the news coverage of the event as it took place 50 years ago.  And such treatment resulted in widespread demonstrations and violent uprisings, both then and now.

The abuse of blacks and other minorities by the criminal justice system has been documented for many years and I need not go into detail here. (For a brief review of the literature on the subject see Shelden et al., 2016: 135-137.)

Ferguson represents the “fire this time,” a slight modification of James Baldwin’s classic book “The Fire Next Time,” published in 1963.  In a recent commentary, Bob Herbert (2014) used “the fire this time” to describe the black community’s reaction to what happened in Ferguson and elsewhere. He said: “But these tragedies all emerge from the same fetid source -- the racism embedded in the very foundation of America. And it's that racism -- stark, in-your-face, never-ending, frequently murderous -- that has so many African-Americans so angry and frustrated, so furious, so enraged. Black people all across America, not just in Ferguson, are angry about the killing of Michael Brown. And they remain angry over the killing of Trayvon Martin. And many are seething over the fatal chokehold clamped on the throat of Eric Garner by a cop on Staten Island in New York.”

So Selma is Ferguson and Ferguson is Selma and all towns and cities in between.  Whether you call it the “new Jim Crow,” “internal colonies” or “Sundown Towns” (Loewen, 2005), it’s not a good scenario for the majority of blacks.

The fire will continue to burn until the day that true justice prevails.

Poetry by Tanesha Buckley


One of my graduate students wrote some poetry for this paper and to close this presentation I would like to share two of them.


The Race Card

December 24, 2014


We were chosen from the deck.

Hardly a game of Russian roulette.

A deck where someone robbed the set; of hearts.

Where sets of blacks were clubbed,

Graves dug with spades to bury blacks in mud.

A game such as this was not fair or fun.

We were always chosen from the deck,

To wear chains around our necks.

Forced to silence and to forget those who stacked the deck.

The very mention of foul play against the black set

Sets off an uproar.

But in this game of race,

Who played the race card more?


Black Lives Matter ‘Til It Don’t

December 11, 2014


Black lives matter but to who?

These killings aren’t new.

Where were you when Black men experienced high pursuits?

Where were you when Black people didn’t know what else to do but loot?

Where are you now?

Images of Black men painting red murals on pavements.

Uneducated as a whole forced to translate in laymen.

Why are we angry?

And to whom are we placing blame?

I blame the person looking back at me.

A reflection of vacancy.

Embarrassed and confused because I should see me;

But I won’t!

Cause Black lives only matters til it don’t!


© 2014, Tanesha L. Q. Buckley. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.  



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