Slavery and the Origins of the American Police State

Ben Fountain: Control of this new (enslaved) labor force would be key; mutiny was the great fear. By the early 1700s, a comprehensive system of racially directed law enforcement was well on its way to being fully developed. This was, in fact, the first systematic form of policing in the land that would become the United States. The northeast colonies relied on the informal “night-watch” system of volunteer policing and on private security to protect commercial property. In the southern colonies, policing’s origins were rooted in the slave economy and the radically racialized social order that invented “whiteness” as the ultimate boundary. “Whites,” no matter how poor or low, could not be held in slavery. “Blacks” could be enslaved by anyone—whites, free blacks, and people of mixed race.

The distinction—and the economic order that created it—was maintained by a legally sanctioned system of surveillance, intimidation, and brute force whose purpose was the control of blacks. Slave patrols, or paddyrollers, were the chief enforcers of this system; groups of armed, mounted whites who rode at night among the plantations and settlements of their assigned “beats”—the word originated with the patrols—seeking out runaway slaves, unsanctioned gatherings, weapons, contraband, and generally any sign of potential revolt.

[…] The system continued largely intact after Emancipation and the defeat of the Confederacy. Legally sanctioned slave patrols were replaced by night-riding vigilantes like the Ku Klux Klan, whose white robes, flaming torches, and pseudo-ghost talk were intended for maximum terrorizing effect. Lynching and shooting took place alongside the more traditional punishments of beating and whipping; blacks’ economic value as slaves had evaporated, and with it the constraints on lethal force that had offered some measure of protection under the old system.

White supremacy continued as the dominant reality for the next hundred years, a social and psychological reality maintained by terror, surveillance, and the letter of the law. Its power was such that even the New Deal—the most profound reordering of American society since the Civil War—left white supremacy intact. Twenty-six lynchings were recorded in Southern states in 1933. An antilynching bill was defeated in Congress in 1935.

[…] We don’t have to know the particulars of history in order to live it in our bones. Sometimes history arrives as a sense of the uncanny, the peculiar weight of certain words and acts, a suffusion of dreadful power. We might suppose the pass system is long gone, but there it is in stop-and-frisk, in racial profiling, in the reflexive fear and violence of our own time. More here.

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