Another white police officer has shot and killed yet another black person—this time it’s Walter Scott, who was killed by now-former officer Michael Slager in North Charleston, South Carolina. As the body count of black lives and level of trauma inflicted on the black community continue to climb, we are confronted with a critical question: Why do the police keep shooting and killing unarmed black men and women?
American history reveals that black people’s relationship with the police has been one of attempted subjugation since the birth of the nation. Whether slave patrols or the Black Codes, whether the 3,959 lynchings of Black people between 1877 and 1950 or a neo-slavery system of convict leasing, the history of American policing is replete with the message that black lives don’t matter.
But another factor has gone relatively unexamined in explaining police killings of black folks: racial segregation. Several scholars—including Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton, Garrett Power, and Mindy Fullilove—have used the term “American Apartheid” to describe America’s entrenched system of racial segregation. Residential segregation functions as a root cause of white police killing unarmed black people.
As statistician Nate Silver has noted, most police don’t live in the cities they serve and patrol. This is especially true for white police officers. Out of the 75 largest cities in the U.S., only 35 percent of white police officers live in the cities they serve; rather, a large majority of white police officers live in suburbs surrounding the city.
In cities such as Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, Denver, Newark, Los Angeles, Birmingham, Tampa, Orlando, Minneapolis, Oakland and Miami, fewer than 25 percent of white officers live in the cities they patrol. This might not seem to be a big deal—until one considers that most suburbs were extremely segregated until the 1980s due to the critical role of the Federal Housing Administration in subsidizing the construction of suburbs. Therefore, white police officers live in and/or grew up in disproportionately white suburbs.
Federal, state and local policies also explain the conditions of urban black neighborhoods that white police officers will patrol after commuting from their suburban home. America’s residential segregation is a result of over 100 years’ worth of race- and eugenics-based policies, including:
Sundown towns—hundreds of jurisdictions where African-Americans were intentionally excluded from living in the U.S. by ordinance, violence, or the threat of violence.
Racial zoning—separated neighborhoods, schools and churches by race. Racial zoning first started in Baltimore in 1910 by Mayor J. Barry Mahool. The policy was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1917 in Buchanan v. Worley.
Restrictive covenants—deed restrictions on properties that barred blacks, Jews and other ethnic groups from living in white suburbs. The policy was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1948 in Shelley v. Kraemer.
Public housing—the nation’s initial public housing developments were segregated in cities such as Baltimore. Additionally, public housing sites were often located in black neighborhoods, intensifying segregation after 1937.
Redlining—determined which mortgages would be insured by the Federal Housing Administration and therefore financed by banks. This policy lasted until 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act and the Supreme Court’s Jones v. Mayer decision.
Due to these devastating government policies that sanctioned racial segregation, the areas where more than 60 percent of white police officers live are jurisdictions where black people have been intentionally excluded. This creates a dynamic where most white police officers who live in suburbs and patrol in black neighborhoods are commuting to work with ingrained, longstanding racial biases and stereotypes intact. As James Loewen argues in Sundown Towns: “Segregated neighborhoods make it easier to discriminate against African Americans in schooling, housing, and city services.”
This is especially true for the service of policing. Researchers have found that excessive force complaints increased dramatically as segregation increases. For cities in the highest category (fifth quintile) of segregation, resident complaints of police use of excessive force was more than three times higher than the fourth quintile.
All this means that racial segregation increases the odds that white, suburban police officers living will see black people as a threat before they enter those communities. And it also increases the chances that a white officer will kill a black person before they leave.
Until we wrestle with residential segregation as a causal factor, and reverse America’s betrayal of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, we will continue to see more Michael Slagers gunning down more Walter Scotts. Until then, perhaps black people should begin extensively deploying Copwatch Patrol Units—appointing our own police to fight crime with an anti-racist, restorative justice approach.
Lawrence Brown is an Assistant Professor of Public Health at Morgan State University, who studies the impact of segregation and forced displacement on community health.