Segregation, Poverty and Policing: A Shared History

By Walter KatzJune 19, 2022

Segregation, Poverty and Policing: A Shared History
Like Thomas Mann, James Baldwin spent part of his life in exile — Baldwin in Paris while I speak to you from Mann’s desk here in Pacific Palisades.

Once back in the United States, Baldwin wrote an essay in 1966, “A Report from Occupied Territory,” whose subject was not some far off land, but Black urban America. He recounted the savage beatings that the police inflicted on Black children and men in Harlem and the false arrests made for even questioning what the police were doing.

He observed:

What I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco — is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.

What has changed in 56 years?

As I speak, we are just a week away from the second anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The murder of George Floyd in 2020 was the brutal exercise of the forceful continuance of segregation — the roots of which run back more than a century in time. We should not look at the murder of Mr. Floyd — as horrific as it was — as the acts by a lone-wolf troubled officer.

Before the murder of George Floyd, researchers with the University of Minnesota conducted interviews of residents of North Minneapolis — a majority Black neighborhood — to learn about their perceptions of safety and trust in the police department. Only one in five residents felt that their neighborhood was safe. A little over a third felt that the police treated people with “dignity and respect” either “often” or “almost always.” Even more notably, only 18% of residents believed that the police respected their rights. A majority of the surveyed residents saw unjust and violent policing as part of the problem of inadequate safety in the neighborhood. Young Black men felt particularly vulnerable to police stops and violence. Many residents saw the police as spending its time harassing residents, while leaving gun violence and other serious crimes unaddressed.

These experiences are not unique. Scholars and writers, like James Baldwin, identified the roots of the modern criminal justice system in the United States as linked to the maintenance of its racialized social order brought about by segregation.

When you consider that much of the American criminal justice system was designed and established during the Jim Crow era — a time of infliction of great violence on Black people — we should not be surprised. The criminal justice system of the early 20th century helped preserve racial order. It kept Black people in their place, physically and economically, by controlling behavior and movement. We should not be surprised that features of it are still with us.

Yale University law professor Monica Bell accurately wrote that “the full body of research on race and trust is one of profound marginalization… [distinct] from those of other ethnic and class groups in the United States.”

In the aftermath of the civil unrest in the 1960s, the Kerner Commission issued its report in 1968 and identified that many Black Americans led lives of economic exclusion and segregation and were at the mercy of police forces that were equated with what Professor Bell later described as “white power, white racism, and white repression.”

There was, however, a backlash to the civil rights movement of the 1960s and an effort to associate Blackness with violence that ignored the findings of the Kerner Commission. Police budgets grew larger. Officers organized into powerful labor unions that negotiated almost every detail of their job, including discipline. Along with more spending came greater authority to impose law and order tactics such as the ability to stop, search, arrest, and deploy force. New concepts, such as “broken windows,” led the police to aggressively enforce disorder and quality of life offenses. The impacts of the aggressive tactics were profound:

In New York City, police stops of pedestrians increased from 90,000 to just under 700,000 between 2002 and 2011, and the issuance of low-level summonses expanded from 160,000 in the early 1990s to 650,000 in 2005, with Black people suffering the majority of these increases.

When the preoccupation of policing became the elimination of disorder “against disordered people and places, the brunt [fell] on Black people.”

So, what does any of this have to do with economics?

Data from the 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances show that long-standing and substantial wealth disparities persist. The typical white family has eight times the wealth of the typical Black family.

Why? The answer lies in what happened decades earlier. Racially-restrictive-deed covenants first appeared in Minneapolis in 1910 and then rapidly spread. The first such covenant stated that “premises shall not at any time be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, Moorish, Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.” Black Americans were the primary target of such covenants and, as a result, were pushed into a few corners of the city — such as North Minneapolis. By the 1940s, when such covenants were ruled unconstitutional, Black Minnesotans could not choose where to live, they had fewer housing options and were more vulnerable to predatory lending. Those harms remained despite the change in the law on its face.

The construction of expressways in cities like Minneapolis and Chicago in the 1950s, 60s and 70s intentionally tore through and destroyed Black neighborhoods and further enforced segregation.

According to the Census Bureau, today only 18% of business in the United States are minority-owned.

Minneapolis has the lowest Black home ownership rate in the country. Poor neighborhoods with large Black populations, like Near North, Phillips and Powderhorn — where George Floyd was murdered — have the lowest life expectancy in the region.

A study by the McKinsey consulting firm found that in the United States:

  • One out of every five Black households is situated in a food desert, meaning a low-income neighborhood with inadequate access to food.

  • Black households are 50% more likely to live in areas with limited broadband internet service, with effects on job hunting, remote work, and remote learning.

  • Bank branches have been closing rapidly in recent years, and Black Americans are disproportionately likely to live in banking deserts. Nearly half of all Black households were unbanked or underbanked in 2017, compared to just 20% of white households.

  • The burden of arrests for low-level conduct falls on these same people in poverty — which in much of the United States means low-income Black Americans.

In the 1960s, the use of police stops, the beatings and other violence that occurred during these encounters, and the ensuing arrests and pernicious fines, produced recurring tensions between police and Black communities. The Kerner Commission identified this unfairness as a spark for several of the urban riots in the United States in the 1960s. James Baldwin had already been writing for years that the astonishment, anguish, and bewilderment of the white world in response to riots only existed because it had not been paying attention to the realities of living in segregated Black urban communities.

Professor Bell has argued that “segregation creates a dynamic in which communities that are largely Black and poor” are viewed as needing a different type of oversight and control. Though people want the same types of service from the police no matter where they live, “segregation obscures this fact” and serves as a justification for taking “radically different approaches to the treatment of human life.”

There are possible options to start decreasing these disparities and the harm segregation has caused.

First, shrinking the footprint of policing would mean decreasing the opportunities for interactions that reinforce the practices of segregation and control for minor offenses of behavior. This could be done by:

  1. Prohibiting traffic stops for minor violations

  2. Ending the role of police in public housing inspections

  3. Taking police out of schools; and

  4. Creating alternative responses to behavioral health crisis

Second, policy makers could take measures to alleviate the burden on Black neighborhoods by:

  1. Incorporating environmental design to decrease likelihood of violent crime

  2. Investing in community-led violence intervention strategies such as street outreach and cognitive behavioral therapy; and

  3. Investing in Black neighborhoods that are food, health, and banking deserts and support black-owned business owners to provide those goods and services.

Finally, the United States should embark on a path of transitional justice and truth-seeking.

My friends at the International Center for Transitional Justice describe “the aim of institutional reforms is to establish and develop civic trust between citizens and state institutions by transforming institutions that are abusive, apply discriminatory policies, and defend partisan or elite interests into agencies that uphold and respect the rule of law, protect human rights, serve the public at large, and thereby safeguard democracy.”

Such an effort will require patience, dedication, and the willingness of government and the police to hear uncomfortable truths. Unfortunately, what we have seen over the last year is similar to the backlash of 1968. Many people not only don’t want to talk about the harms of segregation and its enforcement by the police but are opposed to even considering the role of race in our society. Truth and reconciliation could make lasting change possible. But we are very far from an effort to seek or agree on a true accounting of history — be it two years or 56 years ago.


LARB Contributor

Walter Katz is Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures. After beginning his career as a public defender in Southern California, Walter Katz spent the next three decades in public service, serving as an independent police auditor in San Jose, California, and as deputy inspector general for the County of Los Angeles Office of Inspector General (OIG) before returning to his hometown of Chicago in 2017 to serve as deputy chief of staff for public safety in the administration of Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. In that role, Katz oversaw one of the most complex police reform efforts in the United States and served as a co-negotiator of a consent decree enacted in 2019 that resulted in the design and development of the city’s Office of Violence Prevention.


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