Prof. Edward Baptist, history, and Prof. Vanessa Holden, history, the University of Kentucky, recently wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post detailing the historical roots of how Americans, often white, “[take] it upon themselves” to call the police on Black people.
Recently, a surge of responses to instances of white people calling the police on innocent black Americans has cropped up online. Baptist and Holden referenced cases including a graduate student calling the police on a black student at Yale, a group of black women who were reported to the police because of the way they were playing golf and a white neighbor calling the police on a black 12-year-old mowing a lawn.
Throughout the last few years, the biggest change in these incidents is that the initiators of these police calls are no longer being lauded for their efforts.
Instead, there has been virulently negative reaction on social media platforms — sometimes resulting in the accusing individuals losing their jobs and being publicly condemned. The behavior, exhibited by those such as Jennifer Schulte — known as “BBQ Becky” — who called the police on black men using a grill in a park, mirrors historical behavior by white Americans, the op-ed said.
“For virtually the first time, white Americans have faced social disapproval for being caught on camera in the act of treating utterly normal behavior by black people as criminals,” Baptist and Holden wrote in the editorial. “But people like ‘BBQ Becky’ are not new. They continue a long tradition that began in slavery.”
Baptist, Holden and three other historians are part of a team collecting information for a database of fugitive slave laws. The database serves to collect “thousands of stories of resistance” through an inter-departmental project, The Sun previously reported.
Through utilizing information that is being collected for the database, Baptist and Holden illustrated the connection between modern incidents of white Americans calling the police on black Americans with the language and implementation of fugitive slave laws.
“The ads reveal how white Americans trained and incentivized themselves to police black Americans’ movements,” they wrote.
One historical ad they highlighted from 1858 was for a woman named Lavenia, an escaped slave from Richmond, Virginia. The language of the ad by her enslaver created a broad description that could have been applied a wide-range of African-American looking individuals, according to Baptist and Holden.
“The point of the ad, which said she was ‘18 years old, black, rough skin, thick lips, good teeth’ and ‘walks awkwardly,’ was to get any person to read it to look closely at any African American adolescent or young woman,” Baptist and Holden wrote.
This system of policing enslaved Africans also boosted the social status of the poorer white Americans that aided in these efforts, according to Baptist and Holden, who thus began “defining themselves as part of the in-group by using violence against black people.”
The laws used language that policed the actions of black Americans whether they were enslaved or not. Laws allowed people who were suspected of being “slaves” to be policed.
“If every African American was a potential fugitive, every white American was a potential slave-catcher,” Baptist and Holden wrote. “In our own time, white people often rely on professionals to carry out the confrontation, interrogation, arrest, search and even killing of black people who seem ‘out of place.’”
“But civilians drive the system, whether by calling armed police or taking the killing power of law enforcement into their own hands,” they continued.
Another consequence of this system is that black Americans become self-aware of their actions and, in turn, self-police. Given that the ultimate goal of the police during slavery was to alter the behavior of black people, this is just another “outgrowth or continuation” of slavery, according to Baptist.
“There is a long, long continuity here in slavery,” Baptist told The Sun. “Because that was also the intent of the system of policing in slavery to get enslaved people to constrain their own movement, their own actions, so they played the roles that white people wanted them to play.”
Change to the policing system cannot happen solely with people recording these instances, Baptist told the Sun, asserting that there needed to be a “fundamental” shift to the system that incorporates both a legal and cultural shift.
Baptist connected the need for legal consequences — in addition to social consequences — to the pre-Civil War era. The written stories of enslaved people who freed themselves, such as Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs, brought the atrocities of slavery to a wider audience, Baptist said. People began to change their ideas surrounding slavery, but their accounts alone didn’t end slavery — legislation did.
“The courage of people who are documenting this insanity is absolutely crucial and necessary for any change to happen,” Baptist said. “It can’t just be a certain segment of white people saying ‘man that’s crazy, I am never going to use 911 that way’ and maybe they won’t, but until there is an actual legal change, we will still see that kind of behavior.”