Police brutality and racial bias in America is a troubling political issue that has dominated public discourse in the nation since the 18th century. Police brutality involves the use of excessive force when dealing with civilians. The issue of police brutality and racial bias affects all races and ethnic groups in the U.S. However, minority communities in America, such as African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately targeted and affected by the issue of police brutality. Policing in America started in the 18th century with the influx of African slaves into the nation. 18th-century policing took the form of slavery patrols aimed at quashing slave rebellions. The racial background of policing in America has carried on into the 21st century with no significant change whatsoever in the relations of police officers and minority communities. Police brutality and racial bias particularly in the State of California has resulted in the death of hundreds of individuals. The high number of casualties of police brutality has prompted increased media attention on the issue which is currently regarded as discriminatory and a breach of Americans’ civil rights and liberties. Police brutality and racial bias in America, particularly in the State of California, is a civil rights issue that requires objective involvement of the media for its effective resolution.
Police Brutality and Racial Bias
The roots of police brutality and racial bias in America can be traced back to the 18th century. In the 17th and 18th centuries, America was heavily involved in the Transatlantic trade that involved Africa, America, and Europe. The Transatlantic trade supplied America with slaves from Africa who provided the much-needed labor in the plantation farms that formed the backbone of the 18th-century American economy (Taylor, 2013). The influx of slaves in America in the early 18th century was characterized by an increase in the number of slave rebellions, particularly in the southern states. To quell slave revolts and capture slaves escaping inhumane treatment slave patrols were developed as a policing mechanism (Taylor, 2013). The first slave patrol in the present-day State of California was established in the early 1800s during the California Gold Rush era (Chaney & Robertson, 2013). Slave patrols were legalized in California in 1852 when the state legislature passed the Fugitive Slave Law (Chaney & Robertson, 2013). The act legalized the capture and punishment of slaves escaping the cruel working conditions of the California gold mines.
The American Civil War further worsened the brutality and racial bias of policing in America. The American Civil War (1861-1865) pitted the pro-union northern states against the secessionist southern states who sought to break away from the union (Taylor, 2013). The civil war was further fueled by disagreements between northern and southern states on the essence and practice of slavery. Northern states held an anti-slavery stance in the standoff, while the southern states heavily invested in plantation farming, were pro-slavery (Krutz, 2019). The standoff on the slavery concept resulted in several African slaves escaping from southern states to those north and west of America. To curb the mass exodus of slaves from the southern states the slave patrols partnered with white imperialist groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, to brutalize and prevent African slaves from fleeing the south (Taylor, 2013). The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 finally freed African American slaves but did little to change policing in America (Taylor, 2013). To circumnavigate the emancipation proclamation several states including California came up with Black Codes to restrict African-American freedoms.
The professionalization of the police in the 20th century did little to reform the racial background of policing in America. In 1919, the Volstead Act was passed to streamline policing issues in America (Chaney & Robertson, 2013). The Volstead Act, however, did not address policy reforms appertaining to racism in the American policing system and therefore did little to address police brutality. Moreover, the passing of the Volstead Act was followed by the adoption of Jim Crow laws in southern states and the onset of Prohibition. The Jim Crow laws legalized the lynching of African-Americans thereby fueling police brutality and racial bias, particularly in the southern states. The inhumane laws prompted many African-American flee to northern and western states, such as California, where their influx was met with suspicion and increased policing (Chaney & Robertson, 2013). Prohibition only served to increase corruption within the police ranks as the police partnered with organized criminal syndicates and helped them harass their rivals.
The Civil Rights Movement, President Nixon’s War on Drugs, and the fights against terrorism has only served to increase police brutality and racial bias. The Civil Rights Movement of 1954 to 1968 was characterized by state-authorized police brutality specifically targeted on African-Americans and other minority groups, such as Latinos (Krutz & Waskiewicz, 2019: Krutz, 2019). For example, during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, the police brutalized unarmed African-American protesters resulting in more than 70 individuals sustaining severe injuries (Krutz, 2019). The War on Drugs, declared by President Richard Nixon, in 1971, resulted in increased police brutality and racial bias, particularly against African-Americans and Latinos. The War on Drugs initiative resulted in stricter policing and criminal law regulations, such as the no-knock warrants and mandatory sentencing, which encouraged police violence against minority groups (Taylor, 2013). America’s renewed fight against international terrorism after the September 2001 bombings resulted in increased racial profiling of African-Americans, particularly Muslims. In California alone, law enforcement officers have wrongly gunned down 51 individuals due to racial profiling programs implemented in the state’s fight against terrorism (Campbell & Valera, 2020). Notably, all victims of police profiling and brutality hail from minority communities.
Police brutality and racial bias prevalent in California and other American states is a civil rights issue. American citizens have fundamental civil rights protected by the nation’s constitution. Civil rights guarantee that government officials treat people equally and fairly without racial, economic, or ethnic discrimination (Krutz, 2019). The concept of civil rights outlaws the discrimination of individuals based on their race, ethnicity, age, or sex. Police brutality in America is highly racial as African Americans are three times more likely to die from violence meted on them by law enforcement officers compared to Whites (Taylor, 2013; Campbell & Valera, 2020). In California, African Americans comprise 28% of police brutality victims in the state despite forming only a meager 13% of the population (Campbell & Valera, 2020). The statistical data highlights the racial manner of policing not only in California, but also throughout America.
Statistical data on police brutality in the state of California defeats the basic principles of equality, liberty, and justice upon which America is theoretically based. According to statistical data from Mapping Police Violence, an organization dedicated to raising awareness on matters of police brutality and racial bias, law enforcement officers have already killed 598 Americans in 2020 (Campbell & Valera, 2020). An estimated 10% of police brutality victims in 2020 died as a direct result of excessive force from California police officers (Campbell & Valera, 2020). In Los Angeles, California, an African American individual is 50% more likely to be killed by law enforcement officers compared to any other individual (Campbell & Valera, 2020). Mapping Police violence Organization ranks the Los Angeles law enforcement department as the sixth most brutal and racially biased police department in America (Campbell & Valera, 2020). The data highlights the fact that California’s police do not uphold the fundamental principles of equality, liberty, and justice in their operations.
Police Brutality and racial bias in the state of California infringes on individuals civil rights. Americans’ civil rights are enshrined in the Bill of Rights, which is a fundamental part of the U.S. constitution. Police brutality and bias expressly infringes on Americans’ Fifth and Eighth Amendment civil rights (Campbell & Valera, 2020: Krutz, 2019). The Fifth Amendment focuses on individuals’ rights in criminal cases, including due process and indictment by a grand jury for capital crimes, as well as the right not to testify against oneself (Krutz, 2019). Every American citizen, even those accused of committing a felony, has a right to face the due process of the law. Therefore, police brutality, which is commonly meted on suspected criminals or their accomplices, is not only inhumane, but also unlawful. The Eighth Amendment protects Americans from excessive bail, excessive fines, or cruel and unusual punishment (Krutz, 2019). Police brutality and racial bias are characterized by the death of several individuals. According to Jean (2020), an average of 1000 individuals in America die annually from police brutality. The Eighth Amendment protects individuals from cruel or unusual punishment. Therefore, the Eighth Amendment protects Americans from police brutality which is characterized by violence against unarmed civilians.
The racial bias that characterizes police brutality in America is a critical challenge to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868 to guarantee equal treatment of every American citizen by the government (Krutz, 2019). The equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment holds that no American state shall deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws (Krutz, 2019). Therefore, the high number of police brutality victims hailing from minority communities highlights racial discrimination and infringement on the equal protection clause by law enforcement officers. The American Supreme Court, in several high-profile cases, has pronounced itself on the issue of the equal protection clause and discrimination. For example, in the Boiling v. Sharpe case of 1954, the Supreme Court held that any form of discrimination by government officers is not only a violation of due process, but also a defeat of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (Krutz & Waskiewicz, 2019). The racial bias of policing in America is a major impediment to the effective implementation of racial equality in the country.
Police brutality and racial bias in the U.S. can be tackled through the use of pressure groups and civic organizations focused on securing equality and justice for all. Various pressure groups have been at the forefront of the fight for change and social justice in America. A majority of the pressure groups are often created to advocate for the interests of minority communities in America. Pressure groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have a long and illustrious history in the fight for social justice and equality for minority communities in America (Krutz, 2019). In 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement was founded to protest the racial nature of the American criminal justice system and the increasing rate of police brutality on African Americans (Jean, 2020). The agitation against police brutality and racial bias by the Black Lives Matter movement has resulted in massive reforms in the American criminal justice system.
The media plays a significant role in how Americans understand and relate to the issue of police brutality and racial bias. The ‘media’ is an expansive term used to define several divergent communication formats, such as print and television media (Krutz, 2019). The collection of all forms of media that communicate information to members of the general public are collectively referred to as mass media (Krutz, 2019). Mass media plays a huge role with regard to police brutality and racial bias in America. Acting as society’s watchdog, the media protects American’s civil rights and liberties from infringement by both the government and unscrupulous government officials. Mass media in the U.S. has been used to highlight and condemn police brutality and racial bias in the nation. For example, in March 1991, the American media highlighted the brutal beating of Rodney King by rogue police officers in Los Angeles, California (Krutz, 2019). The massive circulation of the Rodney beatings by the media resulted in fierce domestic and international furor against police brutality in America (Krutz, 2019). The constant media follow-up and analysis of the Rodney King beatings instigated the 1993 Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles, California. The riots were informed by the acquittal of police officers recorded on video assaulting Rodney King.
American media utilizes agenda-setting techniques, such as priming and framing, to effectively point out the evils of police brutality and racial bias in the nation. Agenda-setting is the act of choosing which issues or topics deserve public discussion. Through agenda-setting mechanisms, the media fosters public discourse on relevant issues affecting Americans, thus facilitating real change in society. For example, following the Rodney King brutal beatings by officers of the Los Angeles Police Department, all major media stations in America focused on the issue of police brutality and the racial bias in California (Krutz, 2019). The agenda-setting mechanism utilized by the media after the Rodney King assault generated massive public pressure for both the federal government and the California state government to reform their criminal justice system.
American mass media companies utilize framing and priming techniques to influence public opinion. Framing involves giving a news item a specific context or background (Krutz, 2019). The media in America frames their news to satisfy not only their objectives but also influence public perception on various policy issues. Priming is also another technique utilized by the American media in a bid to influence public opinion. The media relies on priming techniques to tweak news events to match their objectives (Krutz, 2019). Generally, in America, the media is divided into two: Pro-Democrat media and pro-Republican media, such as the Cable News Network (CNN) and Fox, respectively (Krutz, 2019). The alignment of broadcasting companies affects how the media frames political issues, such as police brutality and racial bias. For example, CNN is often critical of police brutality, and therefore, it calls for tougher policing reforms, such as the defunding of police departments. Fox News, on the other hand, has been criticized by several human rights activists for continuously framing African Americans as criminals, homeless, drug addicts, and poor (Krutz, 2019). This, in turn, shapes the opinion of majority whites in America who view African-Americans and other minority communities as criminals, thus promoting police brutality and racial profiling.
The ubiquitous usage of the internet in contemporary America has resulted in the widespread use of social media and impacted police brutality and racial bias. Social media is not only cheap but also widely used, particularly by the millennial generation. Thus, it is an effective form of mass media. By enabling real-time sharing of news events, social media is a powerful tool in combating police brutality and racial profiling of minority communities. Social media is not prone to agenda-setting mechanisms, such as priming and framing, compared to other traditional forms of mass media such as newspapers and television (Krutz, 2019). This makes social media more transparent and genuine as information is shared without any distortions. In 2020, social media proved quite effective in the fight against police brutality in America, particularly after the murder of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis (Jean, 2020). The nine-minute video of the murder recorded by a bystander was quickly shared globally via social media to global anguish and pain. Through social media, the world was able to learn about the undiluted facts of Floyd’s matter, thereby advocating for the eradication of police brutality and racial bias in America.
Contemporary American political issues of police brutality and bias can be traced back to the 18th century. The discriminatory nature of policing in America is due to the racial nature of the development of police work in the nation. Policing in America was developed to prevent African slaves from escaping the backbreaking plantation labor of the 18th century and to quell slave revolts. Regardless of massive changes in the American political environment, minor constructive changes have been done to revolutionize the American criminal justice system. Law enforcement officers in America continue to discriminate against individuals hailing from minority communities such as Latinos and African-Americans. This informs the high number of police brutality victims hailing from African-American and Latino communities in the U.S.
Police brutality and racial bias affect Americans’ civil rights and liberties and are significantly impacted by the media. Police brutality and racial bias infringe on the Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments which are crucial civil rights enshrined in the American constitution. Moreover, racial profiling and bias by law enforcement officers also infringe on the equality, liberty, and justice principles upon which America is based. The media plays a huge role in matters concerning police brutality and racial bias in America. Using agenda-setting mechanisms such as framing and priming American mass media companies have generated massive attention and public discourse of police brutality and racial bias. The widespread use of social media has enabled the quick spread of news events in the country and is, therefore, a leading factor in the fight against police brutality in America.
Campbell, F., & Valera, P. (2020). “The Only Thing New is the Cameras”: A Study of US College Students’ Perceptions of Police Violence on Social Media. Journal of Black Studies, 0021934720935600. https://doi.org/10.1177%2F0021934720935600
Chaney, C., & Robertson, R. V. (2013). Racism and police brutality in America. Journal of African American Studies, 17(4), 480-505. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12111-013-9246-5
Jean, T. (2020). Black Lives Matter: Police Brutality in the Era of COVID-19. Retrieved from https://lernercenter.syr.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Jean.pdf
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