Police brutality against African Americans



The historic tragic deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers has been a subject that has generated public debate and heightened the scope of racial profiling within the American society. Records indicate that police brutality remains a thorn in the flesh of the African Americans, with the trends indicating that the recent protests against police brutality by various civil rights and specialist movement groups would not bring an end to this debate. In part, this debate has been heightened by the divergent views on the phenomenon that constitutes police brutality. In part, other views contend that the police are merely within the law to execute their mandate of maintaining law and order, devoid of the outcomes that accompany their actions. On the other hand, some views the phenomenon through the lenses of institutionalized police brutality meted specifically against African Americans. The purpose of this study is to broaden the analytical frame through which the debate of police brutality against African Americans is persistent. In so doing, a history of the problem will be provided to establish whether or not the problem has been institutionalized as claimed by others. In addition, the arguments and counter-arguments with regards to the phenomenon of racial profiling in policing is discussed in order to establish the extent to which the problem has affected the American society. The discussion concludes by providing a set of recommendations that could be implemented to reduce the problem.


In the summers 2014 and 2016, the global attention was directed at the increased prevalence of African American male killings by the police. The first incidence in Ferguson, Missouri involved the death of Michael Brown, an 18-year old African American male who was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, a white police officer despite him (Brown) being unarmed. A year later in Baltimore, Freddie Gray was arrested by the Baltimore Police Department for what was termed as possession of an illegal knife based on the Baltimore laws. However, Gray would die in police custody, raising questions on the possibility of him being tortured to death by the officers. In July 2016, the fatal shootings of 37 year old Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota by the police have raised more questions than answers on the unclear circumstances under which African American men are killed and brutalized by the law enforcement officers.

However, the recent concerns raised about racial profiling of the African Americans by the police paint a picture of a long-standing history of institutionalized racial policing. As early as July 1917, the US recorded one of the most brutal riots against African Americans. These riots, which were witnessed primarily in St. Louis, were characterized by white people attacking African Americans for being employed in the industries that manufactured war materials. Despite being fully aware of the lynching, shootings, beatings and hanging of African Americans residents, the St. Louis Police Department did not take any action against the perpetrators, largely because of their racial background. The lack of police attention towards the African Americans has not only been depicted through the historic tolerance of violence meted against this minority but also through the drastic measures and events that have characterized the poor relationship between the police and the African Americans.

The advent of the state-sponsored police forces in the US marked the beginning of racial policing in the US landscape. The 1951 petition titled “We Charge Genocide” submitted by the Civil Rights Congress to the UN documents the thousands of police violence incidents directed to African Americans. In the report, it was established that the colonial culture of the US was integral in ingraining police brutality against African Americans.

Several studies report that the increased national and international attention on the phenomenon of police brutality against African Americans came into light in the 1960s when the African Americans began social movements to protests against institutionalized discrimination. As it emerges, majority of the previous cases of police brutality against the African Americans did not receive attention due to the systemic racism that barred media houses from exposing the plight of this minority. Over the last half century, the widespread abuses by law enforcement agents have been exposed due to the increased media focus on these events. True to this, the contemporary debate on the police brutality and institutional racial profiling against African Americans by the US state and local police is a conception of the efforts by the media to sensitize and sensationalize the debate.


The phenomenon of police brutality against the African Americans has attracted various viewpoints, most of which have attempted to prove the validity of their respective positions through statistical inferences acquired from historical records. At the forefront of ascertaining police brutality as a social problem that is specifically encountered by African Americans are civil rights societies.

In line with the February 2004 report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), racial profiling in policing has been consistent against minorities, but more specifically against African Americans. The report indicates that between 1950 and 2000, the population of African Americans brutalized and killed by the police nearly equals that of the White Americans, despite the latter being the majority of the population. In addition, the report highlights that the average African American male is three times more likely to be arrested compared to the majority Whites.

The prevalence of racial profiling based on the view of civil and human rights societies are ingrained in the persistent subjection of African Americans to disproportionate exposure to the police. One in every four officers in the US has a stereotypical view of the racial minority, which attaches a violent label on the African Americans and Hispanics. The findings by the authors reveal that racial profiling by the US police is linked with the historic stereotypes that had labeled the minorities.

Other than civil rights groups, specialist movement groups have emerged with diverse viewpoints that assert their opinion on the problem manifested through police brutality against African Americans. In 2014, the Black Lives Matter movement began as a response against the increase of the fatal shootings of African American males by the police. The primary argument by this group is that the African Americans have been depicted as a threat to national security due to the large numbers of African Americans in incarceration. As a consequence, the police have largely assumed that African Americans have a peculiar motive that borders on crime, violence and hate.

The profiling claim by specialist groups uses the statistics about the frequency at which African Americans are flagged by traffic control police to assert their claim of police bias against this minority. Reports drawn from the US Department of Justice indicate that majority of the traffic tickets were issued to African Americans, despite them having the least number of car owners among the racial segments of the US population. Such subtle statistics reveal that generally, there is a bias against African Americans, which has culminated into the execution of brutality under the guise of enforcing law and order.

The civil rights groups fall under the idealists who approach the debate based on the logical and humane constructs. The realists, on the other hand, have attempted to justify the actions of the police, thereby choosing to adopt a legal approach to understanding the concept of police brutality and how it manifests specifically against the African Americans. Based on the realists, there is no such thing as racial profiling based against the African Americans.

The realists have argued that the crusaders of the anti-police brutality campaign are ignorant of the historic crime statistics that have placed the African Americans at high risk of indulging in crime compared to other races. The realists claim that there is a reason behind the all-time high rates of African American incarcerations in the US prisons. These statistics illustrate how the demographics of crime are inclined towards the African Americans. Therefore, the claim peddled by idealists that selective enforcement of policing has been directed towards the African Americans is flawed and ignorant of the innate demographic characteristics that have made crime institutional among most African Americans communities, as opposed to making police brutality a mainstay problem against the African Americans.

The police officers and law enforcement protectors have argued in states where interdiction of African Americans is high, such as New Jersey, the concepts of racial profiling and police brutality has been misunderstood due to the cultural behaviors that are evidently against the law. Over time, officers in such states receive reports of young African Americans over speeding along streets with a number of occupants that exceeds the capacity of the car, or children and young adults carrying or consuming drugs among other cultural behaviors that are not supported in law.

Inasmuch as the unlawful reports do not warrant the use of force and brutality, studies have shown that police officers are at high risk of being shot and killed in areas where the population of African Americans is concentrated. Such study findings are significant in upholding the label of violence that has been tagged on African Americans. As such, realists contend that it is the duty of the police to remain impartial in delivering their mandate as law enforcement agents.


From this discourse, there is a misunderstanding of the concept of police brutality and racial profiling, which contributes to the thin line of contextualization of institutionalized police brutality against the African Americans. The long term recommendation is to engage the police and the aggrieved community in educational programs that highlight the extent to which policing activity meets the threshold of racially-based brutality. The federal and state governments should initiate a criminal prosecution that holds all the officers accountable for their actions, thereby improving the responsibility of the officers. The last proposal is to provide relief and compensation for the victims of police brutality, and African Americans who remain behind bars due to disproportionately wrong convictions.

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