Understanding What It Means To 'Defund Police' Is Only The Beginning

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Erik McGregor/Getty

In my last article, I explained the intentions of the majority of those who support defunding police. While there are some who want to abolish policing altogether, the majority want to take a significant portion of the resources used to fund policing and divert those funds to social systems that enable equity of opportunity so that people aren’t driven to criminal behavior in the first place. I also went over the American propensity to criminalize behaviors that shouldn’t be considered crimes, like mental health issues, drug addiction, and homelessness.

I only touched on the “elephant in the room,” which is that policing is racist. At its very core, policing is riddled with racism. Founded on racism, evolved on racism, and carrying on a legacy of racism. Policing, like most systems in America, is a living, breathing organism, and racism is its blood.

For many white people, it can be difficult to comprehend how profound the problem is. It can be hard to grasp that racism is not an individual-level problem—it’s a system-level problem. We don’t know enough. Schools don’t teach the real, ugly history of racism, much less the racist and violent history of policing in particular. We know just enough to allow us to believe that some police are racist and if we would only pluck out those “bad apples,” the problem of racism in policing would be remedied.

I want to address something before I go on: I’m a white woman on a learning journey like many other white people reading this publication. I’m not an expert. I’m writing to other white people because, unfortunately, it is often easier for a white person to absorb the words of another white person, especially when our journeys mirror one another. It can be a relief to know you’re not the only one getting your mind blown and feeling ashamed for how little you knew. But my words are not meant to be an education—they’re meant to be an invitation for you to further deepen your knowledge by reading the works of Black men and women who describe their own history with an excellence and truth I can’t even hope to mimic. And, most importantly, to act on that knowledge once you have it.

An Example Of How Policing Supports Racism And Vice Versa

The “War on Drugs” is one of the more recent egregious instances of public policy that was deliberately installed for the purpose of oppressing Black people, and enforced by police. Rolled out during the Nixon administration in 1971, the War on Drugs was not meant to save our precious white children from a life of addiction. It was meant to remove as many Black people as possible from the voting pool.

In a 1994 interview with Dan Baum of Harper’s Magazine, President Nixon’s domestic policy chief, John Ehrlichman, told Baum that the Nixon campaign had two enemies—“the antiwar left and black people.” Baum quoted Ehrlichman as saying: “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did.”

If there is any doubt as to the validity of those statements, ask anyone who attended college during the height of the War on Drugs era (1971 – 2009) whether or not they were aware of the presence of drugs on campus or if they participated in the consumption of those drugs. I attended Florida State University from 1997 through 2001 and can attest to the ease of procuring just about any illegal drug at just about any time of day or night. Drugs were rampant on campus, and everyone knew it. The difference was, the majority of us were white and therefore able to break the law with impunity. If the government had been concerned about drugs, they needed only raid college campuses.

Erik McGregor/Getty

In 2009, many states began relaxing the absurdly long automatic prison sentences and mandatory minimums that had been put in place by War on Drugs policies. But by then, hundreds of thousands of Black people already had felony records. In many cases, this meant they couldn’t vote. Today, felony disenfranchisement prevents nearly 6 million Americans from voting, with Black people grossly overrepresented in that number—an estimated one in 13 Black Americans has lost their right to vote as a result of a past conviction.

This is not a coincidence.

Elections are often won by the narrowest of margins. In the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by a significant margin of 2.9 million votes. However, it was a mere 80,000 votes across three states that clinched the electoral win for Donald Trump.

The War on Drugs slapped harsh penalties on drug use and then turned police loose on the Black community with the express intention of keeping them out of the voting booth.

This single, modern example is the tip of the iceberg. Racism is the blood in the body of the American social structure. Schools in predominantly Black neighborhoods are underfunded due to the legacy of redlining, it is still harder for Black folks to borrow so they can buy homes and build wealth, harder to get hired, and harder to get quality healthcare.

Unsurprisingly, the downstream result of these inequities is criminal behavior, and that’s where police come in. Systemic racism fuels racist policing, and racist policing perpetuates the stereotype of Black folks as criminals. It is a self-perpetuating cycle that needs to be broken.

Until we address racism across all American systems, policing can’t not be racist. The point of defunding police is to address those racist systems so that we can recreate policing as an institution that is truly there to serve and protect all its citizens, not simply to enforce a system that was designed from the beginning to subjugate Black Americans.

Click here for a comprehensive list of antiracism resources.

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