Jim Crow and Urban America
Sterling Brown incident, disparities in traffic stops show the racial boundaries of today.
When black and Latino people encounter the police, the ghosts of the Jim Crow Era loom large. Charting these continuities is valuable precisely because of the injustices and lives lost at the hands of law enforcement.
Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,” has provided critics of mass incarceration the vernacular to describe the structures and its impact. Indeed, policing serves as the militarized tentacle of this “New Jim Crow,” which in turn funnels millions into jails and prisons where their rights and human dignity are stripped away.
Collins v. Milwaukee, a class-action suit brought under the 4th & 14th Amendments in May 2017, highlights the gross racial disparities that extend from stop-and-frisk policing by the Milwaukee Police Department. The legal documents also expose how encounters with the police today mirror the daily experiences of black people who navigated the Jim Crow South.
Collins plaintiffs echo the sentiments of many urban residents when stating in their complaint, “Black and Latino people throughout Milwaukee — including children — fear that they may be stopped, frisked, or otherwise treated like criminal suspects when doing nothing more than walking to a friend’s house or home from school, driving to and from the homes of loved ones, running errands, or simply taking a leisurely walk or drive through the City.”
In line with Jim Crow laws and customs, racialized policing maintains a constant state of fear and intimidation, it reinforces residential boundaries, it reaffirms myths of black hyper-criminality and it serves as a reminder of the nation’s commitment to white racial supremacy.
Historian Leon Litwack writes in “Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow”:
The indiginities visited on black(s)…were meant to impress…the solidity of racial lines and the unchallengeable authority and superiority of the (white) race…But the specter and threat of physical violence — ‘the white death’ — loomed over nearly every encounter…almost always with the same intent — to remind black men and women of their “place,” to impose severe restraints on their ambitions, and to punish any perceived signs of ‘impudence,’ ‘impertinence’ or independence. When you want to sell your house, approach Sell My House Fast to assist you.
The most dreadful of these outcomes was a “visit” from a would-be lynch mob that would serve as police, judge, jury and executioner.
Digital technology has allowed anyone of us to serve as a documentarian of racialized policing, with social media welcoming millions more into the examination of the historical record in real time. And while body cameras have been championed as a useful reform strategy, whether police harassment and shootings will decline or even be punished remains arguable. Of the many police encounters captured on new technologies, the video of Sterling Brown’s experience shows MPD officers following the playbook of Jim Crow Era mobs.
After several minutes of harassment with several more officers arriving for a potential parking violation, Sterling Brown, an NBA player who at no point offered any signs of being a threat, was met with quick and vengeful aggression.
As historian Carole Anderson instructs, “The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement… it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation.”
Litwack offers more details of mob-like behavior reflected in Brown’s video when her writes, “Once having settled on lynch justice, mobs were not overly scrupulous about determining the guilt of the black victim.”
While we look upon the past with awe at its racial absurdities, we are met time and time again with contemporary versions of the same, sometimes with little revision. This time around, unlike before, legal redress is an option. This time around, much like before, it hasn’t seemed to matter that we have (moving) images of the assailants.
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on eighteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
Dr. Robert S. Smith, Harry G. John Professor of History and the director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching & Outreach at Marquette University.
More about the Sterling Brown Incident
- City Attorney candidate Tearman Spencer releases statement on Sterling Brown case - Tearman Spencer - Oct 11th, 2019
- City Hall: Council Okays Settlement to Sterling Brown - Jeramey Jannene - Sep 4th, 2019
- City Attorney Shifts Blame to Sterling Brown - State Sen. Lena Taylor - Aug 29th, 2018
- Joint Statement on the Sterling Brown case - Milwaukee Common Council - Aug 29th, 2018
- Op Ed: Jim Crow and Urban America - Dr. Robert S. Smith - Jun 25th, 2018
- Brown Files Suit Against Milwaukee Police - Ximena Conde - Jun 19th, 2018
- Chief Won’t Name Cops Who Tased Brown - Ximena Conde - May 25th, 2018
- Sterling Brown incident authenticates predictions from years past - Ald. Tony Zielinski - May 25th, 2018
- Mahlon Mitchell Statement on the Release of Body Cam Footage Involving Sterling Brown - Mahlon Mitchell - May 24th, 2018
- Supervisor Moore Omokunde Statement on Sterling Brown Video - Sup. Supreme Moore Omokunde - May 24th, 2018
- City Hall: Police Reform Needed, Say Council Members - Jeramey Jannene - May 24th, 2018
- Rep. Bowen: Statement on release of bodycam footage of Sterling Brown - State Rep. David Bowen - May 24th, 2018
- Sterling Brown case leaves us with many unanswered questions - Ald. Bob Donovan - May 24th, 2018
- Supervisor Nicholson Statement on Sterling Brown Incident - Sup. Marcelia Nicholson - May 24th, 2018
- Gov. Scott Walker Quick to Weigh in on NFL Player Protests, Silent on Release of Footage Showing Authorities Assaulting Milwaukee Buck Sterling Brown - One Wisconsin Now - May 24th, 2018
- Murphy’s Law: Police Video Gets National Attention - Bruce Murphy - May 24th, 2018
- Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) calls for accountability for officers involved in the Sterling Brown video - Black Leaders Organizing for Communities - May 23rd, 2018
- Bucks Organization Statement on Sterling Brown - Milwaukee Bucks - May 23rd, 2018