The Fifty Nifty United States: California

This is the fifth (5/50) installment in a new series of articles: "The Fifty Nifty United States." The series focuses on recent acts of racism in schooling, housing, and public life across the United States.

The fraught racial history of the state of California has been the subject of national fascination for decades. As an adolescent I, like millions of other Americans, watched the brutal beating of Rodney King, perpetrated by a gang of police officers. The subsequent trial kept the country in rapt attention, and the video of the incident provided incontrovertible evidence that police brutality was a real phenomenon. The unrest in Los Angeles that followed the acquittal of the police was symbolic of how disconnected most Americans were from the real conditions of our most vulnerable communities, as most White Americans had no idea that what had happened to Rodney King was a part of a pattern.

The Los Angeles uprising of the 1990s was hard to separate from similar events in the 1960s. Watts, like many of America's predominantly Black communities, had experienced extraordinary tension with law enforcement, which came to a head in August of 1965, after an altercation between a police officer and a Black motorist. The unrest that followed previewed the dramatic events of 1968, when similar tensions boiled over in cities throughout the country.

It is important to view contemporary events through this lens of history. Today, because of the proliferation of video recording devices, we know far more about the relationship between police and communities of color than we ever knew in the 1990s and the 1960s, not to mention the 1920s and 1880s. In 2016 we know that, in the aftermath of police violence, the official law enforcement account of the incident is almost never true. We know this because of the unwitting sacrifices of Laquan McDonald, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and many others. In each of those cases, the official report of the police was a fabrication. This dissonance should force us to wonder whether we can trust the police reports of the 1990s and 1960s, when, by all accounts, racism was even more vicious and prevalent than it is today.

This shameful history should inform our interpretations of contemporary revelations about the San Francisco police department:

Police Chief Gregory P. Suhr on Friday announced that all officers on the San Francisco force would be required to complete anti-bias training as he released nine pages of racist text messages between three officers that further tarnished the image of a department under federal investigation ... The text messages released Friday use crude and strongly disparaging language against blacks and other minorities and were discovered as part of an investigation into a rape charge against one of the officers. They come a year after a scandal involving 14 officers who also exchanged racist messages. An attempt to fire some of the 14 was rejected by a Superior Court judge, who said the statute of limitation had expired.

Psychological research demonstrates that humans tend to harbor unconscious biases, but the police force in San Francisco is full of officers who wear their conscious prejudices on their blue sleeves. The documents related to this case, which have been made public, reveal grotesque levels of racial animus on the San Francisco police force. While that kind of prejudice constitutes an ugly problem when found in any person, police officers are empowered by the state to wield violent power over citizens. "Prejudice plus power" is the technical definition of racism, and the racism on the San Francisco police force fits into a clear pattern of historical prejudice in California law enforcement.


"The Fifty Nifty United States" is a fifty part series, named for a children's song that lists all of the states in alphabetical order:

From the inaugural entry:

For each of the next fifty weeks, I will focus on a different American state, in alphabetical order. For every state, I will highlight an act of racism that occurred in the last decade. While I believe that prejudice in all forms is harmful, I will avoid sharing examples of prejudice that do not involve unequal power relationships, as racism emerges from a confluence of both prejudice and power ... Given the current political milieu, there is a tendency to ascribe racist tendencies to under-educated, less wealthy White people. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the most pernicious acts of institutional racism happen when wealthier White people use their resources and political power to enforce segregation. The purpose of this series is to shed light on the pervasive nature of systemic racism in America, not to shame the individuals and institutions discussed.