Black police officers in the south still face racism, UF researcher says

03/18/04

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- A "blue curtain" has descended within police departments in the South, bringing to a standstill the progress made by black officers, University of Florida research has found.

The gains of the 1970s and '80s, when large numbers of Southern law enforcement agencies were desegregated, has been replaced by work environments in which black officers are often treated unfairly in promotions, salaries, discipline and training, and are frequently subject to racist jokes from white co-workers, said Joe Feagin, a UF graduate research professor in sociology.

Traditionally, police officers have created within their departments strong informal groups with a distinctive police subculture, known as the "blue curtain," said Feagin, co-author of a new book detailing the findings. But black officers in the study often reported being isolated by white officers whose "old boy networks" have become operating centers for racism, he said.

"Racial discrimination is a routine, recurring and everyday reality for black police officers," he said. "Many lament how white officers continually underestimate their abilities, treating them as less intelligent and less able to perform their policing duties." The book, "Black in Blue: African-American Police Officers and Racism," published this month by Routledge, is based on personal interviews with 50 black officers – 38 men and 12 women -- in 16 law enforcement agencies in the South, from Texas to Virginia, at city, county and federal levels.

It is an outgrowth of doctoral research Feagin supervised that was done by Kenneth Bolton Jr., the book's co-author and now a criminal studies professor at Southeastern Louisiana University. Bolton contacted the Afro-American Police League and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, two national associations, for help in generating a list of officers who wished to participate in the interviews, which were conducted in the late 1990s and lasted 60 to 90 minutes each.

Although a few studies of black police officers have been done in large northern cities, including New York and Detroit, none have focused on the South, which historically has been a major center of racial conflict, Feagin said.

Some respondents said white officers in positions of power tried to discourage them from advancing through the ranks, even when they met or exceeded the qualifications. One officer who took a promotional exam reports in the book, "I've had supervisors say, 'I don't know why y'all black guys take this test anyway because if you pass, we're not gonna promote you.'"

Numerous black officers also described being left out of training programs, with certain specialized assignments routinely given only to whites, such as K-9 and marine patrol duties, he said.

There also are glaring contradictions in how black and white officers were disciplined, according to black officers' accounts, Feagin said. "A white officer will do something that is a fairly serious infraction of police regulations and is given a slap on the wrist, and a black officer is fired," he said.

One black officer told Bolton of a white officer returning to work after being convicted of grand theft, while black officers were dismissed for policy violations, such as making personal calls, he said.

Half the respondents explicitly discussed encounters in which whites used racist language in conversations to refer to them or to other black people, Feagin said. One black female officer complained of being called "watermelon Wanda" by her white colleagues. Black officers working in historically white departments in small towns reported more problems than did those in big cities, Feagin said. "Some of the rural departments seem to be straight out of the 1940s," he said. "Black officers face the old blatant racism of having to be extremely careful in arresting a white citizen, and occasionally now, and frequently in the early years, they were told not to do it."

Traditionally among the better-paying jobs available to black men, police work should be a natural area of employment because many come from lower-middle-class backgrounds, similar to those of the people they serve, Feagin said.

While a white officer might presume a group of black teenagers are up to no good if they dance on a street corner and listening to a boom box, a black officer can stroll up to the youths and mingle, he said.

But the rates of black officers hired has not kept pace with the large increases of black officers hired of the '70s and '80s, with the share of black officers in many departments less than that of the communities they police, Feagin said.

Nationally, the Bureau of Justice Statistics Report show the growth of black officers was flat between 1990 and 2000 despite the trend to hire more police officers, Bolton said. Although the percentage of black officers in cities of 250,000 or greater population increased from 18 percent to 20 percent of the total number of officers, the percentage of black officers in sheriff's departments decreased slightly, from 9.9 percent to 9 percent. In state police departments, 29 states saw little or no change, he said.

Feagin, who has interviewed about 500 blacks – mainly among the middle class -- for his own studies during the past 16 years, said he was not surprised by the results because the officers' reports were similar to what he had heard from black doctors, teachers, lawyers, clerks and secretaries.

David Cole, a law professor at Georgetown University and author of the book 'No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System," said, "The stories in 'Black in Blue,' from the previously unheard voices of African Americans who dared to become police officers in the South, will make you angry and make you cry, but most importantly, they will give you hope in the power of the human spirit to break free of the bonds of prejudice and stereotype."

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