Persecution of black men goes far beyond the badge

Policing The Black Man book cover

Policing The Black Man book coverAs white supremacists prepared to outwardly display hatred and prejudice in Charlottesville, Va., a standing-room-only crowd collected inside Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue Research Library on Friday, Aug. 11, to discuss the much more subversive and powerful forces that lead to the persecution of black men.

Angela J. DavisAmerican University law professor Angela J. Davis (no, not that, Angela Davis), editor of the new anthology Policing The Black Man, led the discussion, which was presented by The Baton Foundation.

Davis made clear that while outrage over police officers who kill black men is justified, prosecutors and plea bargains play an equally powerful role in their mistreatment.

The book aims to address all elements of policing, from arrest to sentencing, Davis said. At the same time, it “in no way trivializes” the unequal treatment experienced by black women, Latinos, Native Americans and LGBTs.

The black man’s situation is unique.


  • Forty-nine percent of black men can expect to be arrested by age 23.
  • Black men are killed by police at 21 times the rate of their white counterparts.
  • One in three black men will be jailed at least once in their life if trends continue.

Police only have the power to take black men to the court’s front door, Davis said. The book’s significance is in explaining the forces beyond the badge.

Television shows such as “Law & Order” may portray an abundance trials, but the reality is that 90 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by a guilty plea, Davis said.

The combination of prosecutors who decide which charges to levy and people who are “desperate and afraid” of a fickle jury forces compromise when none should be required, Davis said.

For example, a person is caught with five bags of cocaine. The prosecutor can choose any range of charges, from five counts of possession with intent to distribute — a felony that comes with a mandatory minimum sentence — or a misdemeanor charge of possession.

Add “under resourced and overworked” public defenders (at least one person in the balcony agreed, as Davis’ assessment drew applause), and plea deals that expire at the end of a day, leaving defenders no means to properly research a case and effectively fight for their client, and “This is what passes as justice in courts across America,” Davis said.

Ultimately, Davis and her contributors, such as Bryan Stevenson (“A Presumption of Guilt”) and Jin Hee Lee and Sherrilyn A. Ifill (“Do Black Lives Matter to the Courts?”) want to inform and provide solutions.

A few that Davis suggested during the talk and Q&A afterward:

  • Get progressive prosecutors elected. Only four states have attorneys that are not elected. Ask about their policies on plea bargaining and charges.
  • Educate yourself. Watch Ava DuVernay’s 13th and read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, both of which explain the tie between America’s prisons and the profit gained by what some say is modern-day slavery due to the free labor and capital gains provided by the imprisoned.
  • Ask, “Who’s the person in charge of the one messing up?” For example, most police chiefs are appointed by mayors. If the police are acting out, put pressure on the mayor.
  • Understand that no matter the situation, it’s not the victim’s fault. “One of the things that’s so painful,” Davis said, is that black boys’ and men’s “mere existence causes them to be in danger. … It’s not the kids’ fault that they’re being shot.”
  • Demand that officers are fully trained. Studies show that police tend to overestimate the size and age of black boys, and underestimate it when the boys are white. “If they can’t be trained to get rid of that implicit bias, they have to go,” Davis said.

All in, the answer is us. “Everybody can’t do everything, but everybody can do something,” Davis said.

Whether you choose to confront racist movements head on, email a city councilperson, or have a real conversation with someone whose looks and beliefs are different than yours, get moving.



  1. Thank you for this recap and especially the list of actions we each can take to make a difference in the fight for true justice. This is an issue that seems so daunting and insurmountable but it is inspiring to know that people like Angela Davis are finding ways to move the needle. Despite what recent events may suggest, I know that there are more of us who believe that justice is for all than not.

    1. That’s right! The portrayals on TV would have us think this is a majority view and participation, but I disagree. And solutions are so important. I wanted to make sure to capture that. Thank you for reading!

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