Let me begin this essay with the two images you see before you. The first (Figure 1) represents the ebb and flow of reports of police shootings of blacks1 as measured by keyword counts in eight black newspapers over the last fifty years.
Fifty years before a young person called Michael Brown would laugh for the final time the national treasurer of the NAACP proclaimed that it was “Safer to shoot Negroes than deer out of season.”2 The second image is a flyer from the New Haven Black Panther Party in 1966, sounding a call that is heard through the ages, most recently in Ferguson, Missouri: “We want an immediate end to POLICE BRUTALITY and MURDER of black people.” The first reveals the basic continuity of police shootings of unarmed blacks, in good times and bad, in eras of greater and lesser official bigotry, and in all parts of the country, from the Mississippi Delta to the northern metropolises. The second reveals the basic claim of black organizations throughout the years: to protect black life.
Most black Americans have experienced, directly or vicariously, unfair treatment by the police. Take, for example, an opinion poll in the year before Ferguson: a quarter of blacks said that they had felt unfairly treated in dealings with the police in the prior month.3 This poll exhibits a crucial pattern of American life: since at least the early 20th Century, criminal justice has been a site of racial learning, where the rituals of what it means to move through the world as a black American are learned and incorporated into the mental map, often before other socializing experiences are understood and embedded. It has become a rite of passage, the bar mitzvah of black adolescence, the lesson young boys are treated to just beyond the moment they learn to tie the laces of their shoes. The nature of this lesson and the authorities wielding it may have shape-shifted over time, with a ceiling on just how blatant the instruction is, but its incredible continuity is inescapable.
There are two sides to this socialization. I do not mean the simple etiquettes of how to conduct oneself in police interactions, that you should take care to avoid some things others take for granted like walking at certain times of night, in certain styles of dress, without proper identification. You learn that black citizenship itself is suspicious and that your color is itself a challenge to authority. We learn our blackness not through the spectacle of the most brutal police use of force but from simple police stops where nothing more occurs. The legal scholar Devon Carbado, in recalling his own moment of racial truth through being confronted by police, calls this moment a “racial naturalization.”4 Darnell, one of the young men we spoke to in Trenton, New Jersey, revealed his naturalization: “I didn’t see—you know how you don’t see the other side of the fence? So, you walkin’ around like ‘Yeah, this is nice, this is good’ until one day it happens and now you see everything clearer…I just started noticing like, ‘Why everybody getting beat up? I didn’t know cops did that.’ Like, when you young, you don’t pay attention to it, but when you get older you start seein’ ‘Damn, they just jumped out on him, for what? He just came outta the house!’ They just leave you there, beat up!”5 Statistically, just one involuntary police encounter can lead people to identify as black,6 perceive more explicit discrimination against themselves or their racial group, and to have less faith that they are a “full and equal citizen in this country with all...