The police killing of a subdued and helpless George Floyd and the worldwide demonstrations against systematic police brutality against Black Americans it provoked have rightly put a spotlight on policing in the US. Floyd’s senseless killing and the populist pushback have also raised the question of the extent to which the institution of policing in this country originated and evolved as an instrument of group domination by self-identified whites.
Policing has never been my academic research specialty but I did once have a close-up encounter with reams of data that appertained to the question of how policing has worked in this country. Many decades ago, over several weeks of a hot Boston summer, I was employed by a sociology PhD student to code data from arrest records contained in old ledgers piled in a dusty basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse. I remember going through dozens of ledgers from years that spanned the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century and recording surnames of individuals who had been arrested by Boston police officers, as well as the crimes they were charged with.
While the specialized legal abbreviations and idiosyncrasies of penmanship of those long dead clerks took a while to decipher, it wasn’t long before I was making quick progress through years of arrest records. And, almost immediately, a pattern was evident. The overwhelming majority of the defendant names were Irish, while the infractions charged were relatively few: public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, with, perhaps, some counts of resisting arrest thrown in. As it turned out, the PhD student was writing a dissertation about the relationship of Boston’s Irish population to the local police. And from the data I was coding, it looked to my unscholarly eyes that that relationship had been a contentious one, with Irish-surnamed folk filling Boston’s jails for decades at least. Needless to say, the court records did not indicate how many of those charges of public drunkenness or disorderly conduct were trumped up.
Growing up in southeastern Massachusetts in the 1970s, I experienced people with Irish-sounding surnames as figures of authority and accomplishment: grade schoolteachers, parish priests, local and state politicians, and, of course, the Kennedy clan. It was a far cry from that earlier time when Irish-Americans were a despised and impoverished immigrant group (“Irish Need Not Apply”) and were the targets of popular discrimination and systematic harassment and repression by many Protestant establishment political elites who controlled public institutions in the Bay State.
Purely by coincidence during that same summer of research in the basement of the Suffolk County Courthouse, I was reading J. Anthony Lukas’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the contentious history of school busing, Common Ground, and came across a passage describing the Massachusetts State legislature’s confiscation of control of the Boston police force from city hall in 1895. Just ten years earlier, the city elected its first Irish-born mayor, which “launch[ed] an era of Irish-American dominance of Boston City Hall.”
It seems that even when the Boston Irish had made progress through the ballot box, their newfound control over the city’s main instrument of coercion could be stripped away by their long-time political nemesis acting at the state level. In the end, it may have been only after Irish-Americans, who had long been considered a race apart from Protestant America, could move across what W.E.B. Dubois called America’s “Color Line” and become “White” that they could escape the worst effects of policing. The same path, needless to say, has not been available to Black Americans.
M. Davout is the pen name for a political science professor who teaches in the Deep South.