If Cops ‘Treated White Folks This Way, There'd Be A Revolution’: An Intentionally Broken System

Sep 26, 2017

Police killings of unarmed black men, stop-and-frisk policies and racially disproportionate prison populations have all been called symptoms of a broken criminal justice system.

On this week's episode of 90.5 WESA's Criminal Injustice podcast, host and University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris talks to Georgetown law professor and author Paul Butler, who says no – this is exactly the way the system was designed to work.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

DAVID HARRIS: You've talked about the idea of the "construction of the thug." What do you mean by that?

PAUL BUTLER: A lot of people are afraid of black men. There's all this anxiety that we see from research that suggests that people take longer to stop for a black man at a crosswalk or don't want to sit next to us on public transportation. [And] all this power that the Supreme Court has given police to shoot and kill and stop and frisk and use force against black men.

Credit Paul Butler / Courtesy of Georgetown University

HARRIS: If step one is viewing all black men as thugs, you say that step two is the way the legal system and society create ways to control the threat. Give us some examples.

BUTLER: The Supreme Court has given the police super powers to racially profile, to arrest and to use force, including taking out their guns and shooting black men. A number of people, from Hillary Clinton on down, have said that if police treated white folks this way, there'd be a revolution because of all this anxiety about black men. It's perfectly constitutional for the police to treat us in ways that are all about excessive force.

HARRIS: A you're not saying the system needs to be fixed or reformed. You actually argue that the system is made to work this way.

BUTLER: The problem is not "bad apple cops." The problem is that the system is broken on purpose. I have a lot of good friends who are police officers; they're no more racist than law professors or faith leaders or anybody else. It's just that they have all this power that they wield disproportionately against African-American men with the blessing of the political leaders, with the blessing of the Supreme Court and with the blessing of a lot of -- especially white -- ordinary Americans.

HARRIS: Is this maybe all the natural derivative of being poor? The system treats all poor people this way, perhaps, but black Americans are simply more disproportionately within the poorer class?

BUTLER: Class has a lot to do with it. About 80 percent of people who are locked up are poor. If you are a poor African-American man, let's say you don't have a high school degree, you're more likely to be in jail than you are to have a job. But at the same time, there's something that is sticky about race. I'm a middle-class black guy, but I've had a lot of very unpleasant experiences with the cops. I'm a law professor and a former prosecutor who's been racially profiled, who's been stopped-and-frisked, who's been pushed against the car and even somebody who's been arrested and prosecuted for a crime I didn't commit. So if this can happen to a black man with my privilege, it's happening much worse to brothers who don't have the same kinds of opportunities that I've been blessed to have.

You can hear David Harris’ full conversation with Paul Butler on this week’s episode of WESA’s Criminal Injustice podcast. Subscribe on iTunes or through your favorite podcast app.