Places like Troy, New York, are struggling with demographic shifts and the results are not good. Formerly majority white cities and towns are seeing an influx of black and brown residents fleeing cities to escape rising costs of living and better opportunities only to find that they are unwelcome, specifically by local police. While the demographics of these places have changed over time to reflect greater diversity, the police forces have not.
As black and brown people leave major cities to raise families in areas that were once predominantly white, they’re encountering police departments that are slow to reflect those population shifts and all too eager to placate longtime white residents who equate change with rising crime. To those white residents, the officers serve as a final line of defense against the outsiders marching onto their land, uniformed allies paid to protect them from the dangers they feel closing in around them. [...]
From 2000 to 2010, the number of black residents in Troy grew by 46%. Yet the police force remains 95% white, with just four black and two Latino officers on a staff of 120 — a common proportion in these quickly changing cities. [...]
The result is a combustible mix: a white population anxious about its new black neighbors, and a white police force unprepared and ill-equipped to handle the thickening racial tensions.
Once upon a time, the trend was that white people left racially mixed urban areas for more homogenous suburban ones—also known as white flight. There has been a lot of debate over the years about whether or not this flight was motivated purely by the arrival of blacks into the cities or if this was a combination of racism and economics. But according to Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh from the University of Pittsburgh, racism alone was the motivating factor—at least between 1900 and 1930.
Over the course of the first three decades after the turn of the century, coinciding with the start of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, this pattern accelerated: As blacks arrived in northern neighborhoods, more whites left. By the 1920s, there were more than three white departures for every black arrival.
Shertzer and Walsh, who tried to account for other reasons why neighborhood populations shifted, believe this was causal. "Whites left the neighborhood as a result of blacks arriving," Shertzer says, "not for other reasons."
The suburbs we know today effectively didn't exist at the time, so whites were leaving these neighborhoods for other neighborhoods in the city. That makes this earlier form of white flight even more striking; their new homes didn't necessarily have lower taxes or better school districts, factors that complicated the motivations of later generations of whites.
So, though times have changed, its not hard to imagine that this legacy of racism and isolation remains alive and well today with the descendants of the very people who began white flight nearly 100 years ago. Only now, with no place to move to, they look to the police to protect themselves and their property. And the message that they are afraid of their new neighbors has been picked up by the police department—loud and clear. And, unsurprisingly, it means that the new neighbors (ahem, black folk) find themselves on the receiving end of police scrutiny.
“It’s white protectionism,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer in Florida who is now a law professor at the University of South Carolina. “When that element of otherness invades our community, it’s very easy to react as if we are being threatened, and to be fearful. And we react by calling the police.” [...]
In Troy, black residents say police harassment and racial profiling are an everyday fact of life — and seem to be increasing. Black people, though just 16% of the population, made up 39% of those arrested in 2010, then 51% in 2016, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of the department's arrest records. In 2016, 90% of minors arrested for marijuana possession were black, up from 56% in 2010.
Of course, the perception that the new residents have brought an increase in crime with them is unfounded and untrue. Many white residents say that the biggest problem in Troy is rising crime. Yet in 2016, the city’s crime rate was at its lowest in a decade. But these facts don’t matter in an era of heightened racial fear and a president who thrives on fostering white people’s ignorance and anxiety. In fact, the proof is in the numbers from the last election.
The residents of Rensselaer County, a third of whom live in Troy, voted for the Democratic candidate in every election from 1988 to 2012, when they elected Obama by a 12% margin. Last November, they swung to Trump.
Places like Troy, New York, are not outliers. Rather they represent a sad reminder that we have so far to go in terms of racial progress in this country—at both interpersonal and systemic levels. It’s one thing for neighbors to be afraid of one another. But when those fears and anxieties spill over and have tangible consequences on the policing of black and brown bodies that is where serious problems need to be resolved. In the last six years, at least seven black residents in Troy have been paid out by the city for claims of police brutality. The numbers don’t lie. The majority of people being policed in Troy are black, even though they only make up a fraction of the city’s population. This is dangerous and with a Justice Department under Jeff Sessions that is wholly unconcerned about reforming abusive police departments, this will only get worse.