by Delande Justinvil, American University and Chip Colwell, University of Colorado Denver
Among the human remains in Harvard University’s museum collections are those of 15 people who were probably enslaved African American people. Earlier this year, the school announced a new committee that will conduct a comprehensive survey of Harvard’s collections, develop new policies and propose ways to memorialize and repatriate the remains.
This dehumanizing history of collecting African American bodies as scientific specimens is not a problem just at Harvard. Last year, the University of Pennsylvania announced that its anthropology museum will address the legacy of the 1,300 human skulls – including those of 55 enslaved people from Cuba and the U.S. – in its collection, which was historically used to denigrate the intelligence and character of Black people and Native Americans.
Other institutions have far more Black skeletons in their closets. By one estimate, the Smithsonian Institution, Cleveland Museum of Natural History and Howard University hold the remains of some 2,000 African Americans among them. The total only increases when considering museums with remains from other populations across the African diaspora. How many more sets of remains lie in museum storerooms across the United States, and whether or not they were collected with consent, is unknown.
As archaeologists, we understand the impulse to gather human remains to tell our human story. Osteobiographies, life histories constructed from skeletal remains, can offer insights into nutritional, migratory, pathological and even political-economic conditions of past populations. However, scholars and activists across the U.S. are now seeking to recognize and redress the deep history of violence against Black bodies. Museums and society are finally confronting how the desires of science have at times eclipsed the demands of human rights.
How did the remains of so many Black people end up in collections, and what can be done about it?
Collecting Black bodies
The abuse and circulation of African American human remains for research dates back at least to 1763, with the dissection of corpses of the enslaved for the first anatomy lecture in the American Colonies.
The systematic collection of African American remains, as well as those of people from other marginalized communities, began with the work of Samuel George Morton. Considered the founder of American physical anthropology, Morton professionalized the acquisition of human remains in the name of scientific practice and education.
Morton boasted the first collection of human remains, at one point considered to be the largest globally. He used its subjects-turned-specimens to promote racist hierarchies through pseudoscientific interpretations of cranial measurements. His research resulted in his 1839 magnum opus, “Crania Americana,” replete with hundreds of hand-drawn images of skulls and faulty-logic racial categorization.
His collection eventually ended up at the University of Pennsylvania. Only last year did the university officially announce the collection had been removed from a shelved display within an archaeology classroom.
Morton also influenced the ideology of biologist Louis Agassiz, his eventual collaborator. Agassiz founded Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, which originally bore his name. His own collection practices around the photographed bodies of the enslaved have embroiled the university in a public lawsuit.
Institutions long embraced such collections primarily for the pseudoscientific work of justifying racial hierarchies. But they also enhanced their prestige by the number of remains in their collections that could be used for research as well as for exhibitions that fed the public’s morbid curiosity.
Eventually, most collecting institutions shifted away from these original goals but held on to human remains for teaching skeletal biology and testing new scientific methods. A majority of museum collections, however, sit unused, retained in the belief that they may help answer questions at some point in the future.
Ultimately, the remains of African American people, freed or enslaved, are in these collections because the captivity of their bodies, both living and deceased, was the very foundation of museums of medicine, anthropology, archaeology, natural history and more. While some academic and cultural institutions have taken the initiative to confront their legacies with slavery – such as decolonization efforts to include more diverse perspectives and values – a national effort has yet to take shape.
Desecrated in life and death
The U.S. Senate passed the African American Burial Grounds Network Act in December 2020. This bill would establish a voluntary network to identify and protect often at-risk African American cemeteries. The program would be administered through the National Park Service, and nothing in the legislation would apply to private property without the consent of landowners. More than 50 prominent national, state and local organizations support the passage of the act into law and are working to have it reintroduced in Congress’ current session.
But even this legislation does not include the remains of Black people in museum collections. Such an addition would be more in line with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 federal law that addresses Native American human remains in all contexts – both in the ground and in collections. This work is necessary because many of the remains of Black people, like those of Native Americans, were taken without the consent of family, used in ways that contravened spiritual traditions, and treated with less respect than most others in society.
In the absence of such an addition, the work of finding all of the African American remains in museums will be unorganized and inconsistent. Institutions will need to make efforts on their own, which will cost more money and consume more resources. Even more importantly, the absence of a coordinated, national effort will mean the delay of justice for thousands of African American ancestors whose bodies have been, and continue to be, desecrated.
led by lying politicians and racist newspapers that amplified their lies
by Kathy Roberts Forde, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Kristin Gustafson, University of Washington, Bothell
While experts debate whether the U.S. Capitol siege was an attempted coup, there is no debate that what happened in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, was a coup – and its consequences were tragic.
These two events, separated by 122 years, share critical features. Each was organized and planned. Each was an effort to steal an election and disfranchise voters. Each was animated by white racist fears.
And each required the help of the media to be successful.
Those who study Reconstruction and its aftermath know the U.S. has deep experience with political and electoral violence. Reconstruction was the 12-year period following the Civil War when the South returned to the Union and newly freed Black Americans were incorporated into U.S. democracy.
But few understand that the Wilmington coup, when white supremacists overthrew the city’s legitimately elected bi-racial government, could not have happened without the involvement of white news media. The same is true of the Capitol siege on Jan. 6, 2021.
The news media, it turns out, have often been key actors in U.S. electoral violence. This history is explored in a chapter one of us – Gustafson – wrote for a book the other – Forde – co-edited with Sid Bedingfield, “Journalism & Jim Crow: The Making of White Supremacy in the New South,” which comes out later this year.
A major obstacle lay in his path to the governor’s office. Several years earlier, Black Republicans and white Populists in North Carolina, tired of Democrats enriching themselves off public policies favoring banks, railroads and industry, joined forces.
Known as Fusionists, they rose to power in the executive branch, the legislature and the governments of several eastern towns, but most importantly, the thriving port city of Wilmington, then the largest city in North Carolina.
Wilmington, with its majority Black population and successful Black middle class, was a city that offered hope for Black Southerners. Black men had higher rates of literacy than white men, ran some of the city’s most successful businesses, such as restaurants, tailors, shoemakers, furniture makers and jewelers, and, to the dismay of Democrats, held public office.
Dr. Umar Johnson delivers seething commentary about negative propaganda and it's power against a target population.
Using anti-Black disinformation spread through newspapers and public speeches across the state, they would whip up white racial fears of “Negro domination” and “black beasts” that preyed on the “virtue” of white women. The goal: drive a wedge in the Fusionist coalition and lure white Populists back to the Democratic fold.
The press and political power
The News & Observer, the most influential newspaper in the state, was the Democratic Party’s most potent weapon. Its editor called it “the militant voice of white supremacy.”
For months in advance of the November election, the paper ran articles, editorials, speeches and reader letters telling lies about Black malfeasance, misrule, criminality and sexual predations against white women. White newspapers across the state, from big cities to tiny hamlets, republished the News & Observer’s content.
“The prevalence of rape by brutal negroes upon helpless white women has brought about a reign of terror in rural districts,” the paper said. Daniels admitted years later this claim was a lie.
Knowing the power of images, Daniels hired a cartoonist to create viciously racist images for the front page.
Roughly a year after Rebecca Latimer Felton, a prominent white Georgian, gave a speech advocating the lynching of Black men for their supposed assaults on white women, white newspapers across North Carolina reprinted and discussed it for days to gin up racist hostility.
At the same time, the Democrats organized the Red Shirts, a paramilitary arm of the party, to intimidate Black citizens and stop them from participating in politics and, eventually, voting.
To counteract the lies the Democrats and Felton told about Black men as “beasts” and “brutes,” Manly told the truth in a bold editorial: Some white women fell in love with Black men and, if these affairs were discovered, the inevitable outcome was the label “rape” and a brutal lynching. The grandson of a white governor of North Carolina and a Black woman he enslaved, Manly knew white hypocrisy well.
Democrats went wild, reprinting Manly’s editorial in newspapers across the state and attacking him for insulting the “virtue” of white women.
As the election approached and Red Shirts patrolled the state, Democrats laid their final plan.
Because there were few local elections in Wilmington in 1898, and Democrats viewed the city as the center of “Negro domination” in the state, they began organizing in early fall to overthrow Wilmington’s bi-racial government and install all white officials.
They murdered an untold number of Black men in the street; burned Black businesses, including Manly’s newspaper office; terrorized the Black community, forcing at least 1,400 people to flee, many never to return; and removed and exiled all Fusionists from office, installing white Democrats in their stead.
Across the past four years, the overwhelmingly white right-wing news media spread lies that President Donald Trump and his allies churned out daily. Social media companies helped turn these lies into a contagion of mass delusion that radicalized a significant swath of the GOP base.
Known during his lifetime as "the extraordinary Negro", Ignatius Sancho (c.1729–1780) was a British abolitionist, writer and composer. Sancho is the first known Black Briton to vote in a British election, and the first person of African descent known to be given an obituary in the British press.
As the memoir which begins this third edition of his Letters tells us, Sancho was "born A. D. 1729, onboard a ship in the Slave trade, a few days after it had quitted the coast of Guinea for the Spanish West-Indies".
After "a disease of the new climate put an early period to his mother's existence; and his father defeated by the miseries of slavery by an act of suicide", Ignatius, just two years old, was brought by his master to England, and given to the man's three unmarried sisters who lived together in Greenwich, where he remained their slave for eighteen years from 1731 to 1749. The sisters were far from kind, and "the petulance of their disposition" bestowed upon little Ignatius his surname, "from a fancied resemblance to the Squire of Don Quixote".
Unable to bear being a servant to them, Sancho would escape the grip of the sisters, when, by chance, he met the Duke of Montagu who took a liking to his "native frankness of manner". Sancho took to visiting the Duke and Duchess regularly, where he was encouraged to read, and was also lent books from the Duke's personal library. At the age of 20, shortly after the Duke's death, Sancho fled the household of the sisters to become the butler at the Duchess Montagu household, where he worked for the next two years until her death. Sancho left and started his own business as a shopkeeper, while also starting to write and publish various essays, plays and books.
Immersing himself in the world of literature and music (while also working as a valet for the Duke and Duchess' daughter and husband, and then later as a greengrocer), Sancho became well known in the literary and artistic circles of the day, becoming acquainted with the likes of Thomas Gainsborough (who painted his portrait), the actor David Garrick, and the novelist Laurence Sterne. It was his correspondence with the latter which helped secure him a reputation as a man of letters, and a symbol of the abolitionist movement. At the height of the debate about slavery, in 1766, Sancho wrote to Sterne encouraging the writer to lend his fame to help lobby for the abolition of the slave trade. "That subject, handled in your striking manner," wrote Sancho, "would ease the yoke (perhaps) of many – but if only one – Gracious God! – what a feast to a benevolent heart!". Sterne's reply became an integral part of 18th-century abolitionist literature.
There is a strange coincidence, Sancho, in the little events (as well as in the great ones) of this world: for I had been writing a tender tale of the sorrows of a friendless poor negro-girl, and my eyes had scarce done smarting with it, when your letter of recommendation in behalf of so many of her brethren and sisters, came to me—but why her brethren?—or your’s, Sancho! any more than mine? It is by the finest tints, and most insensible gradations, that nature descends from the fairest face about St. James’s,1 to the sootiest complexion in Africa: at which tint of these, is it, that the ties of blood are to cease? and how many shades must we descend lower still in the scale, ’ere mercy is to vanish with them?—but ’tis no uncommon thing, my good Sancho, for one half of the world to use the other half of it like brutes, & then endeavor to make ’em so."
In another letter, writing his friend's son who had expressed racist attitudes after a visit to India, Sancho wrote:
I am sorry to observe that the practice of your country (which as a resident I love – and for its freedom – and for the many blessings I enjoy in it – shall ever have my warmest wishes, prayers and blessings); I say it is with reluctance, that I must observe your country's conduct has been uniformly wicked in the East – West-Indies – and even on the coast of Guinea. The grand object of English navigators – indeed of all Christian navigators – is money – money – money – for which I do not pretend to blame them – Commerce was meant by the goodness of the Deity to diffuse the various goods of the earth into every part—to unite mankind in the blessed chains of brotherly love – society – and mutual dependence: the enlightened Christian should diffuse the riches of the Gospel of peace – with the commodities of his respective land – Commerce attended with strict honesty – and with Religion for its companion – would be a blessing to every shore it touched at. In Africa, the poor wretched natives blessed with the most fertile and luxuriant soil- are rendered so much the more miserable for what Providence meant as a blessing: the Christians' abominable traffic for slaves and the horrid cruelty and treachery of the petty Kings encouraged by their Christian customers who carry them strong liquors to enflame their national madness – and powder – and bad fire-arms – to furnish them with the hellish means of killing and kidnapping.
In 1758 Sancho married Anne Osborne, a West Indian woman with whom he had seven children. After Sancho left the Montagu household, the couple opened a grocery store in Westminster, where Sancho, by then a well-known cultural figure, maintained an active social and literary life until his death in 1780. As a financially independent male householder, Sancho became eligible to vote and did so in 1774 and again just before his death in 1780, becoming the first known Black Briton to have voted in Britain.
Gaining fame in Britain as "the extraordinary Negro", to British abolitionists, Sancho became a symbol of the humanity of Africans and the immorality of the slave trade and slavery. Sancho died in 1780, with his The Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African, edited and published two years after his death, being one of the earliest accounts of African slavery written in English from a first-hand experience.
Letters of the Late Ignatius Sancho, an African (1784)
Sancho, Ignatius. 1784. Letters of the late Ignatius Sancho, an African. To which are prefixed, memoirs of his life. London: Printed by J. Nichols; and sold by C. Dilly.
In addition to his many letters — the publication of which was an immediate bestseller — Sancho also published a book for the Princess Royal about his great passion, music, and two plays.
Ma Rainey, Pullman Porters, the Rev TT Rose, and the 'Man with a Clarinet'
Court.rchp.com Editiorial note by Randall Hill:
I was for the most part unfamiliar with Ma Rainey, until I watched Ma Rainey's Black Bottom on Netflix. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom is a film based on the play of the same name by August Wilson. The focus is on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatizes a turbulent recording session in 1927 Chicago.
Gertrude "Ma" Rainey (born Gertrude Pridgett, 1882 or 1886 – December 22, 1939) was one of the first generation of blues singers to record. Gertrude Pridgett began performing as a teenager and became known as "Ma" Rainey after her marriage to Will "Pa" Rainey in 1904.
The "Mother of the Blues", she bridged earlier vaudeville and the authentic expression of southern blues, influencing a generation of blues singers. Throughout the 1920s, Ma Rainey had a reputation for being one of the most dynamic performers in the United States due in large part to her songwriting, showmanship and voice. Between 1923 and 1928, Ma Rainey made more then 100 recordings. Bessie Smith toured with Ma Rainey early in Smith's career and was mentored by Rainey. Rainey never achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, whom became the highest-paid black entertainer of her day, however, Rainey and Smith became friendly rivals.
Rainey was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1983 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. In 1994, the U.S. Post Office issued a 29-cent commemorative postage stamp honoring her. In 2004, Rainey was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and was added into the Library of Congress National Recording Register. Three years later, Rainey's former home in Columbus was turned into a museum. The Columbus native’s legacy continues to be celebrated in her hometown, which hosted the first-annual Ma Rainey International Blues Festival in 2016.
Thankfully, the stories of Ma Rainey and other musicians piviotal to our history are being told and embraced by multiple generations of new fans.
by Jerry Zolten, Penn State
In the 1920s and 1930s, record sales of black artists were very lucrative for the music industry. As a June 1926 article from Talking Machine World explained:
The Negro trade is…itself…an enormously profitable occupation for the retailer who knows his way about…. The segregation of the Negro population has enabled dealers to build up a trade catering to this race exclusively.
Yet record companies routinely took advantage of the more unschooled, vernacular performers – especially black ones, who were already denied access to broader markets. It was standard operating procedure back in the days of “race music” – the name given to recordings by black artists that were marketed to the black buying public.
“Some will rob you with a six-gun…and some with a fountain pen.” So said Woody Guthrie in his song “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Bottom line: if record companies could get away with it, there was no bottom line. No negotiated contract to sign. No publishing. No royalties. Wham bam thank you man. Take a low-ball flat fee and hit the road. Anonymity was also implicit in the deal, so many black artists were forgotten, their only legacy the era’s brittle shellac disks that were able to withstand the wear of time.
One of the most prominent early race labels was Paramount Records, which, between 1917 and 1932, recorded a breathtaking cross-section of seminal African-American artists.
In 2013 I learned that Jack White of Third Man Records (in partnership with Dean Blackwood’s Revenant Records) would be putting together a compilation of Paramount’s historic recordings. The project would be a grand collaboration of two deluxe volumes that would contain a stunning 1,600 tracks.
I was part of a team of researchers and writers tasked with unearthing new information about the featured artists and their songs. For me, it was an opportunity to put a face on some of Paramount’s more enigmatic artists. Listening to track after track, a zeitgeist began to coalesce. As voices from the grooves accrued to tell a story of a collective black experience, I came to see these performances as cumulative cultural memory – each track a brushstroke in a painting of a long-forgotten landscape.
The Pullman quartets, I learned, were a franchise: multiple configurations of singers performing concurrently under the company banner. They put on concerts, either performing live on the radio, or on long haul train routes as a form of passenger entertainment. The men who made the records were billed as the “President’s Own” – the working Pullman porters considered the company’s premier lineup.
In the late 1920s, The Pullman Porters Quartette of Chicago recorded a number of sides for Paramount. One tune was “Jog-a-Long Boys,” where they sang of sad roosters and being turned down by widow Brown, the “fattest gal in town.” The chorus went:
Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,
Be careful when you smile,
Do the latest style,
But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.
Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,
Don’t fool with google eyes,
That would not be wise,
But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.
At first, it seemed as if it were no more than a silly ditty performed in upbeat counterpoint harmony. Then it hit me: they were making light of a horrific reality – specifically, that a black man who dared to smile or even look askance at a white woman was putting himself in grave danger.
Look your best, but don’t forget your place…and just jog along, boys.
Horace George of Horace George’s Jubilee Harmonizers was a showman and an opportunist, a versatile musician who performed in whatever style sold, whether it was novelty gospel, blues, comedy or jazz.
His gospel group cut one record for Paramount in 1924, but he first surfaced as early as 1906, advertised in the Indianapolis Freeman as “the great clarinetist, comedian, and vocalist.” A few years later, George found himself in Seattle as the “Famous Colored Comedian…who gives correct images,” and later as the “Man with the Clarinet” in a touring black vaudeville troupe, the Great Dixieland Spectacle Company.
In the late 1910s, a black newspaper – the Indianapolis Freeman – called Horace George “a novelty on any bill.” The novelty? He could play three clarinets at once!
Rev TT Rose
Beyond the rollicking piano-driven gospel sides he cut for Paramount in the late 1920s, nothing was known of Rev T T Rose. Rose’s “Goodbye Babylon” was the title track of Dust-to-Digital’s 2004 Grammy-nominated collection, Goodbye, Babylon. It was also inspiration for a rock ‘n’ roll tune by the Black Keys. And Rose’s recording of “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down” – later performed by artists ranging from Rev. Gary Davis to the Grateful Dead – is one of the earliest known recorded versions of that song.
Rev Rose’s personal story was the most heartening of all. He lived in Springfield, Illinois, and I located his 90-plus-year-old daughter Dorothy, who described her father as a man on a mission to end racism and institutionalized segregation.
As a child, Rose had witnessed the aftermath of the infamous 1908 Springfield Race Riots, an event that precipitated the formation of the NAACP. In the late 1920s Rose moved from Chicago to Springfield, in order to minister the city’s black community.
In an oral history recording, Rev Rose described Springfield as “just really a type of Southern town” with an “overpowering resentment of the Negro…distrust and the fear that the Negro might someday become stronger.” When he returned to Springfield, he observed that the time that had elapsed since the race riots was “a very short span of time to erase all the scars and the prejudices and the hate that was engendered…in that very unfortunate affair.”
It was a hate, he continued, that “Kind of hung like a cloud from an atomic bomb over the whole neighborhood” causing the black citizens of Springfield to go “into themselves quite a bit.”
After his short recording career with Paramount in the late 1920s, Rev Rose went on to become a regional bishop in the Church of God in Christ. He recorded because he thought songs could both uplift and spread messages of hope and perseverance in the struggle for Civil Rights. When he sang “If I Had My Way,” it’s clear that the building he wanted to tear down was no less than the edifice of racism.
Court.rchp.com editorial note: Behavior by other police departments can provide insight into our local police force. A state audit released four months ago revealed that about 1,200 police officers were paid around $14 million in overtime pay; which averages more than $11,600 per officer. Eight employees doubled their salary using overtime, and an additional 99 earned at least an extra 50% of their base salary with overtime. Keep those figures in mind as you read the following article.
by Joshua Kaplan and Joaquin Sapien
One summer night in 2015, a community college student was driving home through East New York in Brooklyn when two women on a street corner waved for him to stop.
He thought they might need help, so he pulled over and cracked his window. But the pair had something else in mind. “Do you want to have some fun?” he recalled one of them saying. “Whoa, no thank you!” he responded, and drove off, laughing to himself. It was like something he’d seen only on TV.
The 21-year-old, who is Black, made it a few blocks before police yanked him out of his car and began to search him. Terrified and unsure of what was happening, he insisted they had the wrong guy. Officers yelled at him to “shut the fuck up.”
The women were undercover police officers. He was under arrest for patronizing a prostitute. The police put him in a van, where he sat handcuffed for hours as it filled with other Black and brown men.
It was one of the New York Police Department’s biggest stings since Mayor Bill de Blasio took office in 2014, the direct outcome of a strategy he and top cops have touted in recent years to combat human trafficking: Officers should arrest “the true criminals” like “johns” and “pimps,” while making sure people forced into prostitution get the help they need to get out.
On the ground, the reality has been different from the rhetoric. Teams of NYPD officers have descended on minority neighborhoods, leaning into car windows and knocking on apartment doors, trying to get men and women to say the magic words: agreeing to exchange sex for money. These arrests are based almost entirely on the word of cops, who say they are incentivized to round up as many “bodies” as they can.
Some of their targets were selling sex to survive; others were minding their own business. Almost everyone arrested for these crimes in the last four years is nonwhite, a ProPublica data analysis shows: 89% of the 1,800 charged with prostitution; 93% of the 3,000 accused of trying to buy sex.
Of the dozens of cops, lawyers and other experts ProPublica interviewed for this story, not a single one believes arrest figures for patronizing a prostitute accurately reflect the racial makeup of those who buy sex in New York City.
“I know for a fact that white men are the key demographic,” said Meredith Dank, a research professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who, along with her colleagues, has interviewed more than 600 young people who trade sex in the city. In one study, 65% said their main clients are white.
People living paycheck to paycheck lost their jobs over crimes they swore never happened. But facing multiple court hearings and the threat of jail time, they took quick deals to move on with their lives. A former officer who worked undercover told ProPublica she participated in false arrests. Others acknowledged the system could let them slip through.
The problems became clear in interviews with 36 current and former officers and dozens of defendants, prosecutors and defense attorneys; weeks of observing court proceedings; and a review of hundreds of pages of sealed court records.
ProPublica delved into the work of one officer, identified in official documents as Undercover 157, whose cases are replete with allegations of false arrest and sexual misconduct that were never aired in court. Defense attorneys filed complaints with the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD almost three years ago, which still considers it an “ongoing matter.” In a statement, the NYPD defended the undercover officer as a veteran “with approximately 1,800 successful buys and no complaints against him at the NYPD or with the Civilian Complaint Review Board.” (The department later clarified this meant no active complaints.)
Even for a department accused in recent months of acting with impunity, those policing New York’s sex trade appear to operate in an extreme vacuum of accountability. The CCRB, originally created to investigate police misconduct against communities of color, does not address allegations of false arrest and is still trying to gain authority to examine those involving sexual abuse.
In the rare instances when defendants sue, the cases are often settled before officers have to testify.
Since 2014, the city has paid more than a million in taxpayer dollars to at least 20 people who claimed they were falsely arrested in prostitution or “john” stings. Last year, it paid $150,000 to five young Latino men who said they were laughing off a proposition when they were arrested and $20,000 to a West African taxi driver who said in a sworn deposition that he was walking home when a woman asked if he’d walk down the block with her. He told ProPublica he thought she was afraid of walking alone, so he agreed. He was then arrested.
The undercover officer in his case netted 10 arrests in three and a half hours the night she encountered him, earning her four hours of overtime pay.
Eighteen current and former officers who policed the sale of sex in New York City said overtime has motivated them for years. The hours add up over the drive to the precinct, the questioning, the paperwork. “You arrest 10 girls, now the whole team’s making eight hours of overtime,” retired Sgt. Stephen Antiuk said.
“That’s what it was all about, making money, from the lieutenant to the sergeant on down,” retired Detective John Kopack said. “You want to eat? You guys want to make some money tonight? Make some arrests, do what you got to do.”
The NYPD did not respond to ProPublica’s detailed questions about overtime or the specific incidents in this story. Sgt. Jessica McRorie, an NYPD spokeswoman, said the department “maintains heightened vigilance and robust oversight over all of its undercover operations.” NYPD spokesman Al Baker said police shifted their prostitution strategy in 2017, leading to fewer arrests of sex workers, more of “johns” and a greater focus on “pimps.” He noted that selling sex is still illegal and the department “deploys officers where residents report crime” without consideration of race or ethnicity.
As New York City’s crime rate fell to record lows in recent years, the NYPD continued to draw criticism for its outsized presence in minority neighborhoods, arresting tens of thousands of Black and Latino people on minor, nonviolent infractions. This dynamic inspired calls over the summer to “defund the police,” a slogan that depicts the department as an occupying force, disproportionately ensnaring people of color in the criminal justice system.
The statistics for arrests involving the sale of sex reflect a particularly stark example of this trend.
While complaints about prostitution have long been scattered across neighborhoods of all races, arrests for buying sex are not. ProPublica found that in majority Black and Latino areas, police have arrested over three times as many alleged sex buyers as in whiter neighborhoods despite comparable complaints about prostitution and arrests of alleged sex workers in each.
Michele Alexander, who is Black, sometimes worked undercover out of a precinct in Jamaica, Queens, before she retired in 2012. “When are we going to Manhattan?” she recalls asking her supervisor, after working too many sex buyer stings where the men all looked the same. “Negroes aren’t the only ones who buy vagina.” As punishment, she said she was reassigned to an early morning tour monitoring a Manhattan subway station.
Paul Lichtbraun, a retired captain who oversaw vice in Manhattan and the Bronx until 2017, said his unit often focused on buyers, but when it received complaints about prostitution inside high-end Manhattan hotels, they’d only go after sex workers. “If I start arresting their paying customers, [the hotel’s] going to ask me to leave,” he said. “Are there always people who get off in this world? Of course there are.”
Then, there is the community college student, stopped in a majority-Black neighborhood in Brooklyn that saw more buyer arrests in the past few years than all of Manhattan and Staten Island combined. Refusing to take a plea deal, he trekked to and from court for seven months. The prosecutor ultimately dropped the charges.
The young man sued for false arrest and won a $15,000 settlement. But he lost something more fundamental, his ability to trust.
“When I see people on the street, asking for a jump or whatever, I just keep going,” he told ProPublica. “Can you imagine if it was really two girls on the corner waving for help? You just lost one guy who would stop.”
Whether police target sex workers or their clients, operations look much the same. Field teams of anywhere from eight to 16 officers are dispatched with the aim of securing verbal agreements of sex for money.
They often start with community complaints called “kites.” When there are none to follow, there are “strolls” or “tracks,” dark stretches in industrial sections of East New York or along Roosevelt Avenue in Queens where sex is bought and sold, noon and night. Massage parlors can be easy targets; words need not be spoken. Money lands on a table, there is a gesture in the motion of manual sex, a subtle nod in return.
Sometimes, no money is involved at all. “There has to be an exchange of a benefit,” said former Sgt. Louis Failla. He told the story of an undercover who once “made a deal with a crack prostitute on the street for a hamburger and fries from McDonald’s.” He always found it “humorous,” he said, “what these women would do just to get a few dollars.”
Current and former undercover officers told ProPublica there’s an art to convincing their targets they aren’t cops. Some dirty their fingernails or rub newspaper on their knees to make it look like they’ve been providing oral sex on the street. One said that if a woman insisted he touch her breasts, he would do so, but he would never squeeze.
Sometimes, officers go in to arrest a woman and find she’s completely naked. Antiuk, the retired sergeant, laughed while describing the perks of the job. “The undercover can have a nice, cold beer and watch a girl take her clothes off — and he’s getting paid for it.”
Once the deal is made, the undercover signals that it’s time for the arrest. While backup officers can sometimes hear the incriminating conversations through a wireless device, they are not required to record. Some teams have come in after getting a signal from the undercover officer, having heard nothing of the exchange.
That trust can be exploited.
Jazmia Inserillo, who retired as an NYPD officer in 2016, told ProPublica she participated in false arrests as an undercover officer without her backup team listening in. Sometimes, a young man would stop to flirt but hadn’t agreed to pay for sex before he was arrested. Once, a man pulled up and told the undercovers, “I know you the police,” she recalled. “And because he’s just talking, they just give the signal.”
Twice, men were clearly lost and stopped to ask for directions. “You’re not lost. You know what you came here for,” Inserillo remembers her partner saying one night. “What do you want, you looking for a blowjob?”
The man said he was looking for a street but couldn’t find it in the dark. As the three went back and forth, Inserillo remembered her partner lifting her back leg and leaning into the car, a signal to a backup team to initiate an arrest. “This girl puts her foot up while I’m in the middle of talking to him about cross streets,” Inserillo said.
“And I look up at my lieutenant trying to signal no. But he didn’t really understand because we didn’t have a signal for no.”
She said she’d brought up another bad arrest to a supervisor, but he ignored it.
John Hart, who was her lieutenant at that time and is now a deputy chief, told ProPublica no one in his unit ever mentioned false arrests to him. Inserillo later filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against a different superior officer over an unrelated incident, saying she endured retaliation for reporting him. She won a $112,500 settlement.
The department has had the equipment to covertly record agreements between undercover officers and targets for at least 20 years, but it does so inconsistently. Some officers told ProPublica their supervisors required them to record; others said they never taped a single arrest.
“Almost none of these cases ever go to a courtroom, so that’s the reason recording was not a priority,” said Lichtbraun, the retired captain. “In vice, they weren’t always recorded. Frankly, they very often were not.”
In 2016, a civil rights attorney asked a federal judge for an injunction that would forbid the department from making buyer arrests without recording them. Gabriel Harvis was representing a Black man arrested outside of a post office after being propositioned while getting a package from the trunk of his car. The man insisted he declined the sex offer, sued for false arrest and won $85,000. But the case settled before the injunction could be considered.
Oren Yaniv, a spokesman for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, said prosecutors there did not know operations were sometimes recorded until ProPublica contacted them earlier this year. The office has handled more than 2,000 prostitution and patronizing cases since 2015.
Now that the office is aware of the recordings, Yaniv said, “we sometimes use and disclose them in cases we prosecute — those against pimps and traffickers. As in every case, if the police account raises questions or if we receive any information alleging problems with the arrest, we investigate further.”
The NYPD did not answer questions about when officers make recordings or why they choose not to. “For obvious safety and evidentiary reasons, the NYPD never discloses specifics of our tradecraft or investigatory methods in undercover cases.”
One officer, known only as Undercover 157, has developed a reputation among defense attorneys for the stories they hear about him from their clients. In multiple cases, the defendants said they never agreed to sell sex for money and thought the man with the confident smile and well-kept dreadlocks was courting them for a date.
One woman told her lawyers he had been texting her for days when she got into his car one cold, winter afternoon after he offered to drive her to the pharmacy to get asthma medication for her daughter. She said he took her to a hotel parking lot instead, near the shelter where she was staying, and offered her $100 for oral sex. She said she declined at least twice but was arrested anyway.
A young man thought the stranger was interested in him when they locked eyes out in East New York. They traded numbers and, for three straight days, exchanged heated, flirtatious messages that made no mention of money. When they met for a hook-up, his sexting companion asked if he wanted to get something to eat first. He declined; the man shoved a fistful of dollars at him, saying, “Here, take this to eat later.” Then a squad car pulled up.
In early 2018, these stories along with four others were submitted in two letters from the Legal Aid Society to the NYPD inspector general. “These incidents demonstrate a serious lack of training, protocol and supervision of Undercover 157, the units he is working with, as well as the supervising officers’ abandonment of any duty to review his arrests or monitor the outcomes of his arrests,” the letter said.
In addition to the letters, ProPublica obtained records of arrests made by Undercover 157 between 2015 and 2019 from more than 80 sealed court cases.
Seventeen women complained to their attorneys of inappropriate touching or worse. One said he penetrated her vagina with his finger, then washed his hands before officers arrived. Another said she performed oral sex on him and was arrested the next time she saw him. A third said she was in “only panties” as they danced and smoked marijuana for about 15 minutes and that he touched her vagina. A fourth, who sells sex to support her heroin addiction, told ProPublica he asked her to get completely naked and grabbed her buttocks. “He didn’t have to go to that extent,” she said.
The records show just how difficult it can be to investigate such claims. Only three of the complainants agreed to meet with the inspector general. Nearly three years later, Legal Aid is still waiting for the inquiry to conclude.
None of these allegations were ever aired before a judge. In New York City, prostitution cases are processed in Human Trafficking Intervention Court, which is supposed to help rather than punish people in the sex trade. But it functions a bit like a conveyer belt, where defendants quickly agree to counseling sessions to provide “exit strategies” out of the sex trade. If they complete them and avoid arrest, their charges are dismissed and cases are sealed.
Three former prosecutors who worked in the court told ProPublica they juggled so many cases that even if an arrest seemed flawed, they were unlikely to report it.
Cases against people accused of trying to buy sex in New York City fly through misdemeanor court at a similar clip. They almost always end with plea deals for more minor offenses like disorderly conduct or are simply dismissed. From 2015 through 2019, the court processed more than 4,100 of these cases. Only one person took his to trial. He won.
Two defendants have tried to force Undercover 157 to answer for his arrests in recent years.
In 2017, a woman accused of prostitution made the rare decision to take her case to trial. Undercover 157 was announced as the first witness. But on the day he was set to testify, prosecutor Abraham Jacob Jeger revised his initial offer: If the defendant was not arrested for six months, the charge would be sealed and dismissed, no counseling necessary. The detective never had to take the stand.
In an emailed response, Jeger said he and his supervisors made “a cost-benefit analysis and decided that it was not worth revealing this undercover’s identity” to those in court. He referred further questions to the Queens District Attorney’s Office, which said it could not comment on sealed cases.
In a 2018 case, Jillian Modzeleski, an attorney with Brooklyn Defender Services, filed a unique legal motion called a Gissendanner, which would allow the defendant access to Undercover 157’s disciplinary records if a judge found them “relevant and material” to the case. She cited the pattern of false arrest allegations against him and his fellow officers.
Before a judge could rule on the motion, the Brooklyn DA dropped all charges. The DA would not comment on cases in this story because they are all sealed.
The NYPD also declined to discuss the detective’s cases. “We do not speak about ongoing investigations or matters in litigation. We are making only a slight exception in your case by noting that the narrative, as you presented, is not entirely accurate,” said Sgt. Mary Frances O’Donnell, referring to an extensive summary of the false arrest and sexual misconduct allegations in this story. “We are unable to comment further.”
The department initially said Undercover 157 was an officer “with no complaints.” But the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau had indeed gotten one in November 2014:
An undocumented woman from China reported that the detective undressed her and touched her breasts and vagina at an informal massage parlor in Queens. She told investigators that when the backup team arrived, they handcuffed her and walked her through the massage parlor naked. She said she begged them to let her get dressed, but they refused. One took a photo of her.
ProPublica spoke to three attorneys involved: Lauren Hersh, who helped set up the meeting with investigators; Rosie Wang, who interpreted and kept notes; and Leigh Latimer, who represented the woman on the prostitution charge and spoke with her again last week. Court records identify the undercover officer behind her arrest as 157.
Wang said the investigators asked the woman to pick the detective out of a photo array. It had been a year since her arrest and she was unable to do so. Five months later, IAB got in touch to set up a second interview. The woman declined, saying she was tired of revisiting the traumatic experience. The department, which confirmed its investigation when ProPublica asked about it, said it closed the complaint without disciplining him.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services later granted her legal status as a trafficking victim, finding that she had been forced into sex work at the massage parlor.
ProPublica reporters were unable to learn the name of Undercover 157 to investigate him further, but they spoke with four former cops who worked with the detective. All were skeptical about the allegations. One said the detective was regarded as a “superstar” because of how good he was at convincing people to engage. But another, who trailed him as a “ghost” on dozens of arrests, said the detective rarely used a radio and usually texted or sent a signal through another wireless device instead. He said he couldn’t hear what transpired between Undercover 157 and his targets. “I was a ghost with no ears.”
After months of reporting, ProPublica was able to listen to a recording of an operation in which the defendant claimed she was falsely arrested by Undercover 157. It was made in late 2018, after the Legal Aid complaints and attempts to bring the detective to court. The audio evidence refuted her story, but it raised other questions.
Her attorney had no idea the recording existed; it was never shared before the woman’s case was sealed and dismissed. “The fact that these secret tapes exist means that the NYPD has broken the law by concealing evidence,” said Modzeleski, her attorney. “This revelation demands an investigation.” The department did not answer questions about the recording or whether it will investigate the failure to turn it over.
The recording offers a rare window into how such arrests unfold.
In October 2018, Undercover 157 knocked on the door of an East New York apartment six weeks after someone complained that the woman inside was selling sex. The 27-year-old single mother had lived there for eight months after years of instability and stints in a shelter. Through the door, he tried to convince her to do business.
“Excuse me,” she replied, “I said no. I do not know you. I have children here. No.”
In the recording, she could be heard saying ‘no’ or ‘bye’ or telling him to leave 12 times. At one point, the conversation went silent and she seemed to step away. His loud knocking resumed. “Yo!” he called out. She replied, “Stop knocking on my door.”
He persisted, feigning exasperation until she gave in. It’s unclear from the recording who brought up money first, but eventually, she asked him how much he had. He increased his offer until she agreed to let him in, raising the cash in front of her peephole at her request.
An infant could be heard crying in the background as he asked for anal sex. She told him she didn’t want to be hurt. “Are you going to be rough?” she asked.
She checked on the baby, who was now screaming. Then came another knock on the door, a banging this time.
The backup team stormed in. One shouted at her to get on the floor. She was so panicked, she said, she urinated on herself.
At least five cops were involved in the arrest. She was charged with prostitution and endangering the welfare of a child. The city’s child welfare agency removed her children and she lost custody for two months.
Almost every officer interviewed for this story said their work did little to reduce the amount of sex sold in New York City, improve the lives of those selling it or help catch criminals who force people into it.
At best, officers said, low-level prostitution arrests can temporarily assuage community complaints about noise and public sex acts, but the trade just reemerges elsewhere. “If you’re always putting a team of 10 detectives and some bosses on a corner once a week, it’s just a waste of funds,” retired Detective Efrain Collado said.
He joined vice to gain investigative experience and make a positive impact, but he became disillusioned during repeated assignments to arrest women outside three large homeless shelters near vice’s Brooklyn North headquarters.
It felt like he was kicking desperate people when they were down. “It’s a waste of time,” Collado said. “A revolving door.”
Several current and former officers described vice as a neglected stepchild within the department. With only sporadic attention from the top brass and limited opportunities to pursue traffickers, they said it draws rookies looking to make detective and keeps washouts no one else wants.
“We’re considered bottom feeders — put us in the back room in the basement,” said Antiuk, the retired sergeant. “The morale goes to a point where it becomes how many arrests are we going to make and how much overtime are we going to get. You didn’t give a shit about some of these girls.”
Former Det. Ludwig Paz is serving a prison sentence of up to 12 years for running a prostitution ring involving as many as eight locations. He recruited several officers, including his former vice partner, to help protect it. Failla, the former sergeant, was fired last year after he was implicated in the scheme; he said he was an unwitting participant, passing on intel Paz used to protect his operation.
It was the latest in a long line of scandals involving the NYPD and the sex trade. Officers have been caught exploiting or protecting the trade about once or twice a decade going back to the 1972 Knapp Commission, which found that bribes from brothel operators and other criminals were widespread in the department and that a number of locations offered half-priced sex to police in exchange for protection.
Two competing measures are being discussed by state legislators, aiming to end prostitution arrests and the trouble that surrounds them.
“Full decriminalization” would remove criminal penalties for buying or selling sex. Supporters argue that sex for money is a victimless crime so long as the transactions take place between two consenting adults. They say laws primarily impact poor people of color and only make life for sex workers more dangerous.
Kopack, who worked on trafficking investigations and street-level enforcement, echoed the sentiment, saying the threat of prostitution arrests can make life easier for traffickers, because those they exploit are less likely to seek help. “They get the shit beaten out of them, but they know if the cops come, they’re going to get arrested.”
The “Equality Model” would keep penalties in place for buying sex but decriminalize selling it. Proponents believe that while sex workers should be treated as victims, not criminals, the government should still aim to abolish the sex trade, which they say can too easily lead to rape and other abuses. If buying sex is legal, they argue, more men will do so, which would increase trafficking.
Trafficking, sex with minors and various forms of coercion or promotion would remain illegal under either policy. The full decriminalization bill is stuck in New York Senate and Assembly committees. Lawmakers who support the “Equality Model” say they plan to introduce counter legislation in the next year or so.
De Blasio hasn’t taken a position on whether the law should be changed, but he had to confront the issue after the 2019 death of Layleen Polanco.
The 27-year-old transgender woman had been arrested for allegedly agreeing to perform oral sex on an undercover officer and then failed to show up at the court designed to help sex workers, resulting in a bench warrant. She was arrested on a separate charge and sent to Rikers Island because she couldn’t afford the $500 bail set for having missed appearances on the prostitution charge. She had a seizure in a solitary cell and died.
Seventeen corrections officers were disciplined after a report showed how guards left her unattended while she needed medical attention. Her family sued and won a $5.9 million settlement. Decriminalization activists, members of the LGBTQ community and public officials like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez blamed the death on a system that targets and traps people who are already poor and marginalized.
When a reporter from The City, a local nonprofit news organization, asked de Blasio about the case in September, he made news with his response: “To the question of whether sex workers should be arrested, my broad answer is no.”
In response to questions for this story, de Blasio’s spokeswoman Avery Cohen did not take a position on the criminalization of sex work or respond to questions about racial disparities in enforcement. She underscored that sex workers are no longer “the key targets of arrest” and said, “Whether it’s through state legislation or through city policy, we are working to end exploitation and aid survivors of human trafficking. The NYPD Vice Unit will conduct itself in a way that reflects this goal.”
Prostitution arrests began to decline in 2017 when New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill promised to shift resources toward traffickers and buyers. “Make no mistake, this is one of the fastest growing criminal enterprises in the world, but the NYPD will not allow it to fester,” he said, announcing the addition of 25 vice officers to “conduct initial screening in trafficking cases.”
But two officers who worked in vice at the time told ProPublica that the promise belied the way it was carried out. The department sent its least experienced officers, so-called white shields who occupy the lowest rank. According to the two officers, the new additions went after sex workers and their customers, not traffickers.
A separate anti-trafficking unit, which had fewer than 10 members, regularly had to turn down leads. With the unit short on personnel, Collado said, even experienced anti-trafficking detectives like himself had to focus mostly on “low-hanging fruit” rather than genuine trafficking networks. Arrests where the top charge is sex trafficking have increased only slightly in recent years, peaking at 55 in 2018, according to city data on violations of New York state law.
“There are no resources and there is no real investment,” said Anila Duro, an adjunct professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a member of the federally funded Human Trafficking Task Force at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, citing conversations with current officers.
Baker, the NYPD spokesman, countered that assessment, defending the department’s emphasis on trafficking and portraying vice as a unit of dedicated officers doing meaningful work. He confirmed that the 25 investigators were white shields but said they were “specially trained to investigate complaints of human trafficking and to conduct enforcement and build strong cases.” He said the move increased vice’s staffing to 114, but it’s now down to 96 because the department has had to respond to other pressing matters, like upticks in violent crime, protests and the coronavirus pandemic. Since April, there have been just 22 arrests for prostitution and 87 for patronizing.
He also emphasized the work of two federal partnerships dedicated to trafficking, one with the FBI, which includes nine NYPD officers, and another with the Department of Homeland Security, which he said has seven. He said that the vice human trafficking unit still includes nine officers. Combined, that equals 25, which he said “represents a stable commitment to the vision articulated in 2017.”
Baker said there have been over 4,500 emergency calls regarding prostitution since 2016 and there are approximately 30 “tracks” that “generate complaints routinely from residents.” He sent statistics showing that prostitution-related arrests overall have decreased, but that those of “pimps” now account for a larger proportion, from 8% in 2015 to 12% in 2019. As evidence of the department’s anti-trafficking work, he pointed to severalbusts from recent years, including the arrest of a man last week for allegedly trafficking underage girls across county lines.
Collado said his experience in vice’s anti-trafficking unit did not reflect a real commitment to pursuing criminals who force people into prostitution. He said that in his two years on the unit ending in 2018, he only got to work on one serious investigation. It stalled, partly because it was left only to him and one other detective. The case involves dozens of women. He said his partner is still working on it, two years after Collado retired.
“You’re not going to get traffickers the way they’re doing it,” Collado told ProPublica. “Change has got to come from the top.”
This year, amid a national outcry over police violence, the conversation turned to reducing budgets as a way to force reform. Overtime pay might be a place to start cutting, according to advocates and even some officers.
“When people are screaming, ‘Defund the police,’ I got no problems with that because they are wasting fucking money,” said Sgt. Steven Lee, who briefly worked as an interpreter during prostitution arrests and positioned himself as a whistleblower in a recent state Assembly race.
Units that involve a lot of arrests, like vice and narcotics, are known destinations for overtime pay. “It’s called collars for dollars,” said Failla, invoking a term for a practice that has dogged the department for decades. “The more bodies you put in the van, the more overtime there was.”
Elizabeth Velazquez, who retired in 2019, said she started doing “john” stings early in her career to supplement an otherwise modest salary. “That was the point of doing the operation,” she said. “I was a single parent. I needed to pay my mortgage.”
Many officers told ProPublica their colleagues have come to rely on padded paychecks to support lifestyles they otherwise could not afford. They may buy houses or cars on take-home pay that could shrink if they make fewer arrests.
Some squeeze all they can out of overtime because it factors into pension payouts, often based on the years in which they took home the most money. It can pay dividends for the rest of their lives.
The city has pledged to reduce police overtime spending and abuse in recent years, but data and documents suggest limited success. Detectives can still easily add 30% to their salaries through overtime. A typical third-grade detective makes almost $35,000 a year in extra pay, atop an average base salary of $97,000.
In the last three fiscal years, the city has budgeted over $600 million a year for overtime. The department exceeded that figure by at least $100 million each year.
In an interview, one high-ranking NYPD official described overtime as an instrument to encourage all sorts of arrests, used by supervisors under pressure to produce numbers. “Take away overtime and show me how much loyalty you have left.”
Another said that in units like vice, this can discourage officers from launching more complicated investigations that might have more long-term impact. “They go for the low-hanging fruit. Easy collars,” he said. “That’s where they make their money.”
As pressure mounted to reduce police funding following protests this spring, de Blasio and the City Council agreed in June to cut the overtime budget by more than half. Even so, the city’s Independent Budget Office estimated that in fiscal year 2021, the NYPD will spend almost as much on overtime as it usually does, overshooting its budget by $400 million. That’s more than the city Health Department spent in fiscal year 2019 on emergency preparedness, addiction treatment, communicable diseases, immunizations and HIV prevention combined.
The NYPD did not respond to questions about what it’s doing to reduce overtime spending.
Antiuk, who retired three years ago, told ProPublica he is still “living off the royalties from back in the day,” referring to the vice overtime that boosted his pension. In his last 18 months on the job, records show, he made about $85,000 in extra pay.
He laughed as he remembered comparing his wages to those of a “really pretty Spanish girl” he had arrested.
“I make more money than you,” he recalled her saying to him in a hotel room. To which he replied: “Oh yeah? Well, you must be rich, because I’m doing really well.”
That was about all there was to show for his three years helping run vice in the Bronx, Antiuk said.
“I’ll tell you the truth straight up, man. It was a joke.”
About the Data
To help understand how the New York Police Department’s priorities changed over time and which demographic groups were most affected by the policing of prostitution, we analyzed NYPDdata, looking at arrests where the top charge was either prostitution or patronizing a prostitute in the third degree. (Patronizing a prostitute in the first or second degree is a felony charge involving a minor, and those arrests are uncommon. We also restricted our analysis of court data to cases where prostitution or third-degree patronizing was the top charge.) We analyzed the race of people arrested on these charges between October 2016 and September 2020.
Then, using public data on the number of prostitution-related 311 and 911 calls in each police precinct, we compared those complaints to the number of arrests in each precinct. (We restricted our analysis to the period between July 2017 and December 2019, in order to reflect the department’s strategic shift in early 2017 and avoid the possibility of the coronavirus pandemic muddling results). We found that the number of prostitution arrests was indeed strongly correlated to the number of complaints in a given area. Patronizing arrests, however, were only loosely correlated with complaints.
We factored in the racial demographics of each precinct using statistics prepared for us from census data by Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council. We then conducted what’s called a regression analysis, which let us hold one factor constant and then see if the precinct’s demographics are tied to the number of patronizing arrests. We found that demographics did make a significant difference. If we compared precincts with a similar number of complaints, the precinct with a higher percentage of Black and Latino residents usually had significantly more buyer arrests. Similarly, when we compared precincts with a similar number of arrests for prostitution, the same pattern was evident — the neighborhood with a larger Black and Latino population had more arrests for people buying sex.
Republished with permission under license from ProPublica.
by Paul Harvey, University of Colorado Colorado Springs
Martin Luther King Jr. has come to be revered as a hero who led a nonviolent struggle to reform and redeem the United States. His birthday is celebrated as a national holiday. Tributes are paid to him on his death anniversary each April, and his legacy is honored in multiple ways.
But from my perspective as a historian of religion and civil rights, the true radicalism of his thought remains underappreciated. The “civil saint” portrayed nowadays was, by the end of his life, a social and economic radical, who argued forcefully for the necessity of economic justice in the pursuit of racial equality.
Three particular works from 1957 to 1967 illustrate how King’s political thought evolved from a hopeful reformer to a radical critic.
King’s support for white moderates
For much of the 1950s, King believed that white southern ministers could provide moral leadership. He thought the white racists of the South could be countered by the ministers who took a stand for equality. At the time, his concern with economic justice was a secondary theme in his addresses and political advocacy.
Speaking at Vanderbilt University in 1957, he professed his belief that “there is in the white South more open-minded moderates than appears on the surface.” He urged them to lead the region through its necessary transition to equal treatment for black citizens. He reassured all that the aim of the movement was not to “defeat or humiliate the white man, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
King had hope for this vision. He had worked with white liberals such as Myles Horton, the leader of a center in Tennessee for training labor and civil rights organizers. King had developed friendships and crucial alliances with white supporters in other parts of the country as well. His vision was for the fulfillment of basic American ideals of liberty and equality.
Letter from Birmingham Jail
By the early 1960s, at the peak of the civil rights movement, King’s views had evolved significantly. In early 1963, King came to Birmingham to lead a campaign for civil rights in a city known for its history of racial violence.
During the Birmingham campaign, in April 1963, he issued a masterful public letter explaining the motivations behind his crusade. It stands in striking contrast with his hopeful 1957 sermon.
His “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” responded to a newspaper advertisement from eight local clergymen urging King to allow the city government to enact gradual changes.
In a stark change from his earlier views, King devastatingly targeted white moderates willing to settle for “order” over justice. In an oppressive environment, the avoidance of conflict might appear to be “order,” but in fact supported the denial of basic citizenship rights, he noted.
“We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive,” King wrote. He argued how oppressors never voluntarily gave up freedom to the oppressed – it always had to be demanded by “extremists for justice.”
He wrote how he was “gravely disappointed with the white moderate … who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” They were, he said, a greater enemy to racial justice than were members of the white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and other white racist radicals.
Call for economic justice
By 1967, King’s philosophy emphasized economic justice as essential to equality. And he made clear connections between American violence abroad in Vietnam and American social inequality at home.
Exactly one year before his assassination in Memphis, King stood at one of the best-known pulpits in the nation, at Riverside Church in New York. There, he explained how he had come to connect the struggle for civil rights with the fight for economic justice and the early protests against the Vietnam War.
“Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’ It can never be saved so long as it destroys the hopes of men the world over.”
He angered crucial allies. King and President Lyndon Johnson, for example, had been allies in achieving significant legislative victories in 1964 and 1965. Johnson’s “Great Society” launched a series of initiatives to address issues of poverty at home. But beginning in 1965, after the Johnson administration increased the number of U.S. troops deployed in Vietnam, King’s vision grew radical.
King continued with a searching analysis of what linked poverty and violence both at home and abroad. While he had spoken out before about the effects of colonialism, he now made the connection unmistakably clear. He said:
“I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor in America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam.”
King concluded with the famous words on “the fierce urgency of now,” by which he emphasized the immediacy of the connection between economic injustice and racial inequality.
The radical King
King’s “I Have a Dream,” speech at the March on Washington in August 1963 serves as the touchstone for the annual King holiday. But King’s dream ultimately evolved into a call for a fundamental redistribution of economic power and resources. It’s why he was in Memphis, supporting a strike by garbage workers, when he was assassinated in April 1968.
This remembering matters more than ever today. Many states are either passing or considering measures that would make it harder for many Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. It would roll back the huge gains in rates of political participation by racial minorities made possible by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. At the same time, there is a persistent wealth gap between blacks and whites.
Only sustained government attention can address these issues – the point King was stressing later in his life.
King’s philosophy stood not just for “opportunity,” but for positive measures toward economic equality and political power. Ignoring this understanding betrays the “dream” that is ritually invoked each year.
I’m part of a research team that has been following more than 800 Black American families for almost 25 years. We found that people who had reported experiencing high levels of racial discrimination when they were young teenagers had significantly higher levels of depression in their 20s than those who hadn’t. This elevated depression, in turn, showed up in their blood samples, which revealed accelerated aging on a cellular level.
Our research is not the first to show Black Americans live sicker lives and die younger than other racial or ethnic groups. The experience of constant and accumulating stress due to racism throughout an individual’s lifetime can wear and tear down the body – literally “getting under the skin” to affect health.
These findings highlight how stress from racism, particularly experienced early in life, can affect the mental and physical health disparities seen among Black Americans.
Why it matters
As news stories of Black American women, men and children being killed due to racial injustice persist, our research on the effects of racism continue to have significant implications.
In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics identified racism as having a profound impact on the health of children, adolescents, emerging adults and their families. Our findings support this conclusion – and show the need for society to truly reflect on the lifelong impact racism can have on a Black child’s ability to prosper in the U.S.
How we do the work
The Family and Community Health Study, established in 1996 at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia, is looking at how stress, neighborhood characteristics and other factors affect Black American parents and their children over a lifetime. Participants were recruited from rural, suburban and metropolitan communities. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this research is the largest study of African American families in the U.S., with 800 families participating.
Researchers collected data – including self-reported questionnaires on experiences of racial discrimination and depressive symptoms – every two to three years. In 2015, the team started taking blood samples, too, to assess participants’ risks for heart disease and diabetes, as well as test for biomarkers that predict the early onset of these diseases.
Our study shows how vital it is to think about how mental and physical health difficulties are interconnected.
Some of the next steps for our work include focusing more closely on the accelerated aging process. We also will look at resiliency and early life interventions that could possibly offset and prevent health decline among Black Americans.
Due to COVID-19, the next scheduled blood sample collection has been delayed until at least spring 2021. The original children from this study will be in their mid- to late 30s and might possibly be experiencing chronic illnesses at this age due, in part, to accelerated aging.
With continued research, my colleagues and I hope to identify ways to interrupt the harmful effects of racism so that Black lives matter and are able to thrive.
Republished with permission under license from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.
In our School to Prison Pipeline page, I wrote about how my youngest son was unfairly penalized with suspension for a very minor offense that would not have even been written up when I was in school. Most of my teachers were black, while most of my son's teacher's were white, which might help explain the harser treatment.
by Charles Bell, Illinois State University
School suspensions are intended to deter violence and punish students who demonstrate problematic behavior.
Yet, when I interviewed 30 Black high school students in southeast Michigan who had been suspended from school and 30 of their parents, I learned that many students were suspended because school officials misinterpreted their behaviors. Additionally, the suspensions led to students’ grades dropping significantly and to some parents withdrawing their children from their school districts.
You might assume that these punitive disciplinary practices have stopped since so many children are not physically in school due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You would be wrong. News reports show that suspensions have continued throughout the pandemic, while children are attending school remotely from their homes.
For example, in September, school officials suspended 9-year-old Louisiana student Ka’Mauri Harrison for six days because he placed a BB gun on a shelf in his room after one of his siblings tripped over it during virtual learning. In other incidents, such as when 12-year-old Isaiah Elliot played with a toy gun during virtual art class, school officials sent law enforcement officers to his home – terrifying everyone in their household. Although these cases attracted considerable media attention, I believe most do not.
Collectively, these instances of unwarranted school punishment raise important questions about their impact on millions of individuals – particularly Black students and parents. The most recent data shows Black students represent 15% of K-12 public school students in the U.S. but receive 39% of school suspensions.
Students and parents silenced
In one interview after another, students told me they were denied the opportunity to explain their side, which could have led school officials to determine a suspension was unnecessary. Parents also said educators and administrators ignored them throughout the disciplinary process.
For example, Sandra, a ninth grader, received a five-day suspension for deescalating a fight between peers.
“I feel like they didn’t hear me out,” she said. “I told my mom and my dad and they was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t see why they suspended you.’ … [T]he [school officials] was like, ‘We feel like you threatened her.’ I’m like, ‘I didn’t, and the girl even said I didn’t threaten her.’ When I came back to school she was like, ‘Why did you get suspended?’ and I was like, ‘[Because] they said I threatened you,’ and she was like, ‘How did you threaten me?’ I’m like, exactly. So, I just felt like they should have listened to me and let me explain the whole situation.”
Mike’s daughter Kimberly, a ninth grade student, received a five-day suspension for hugging a boy.
“To suspend a child for five days for giving a person a hug is ridiculous,” he said. “I raised my voice about it many times. Their policies around suspension are very unnecessary.”
Students also told me their achievement declined by as much as two letter grades due to suspensions. Students and parents attributed the academic declines to missing high-point-value assignments, experiencing difficulty catching up, missing vital instruction and educators’ unwillingness to distribute makeup assignments to suspended students.
“[School discipline] affected my grades a lot,” said Marcus, a 10th grade student who received a 39-day suspension after he punched a gated window in response to his teacher calling him a “failure.” “I go up there to get my work, but it’s hard to do the work when you are outside of school. You get where you’re not receiving the proper guidance to do the work.”
Tangie’s 10th grade son received a 10-day suspension for defending himself after several gang members attacked him at school.
“I was going back up to the school every other day, fighting to get his makeup work from the teachers,” she said. “I kept calling and calling, and finally I ended up taking him to [a new school], which is terrible. But I had to because his teachers would not give me the damn work.”
Black educational flight
Several parents told me that excessive school suspensions motivated them to remove their child from a school district.
Lisa’s son, a 10th grader, borrowed a cellphone from a classmate. Then another student stole the cellphone from him. In response, school officials handcuffed him to a railing, suspended him for five days, and referred the case to the local prosecutor.
“I just feel at that time they failed him,” she told me. “He is asking to be transferred so I am looking into another school for him.”
Patrice met with school officials after her son was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in order to create an individualized education plan for him. Although school officials created the plan, she said, they didn’t implement it. Instead, they continued to suspend him.
“He is going to another school this year,” she said. “How are you going to have an IEP and not follow through with what’s on the IEP? That’s a big issue! It’s just a lack of communication and too much suspension.”
Rethinking school discipline
My findings suggest that schools should use alternatives to school suspensions. They also suggest that teachers should be required to distribute assignments to students who receive suspensions, and consider using virtual learning to reduce the negative impact of suspensions on student achievement.
Schools should also better understand how students and parents view school discipline and involve them in establishing school rules. Students changing schools is a major concern for administrators, and my study shows excessive school discipline motivates Black families to leave a district.
Several states, such as Michigan and Illinois, have passed school discipline reforms to reduce suspension rates. However, the data I collected, which will be featured in my upcoming book “Code of the School,” suggests the discipline reforms have been ineffective in some districts because school suspension data is not publicly available.
School discipline data that is anonymous and separated by race, gender, disability and infraction type should be published annually on the district’s website. Without school discipline transparency, parents and legislators cannot hold school districts accountable for the disciplinary reforms. I am working with Michigan legislators to resolve this issue.
Running on progressive platforms that include ending mass incarceration and addressing police misconduct, candidates defeated traditional “law-and-order” prosecutors across the country.
Elected prosecutors – often called state’s attorneys or district attorneys – represent the people of a particular county in their criminal cases. Their offices work with law enforcement to investigate and try cases, determine which crimes should be prioritized and decide how punitive to be.
After decades of incumbent prosecutors winning reelection based on their high conviction rates or the long sentences they achieved, advocates for criminal justice reform began making inroads into their territory a few years ago. They did so mainly by drawing attention to local races and funding progressive challengers.
She won, becoming the first Black woman to serve as state’s attorney in Chicago. It was also the first high-profile sign that this progressive prosecutorial approach was working.
Her victory was followed by the 2017 election of Larry Krasner as district attorney in Philadelphia. Krasner, a former civil rights attorney, had never prosecuted a case when he ran for office – a move that the city’s police union chief called “hilarious.”
But Krasner’s campaign platform – addressing mass incarceration and police misconduct – responded to a city saddled with the highest incarceration rate among large U.S. cities, nearly seven out of every 1,000 citizens. Krasner won with 75% of the vote.
In Detroit, Karen McDonald won her race for Oakland County prosecutor by promising “common-sense criminal justice reform that utilizes treatment courts and diversion programs, addresses racial disparity, and creates a fair system for all people.”
“I think people are starting to realize, ‘Why don’t I know who my DA is?‘” said Gordon McLaughlin, the new district attorney for Colorado’s Eighth Judicial District, who campaigned on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders. “It’s brought criminal justice into the main conversation.”
One prominent issue on voters’ minds is how prosecutors’ offices choose to handle police violence.
Gascón vowed to hold police accountable for officer-involved shootings. During the campaign, he pledged to reopen high-profile cases, including two where people were shot for not complying with an officer’s directions.
Mass incarceration and cash bail
Progressive prosecutors are likely to have the most impact by diverting people away from the criminal justice system in the first place.
Many have been motivated by what they see as “the criminalization of poverty” – a phenomenon in which the poor compile criminal records for minor offenses because they cannot afford bail or effective legal counsel.
Alonzo Payne, the new district attorney for San Luis Valley, Colorado, was outraged that poor people were forced to stay in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bond.
“I decided I wanted to bring some human compassion to the DA’s office,” he told the Denver Post.
Reforming the cash bail system and reducing mass incarceration is a goal shared by all of the newly elected prosecutors this election cycle, including Jose Garza, an immigrant rights attorney, in Austin, Texas.
It seems that progressive policies are here to stay in some of the nation’s largest cities, but reformers didn’t enjoy success everywhere.
Nonetheless, progressive prosecutors are increasingly winning races – and staying in power – by using the criminal justice system in more equitable ways.
Worrell, in Orlando, is a good example. She ran the Conviction Integrity Unit in the district attorney’s office, investigating innocence claims from convicted defendants.
Her reform message resonated a lot more with voters than the message of her opponent, Jose Torroella, who pledged to be “more old-fashioned” and more “strict.” Worrell won the race with nearly 66% of the votes.
“Criminal justice reform is not something people should be afraid of,” Worrell said. “It means we’re going to be smart on crime, rather than tough on crime.”
by Guo Xu, University of California, Berkeley and Abhay Aneja, University of California, Berkeley
Economic disparities in earnings, health and wealth between Black and white Americans are staggeringly large. Historical government practices and institutions – such as segregated schools, redlined neighborhoods and discrimination in medical care – have contributed to these wide disparities. While these causes may not always be overt, they can have lasting negative effects on the prosperity of minority communities.
Abhay Aneja and I are researchers at University of California, Berkeley, who specialize in examining the causes of social inequality. Our new research examines the U.S. federal government’s role in creating conditions of racial inequality more than a century ago. Specifically, we researched the harmful impact of government discrimination against Black civil service employees. We also examined how such discrimination continues to affect their families decades later, rippling across future generations.
Decades of discrimination
Soon after his inauguration in 1913, President Woodrow Wilson ushered in one of the most far-reaching discrimination policies of that century. Wilson discreetly authorized his Cabinet secretaries to implement a policy of racial segregation across the federal bureaucracy.
A Southerner by heritage, Wilson appointed several Southern Democrats to Cabinet offices, several of whom were sympathetic to the segregationist cause. Wilson’s new postmaster general, for example, was “anxious to segregate white and negro employees in all Departments of Government.” Historical accounts suggest that Wilson’s order was carried out most aggressively by the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Treasury Department, the latter responsible for revenue generation including taxes and customs duties. Based on the data we collected, the majority of Black civilians worked in these two federal departments before Wilson’s arrival.
Given his support among Southern Democrats, one goal of the Wilson administration was to limit the access of Black civil servants to the highest positions within government. This outcome was achieved through both demotions and reductions, efforts to discourage the hiring of qualified Black candidates.
For example, photos became required to apply for government jobs in order to screen out Black candidates. Black Americans already employed in the federal civil service were transferred from relatively high-status posts to low-paying ones. This overall policy of Jim Crow-style segregation served to shut out Black Americans from working in one of the few places where they could find opportunities for economic mobility and success.
Deep roots of economic disparities
Despite the potential for enormous harm, the cost of segregation to the economic status of Black civil servants has long remained unknown. Our research started by examining how President Wilson contributed to earnings disparities between Black and white civil service workers. In so doing, our research added to the collective knowledge within the social sciences about the roots of racial inequality.
To build a database on earnings inequality, our team undertook a large-scale data digitization of previously undigitized and, to our knowledge, unexamined historical government records containing a detailed list of all people who worked for the federal government and what they earned each year. These records were contained in eight volumes of the Official Register of the U.S., a series spanning 1907 to 1921. For 1907, we obtained information for 125,000 workers. By 1921, the size of the government workforce had more than doubled.
This data collection and cleaning process created a comprehensive dataset to understand the operation of the American federal government at the beginning of the 20th century. It not only described a worker’s position and salary, but also contained rich personal information including a federal employee’s place of birth, the state from which they were appointed and the Cabinet department where they worked.
Because the register was issued every two years, our research made it possible to track a civil servant’s career progression over time. Looking at this data source, it was clear that President Wilson’s policy of segregating the federal workforce exacted an enormous cost from Black civil servants.
Sidelining Black federal workers
To isolate the impact of racial discrimination and establish comparable jobs and salaries, the analysis paired Black and white federal employees with similar characteristics. Each worked in the same city, the same government office and even had the same salary before President Wilson’s inauguration. Within this set of comparable workers, Black civil servants earned about 7% less than their white counterparts during Wilson’s two terms as president.
When we account for differences in civil servants, such as educational background, the reduction in earnings suffered by Black civil servants remains. Moreover, under the order to segregate, Black civil servants were less likely to be promoted over time and more likely to be demoted. This disparate treatment by the federal government enabled white civil servants to earn more over time than Black civil servants with the same levels of skill and experience. Our research provides strong evidence for the discriminatory nature of workplace segregation faced by Black Americans within the federal government.
Our research shows that the damage caused by working under discriminatory conditions persisted well beyond Wilson’s presidency. The same Black civil servants victimized by discrimination in federal employment were also less likely to own a home in 1920, 1930 and 1940, almost three decades after Wilson was elected. Moreover, the school-age children of Black civil servants who served in the Wilson administration went on to have poorer-quality lives than their young white counterparts in terms of their overall earnings and quality of employment in adulthood.
This research can help to contribute to the understanding of the roots of economic disparities. A policy of racial discrimination – even if implemented temporarily – has lasting negative effects. A clearer understanding of historical discrimination can help to inform the design of policies aimed at remedying the painfully persistent racial inequities we observe today.