The Origins of Black AND White Mistrust of Authority in America

Different Authorities, Different Reasons, Same History

It is commonly understood by both black and white America that African-American communities have significant trust issues with the police. It manifests as an unwillingness to cooperate with investigations, cynicism towards the justice system, and an overall disdain towards anyone perceived to be trying to establish law and order in our communities. From the African-American perspective this distrust is fully warranted due to issues of racism, police brutality, and other discrimination against African-Americans being intertwined with the history of law enforcement in America.

From the perspective of anyone not living in African-American communities it is one more way in which we tend not to fully participate in, or appreciate the efforts of, broader America to improve our condition. While it leads to exasperation and confusion amongst well-meaning liberals, it is also fodder for more malignant racist narratives regarding some inherent connection between African-Americans and crime. For too many white Americans African-American distrust of the police is one more piece of evidence suggesting that we neither understand, nor want to be associated with, what they understand to be America.

But what is often overlooked is the deep and long-standing distrust of authority that white conservative America holds as well. It does not manifest in the same palpable and direct disdain towards the officer on the corner that exists within the African-American community. Instead it is a much broader fear and distrust of government authority as a whole. Many see themselves as the direct descendants of the country’s Founders who above all else saw government as a source of threat to individual liberty. Their cynicism and distrust manifests itself in a variety of different narratives from “their coming to take our guns” to resistance to paying taxes, from a belief that government works against “the people” for special interests to the broad indictment of all politicians as corrupt.

Conservative white America’s distrust of government is as critical a component to understanding the development of America as black America’s distrust of police is for development of African-American neighborhoods. Both psychologies rest on a perceived victimization, a deep and abiding faith that their fears and concerns over the threat posed by authority are real, and thus demand the most aggressive defense possible. But there is a fundamental difference between the two that can’t be ignored. African-American distrust of the police is directly rooted in a long and easily verified history of the police serving as the conduit through which racism in America was (and still is) directly visited on African-American communities. Conservative white distrust of the government is rooted in the founding of the country and has evolved in lockstep with America’s historical struggle to end racism.

The story of the founding of the country is one of counter narratives. From elementary school every American is taught about the Founding Fathers and the Declaration of Independence. We all understand the American dream as “the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness” and whatever your personal dream is, it is based upon the idea that “all men are created equal”. It’s only in the last few generations that we as a country have had to confront the reality that the Founding Fathers very clearly meant these sentiments to apply to white males only. We’ve tried to maintain the gilded memories of our country’s founding while stubbornly adding slavery, Jim Crow, gender discrimination, and the genocide of the Native American to textbooks. It is from this friction between the fairy-tale and the reality that both the black distrust of police and white distrust of government were born. And not only are these two threads intertwined, each represents a primary influence on the development of the other.

George Washington, shown here in an 1853 lithograph, oversees his slaves at Mount Vernon. (The Granger Collection, NYC)

The first to develop was conservative disdain for centralized government. Paradoxically couched in the liberal concepts of liberty and individual freedom, American conservatism began with the founding of the country. By throwing off the yoke of British rule we elevated the individual above the community, liberty above order. More importantly, the earliest American’s promised themselves that whatever government they formed they would never allow it to infringe upon American’s civil liberties the way the British had. This is why the first attempt at establishing a government, the Articles of Confederation, created an extremely weak and ultimately ineffective central government.

It was so weak that it had to be replaced by the Constitution and the federal government structure we know today. But whether you have studied the constitutional debates, critically examined the arguments of the Federalists and anti-Federalists, or have just seen Hamilton on Broadway, you understand that the fears of an overbearing and tyrannical central government were at the heart of how early Americans understood their relationship to authority. Through compromise, checks and balances, and division of governing power between the states and the federal government, the Framers did the best they could to create a functioning government. But as the Bill of Rights is testament to, early American’s fears regarding the power of a central government were by far their most important consideration.

Throughout the first century of America’s existence the concerns of white America regarding authority were focused squarely on limiting the ability of federal authorities to impact/control their individual lives. The concerns of black slaves vis-à-vis authority were focused squarely on the plantation master and slave owner as the only authority they knew. The idea of law, justice, civil rights, and equality for all Americans had yet to be born in the minds of what would become the African-American community. Both perspectives would be fundamentally altered by the Civil War, and more importantly the era of Reconstruction that followed. The very concept of the African-American was born from the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments and it is why to this day the African-American identity is the only sociopolitical identity in America that is wholly American. Before the Civil War and Reconstruction African slaves and white Americans had distinctly different understandings of legal and political authority. Afterwards both groups would have to develop new understandings of how the concepts of authority, law, and justice would affect their lives as Americans. Most importantly, these new understandings would be developed in direct relationship to each other and be guided by a simple truth: the promotion of one group’s concerns and fears regarding law and justice in America has direct and immediate consequences on the other group’s perceptions of the same concepts.

Reconstruction forced white America to confront and begin constructing the very definition of the African-American. In 1860 close to 90% of all Blacks in the United States were slaves; they were property that was controlled by white Americans, and because they were things instead of human beings none of the liberal idealism of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights applied to them. Just six years later 100% of all Blacks in the United States were now citizens, and suddenly the African-American was added to a ‘melting pot’ that had only just begun to simmer. It is impossible to overstate the sociopolitical upheaval this represented not just in the South, but across America. The idea of white supremacy as a philosophy of some white Americans did not exist prior to Reconstruction simply because there was no need to delineate between white and black sources of authority in America. Reconstruction changed this by forcing white conservative Americans in particular to accept the newly created African-American citizen as an equal.

An agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau adjudicates a dispute during Reconstruction (Shutterstock)

The critical component for understanding how this affected their perspectives on authority results from the fact that freeing the slaves, explicitly making them citizens, and then guaranteeing them the right to vote was not something that post-Civil War America could expect southern states to enforce. As much as these social upheavals led to a new level and type of racism in the South, it was the federal government’s use of the military to enforce these new laws that connected racism with disdain towards government authority that we see in the foundation of American conservatism to this day.

The fears of the Founding Fathers that the government would begin intervening in the daily lives of American citizens had been realized in the minds of Southern racists and white conservatives alike. Further, it came on the heels of a stunning military defeat and was based upon a repudiation of the antebellum culture that had existed in the American South since the country’s founding. In this way many white conservatives began to see the promotion of the newly established concept of civil rights by the government as proof that they had been right all along in fearing a strong central government. And because that promotion was directly focused on elevating African-Americans above the systems of racism and slavery that existed before the Civil War, white conservative Southerners in particular could now focus their anger towards the government on the newly created African-American citizen.

An etching of black families gathering the dead after the Colfax Massacre published in Harper’s Weekly, May 10, 1873.

The result was an intertwining of racism and distrust of government that continues to be a primary pillar for the foundation of white conservatives to this day. More importantly, they weren’t going to accept this new system being forced on them by politicians in Washington without a fight. And so, from the abrupt end of Reconstruction to the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement a century later, every effort was made to resist both the federal government’s authority, and the use of that authority to establish African-Americans as equal citizens to white Americans. And it is through these efforts that we see the creation of the African-American distrust of the police as a component of black culture in America.

With the abrupt end of Reconstruction disaffected Southerners and American racism in general sought two different remedies to the institution of federal government authority and the elevation of the African-American citizen: Jim Crow and white supremacy. Jim Crow and segregation were the direct attempt by racist elements in the white conservative culture to combine the social and economic elements of pre-Civil War racism with the government’s enhanced ability to make and enforce laws. Through the creation of the ’black codes’ they were able to create legal systems that legitimized racism in America. It was no longer something that was passed down from father to son, it was now the law. This created a dynamic within which even liberal or sympathetic whites found themselves engaged in systematic and institutionalized discrimination against African-Americans. Although the racist element amongst white Americans had lost the level of control over Blacks that had existed under slavery, it was replaced by control of America’s social, economic, and political systems ensuring systematic discrimination would continue. When combined with the formalization of white supremacy within groups such as the Ku Klux Klan the result was a culture of racism that in some ways was as violent and oppressive as slavery had been.

Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony in which a new recruit tortures a black man, illustration from Pelerin, 4 March 1923 (Eugène Damblans)

Before the Civil War the source of authority for Blacks was the whip. And with no rights or protections within the American legal system it was the only source of authority that we knew. After the Civil War, the creation of local, state, and federal law enforcement systems within the context of Jim Crow and segregation replaced the whip with a badge and gun. The single greatest source of distrust of police in African-American communities today is the relationship between law enforcement and the 80-year existence of Jim Crow and segregation. While there continue to be instances of racism in law enforcement, they are minuscule when compared to the systemic enforcement of ‘black codes’ with German shepherds and fire hoses. Slavery is a distant cause of anger within the African-American community when compared to the direct experiences of parents and grandparents under the institutionalized system of racism that was America for 100 years after the Civil War. It is a reality that the existence of racism in American law enforcement today is driven almost exclusively by single individuals who use their role as policemen to discriminate against African-Americans. But the ability to link these individuals and their actions to a much broader and more violent use of law enforcement to fundamentally disadvantage African-Americans less than two generations ago both justifies and amplifies our distrust of the local police officer.

Conception of both the white and black American understanding of authority coincided with the creation of the country. The Civil War and Reconstruction represented the birth of two perspectives on authority that were diametrically opposed and simultaneously inseparable, and together they have come to represent the DNA of our political culture. From the end of the Civil War to the success of the Civil Rights Movement every attempt by the racist elements of conservative white America to establish their understandings of authority meant a necessary increase in the African-American distrust of police and the concept of justice. Conversely, the steady advancement over the last 50 years of the federal government’s attempt to decrease racism and discrimination within the American law enforcement and justice systems has led to increased distrust of the federal government amongst conservative white Americans. To be clear, not all conservatives are racist! But it is inconsistencies on the part of conservatives in separating long-standing distrust of the federal government from the historical use of law enforcement and justice systems for discrimination against African-Americans that plagues conservatives and Republicans alike. And it is also the foundation of Trump’s rise to the US presidency.

Most white conservative Americans today detest being labeled as racist. And at least in my own experience the primary reason for that is their distrust of “the swamp” combined with a fervent belief that they do not, and would never, discriminate against black people. They have told me directly that the only reason they voted for Trump was dislike of Obamacare, hatred of Hillary, protection of gun rights, or any number of other reasons besides racism against African-Americans. Many will tell you that they did not think there were “good people on both sides” in Charlottesville, or that they don’t agree with Trump’s demonization of immigrants, or that Trump was wrong when he called all African countries “shit holes”.

But the problem they all have is Trump’s message and political philosophy clearly embraces the intertwined messages of anti-government and white supremacy that for generations was also the culture of America. This is exactly why Trump has enjoyed near unanimous support from both conservatives and white supremacists. As far as the former group in particular is concerned, it is absolutely possible to be conservative in America and not be a racist, and I believe they are right. The problem from the liberal and African-American perspectives, and indeed from the perspective of American history itself, is that they have never really made a concerted effort to permanently separate the two.


Dr. Darius Watson, PhD is a professor of international relations, political theory, and security studies. He is also the primary contributor to the news and analysis website, as well as the senior consultant for Watson Consulting & Analysis, LLC. Dr. Watson is an active scholar, analyst, and instructor with a record of commitment to publication, professional presentations, and most importantly his students.

News. Analysis. Integrity.

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