Sweat pooled under Khaled Abdelghany’s National Guard helmet on a hot May day outside of the nation’s capital. The 32-year-old soldier stood scanning the crowd, reading the handwritten signs decrying police brutality and racial injustice.
Abdelghany joined in, mouthing the words. The moment, captured in an 18-second video and shared widely online, was a powerful symbol of a conflict felt by many people of color sent to the front lines of America’s protests in recent months.
On another sizzling summer day, Michelle Bracken, national president for the National Organization of Black Women in Law Enforcement and an inspector at a federal agency, heard all-too-familiar phrases such as “Uncle Tom,” “sellout” or “traitor” hurled her way as she surveilled protests and protected monuments emblematic of America’s promise and a president who has been accused of thwarting it for Black citizens.
Bracken’s years of workplace racial and gender harassment steeled her, making her impenetrable to insults and thrown rocks any wayward person in a crowd could muster. Her faith in God and her commitment to her job in law enforcement for 31 years outweighed any personal turmoil over the duality of being Black and in uniform.
“They’ve got a whole lot of good names out there for you,” she said. “As an individual, I have to be grounded, because I’m not that. I’m here to protect and to serve.”
Officers like Abdelghany and Bracken wear the uniform of the police or military, and yet they have experienced some of the same unequal treatment the demonstrators are voicing. They feel torn between a professional duty to carry out orders and a personal stake in changing the way Black Americans are treated. At the same time, some have faced protesters’ ire, the recipients of painful insults of which only they could be the target, for their perceived role in upholding unjust systems.
For others, the tension has been profound. Some are questioning their roles, seeking out employee assistance programs or speaking out at town halls or other forums put on by their agencies. At least one Black law enforcement officer, Andre Bottoms of the Louisville Metro Police Department, retired from his post, writing on his Facebook page about the unique difficulty of being both a Black man and a police officer. Some members of the D.C. National Guard cried while on the line, Abdelghany said.
Days of anger over Floyd’s death, combined with pride in being Black and concern over how the D.C. National Guard was being used at protests, culminated in Abdelghany’s joining in the chant.
“During that moment, I just felt heavy,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t just stay quiet.”
From cabins to minstrelsy
Time and time again at this summer’s protests, authorities of color have been singled out for criticism.
A Black police officer in New York City was branded by a protester as “a sellout to your f------ people,” a “Black Judas.”
In D.C., a man called officers who appeared to be Black the n-word, while ranting that they had “killed a guy” and hurt his business.
A Southern California demonstrator told a police officer, “You take that uniform off and that badge. You still a Black man. They going to look at you the same.” A woman joined in: “You think Mommy’s proud? Mommy raised a b----, and she disowned your a--.”
Those kinds of insults, which were also hurled at National Guard soldiers, have a long, complicated history in American culture in which Black Americans are the main targets for disdain.
Of them, “Uncle Tom” is often viewed as among the most wounding when exchanged between Black people. The term comes from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” written in a time when Black Americans were enslaved and their humanity questioned. Stowe created the titular character to be sympathetic and nonthreatening to White readers, according to John Baugh, a professor of linguistics, anthropology and African and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.
The best-selling book became influential in the abolitionist movement, driving home the brutality faced by those living in bondage. But time and media portrayals would erase the humanity Stowe was trying to present and transform her character into a form of mockery aimed at Black people, experts say.
The term “Uncle Tom” came to signify a Black person who was overly submissive to White people. It was applied to media darlings who were viewed as subservient. Black characters such as Stepin Fetchit or Rochester Van Jones, or performers such as Sammy Davis Jr., who was nicknamed “Smokey” by Frank Sinatra, embodied the term’s derision, making them anti-heroes in Black circles and sources of laughter in White ones, Baugh said.
“It was transformative in terms of its impact in White society, as well as Black people when they would see a behavior that was denigrating,” he said of those characters who were portrayed as happy-go-lucky Black people willing to tap dance at the request of a White man. “Film and TV have perpetuated a lot of stereotypes.”
Black people who join the ranks of police and the military have often found themselves targeted for such insults — verbal bricks intended to “evoke on Black officers a certain dubiousness about what they are doing,” said Kalfani Ture, a Quinnipiac University criminal justice professor and former law enforcement officer.
It can be particularly painful. Police officers and military members of color have long grappled with dual consciousness, mindful of the racist histories of the institutions they serve. The National Guard remained segregated in some states even after President Harry S. Truman ordered the military to integrate in 1948, with the Maryland Guard delaying until 1955.
Police departments, historically almost entirely White and male, employed only a sliver of Black officers until the 1950s. Those officers were not given the same authority as their White peers. The 1967 President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice found that as late as 1961, many departments hampered Black officers’ ability to make arrests.
Agencies began actively working to diversify in the 1960s and ’70s, amid a push for racial equity and the use of affirmative-action policies. Research has found that many Black recruits were lured by the security and benefits of a civil service job.
In 1969, sociology professor Nicholas Alex wrote in an influential study that “the black policeman can never escape his racial identity while serving in his official role.” He found that in joining the ranks of police, a Black person could lose much of his credibility in the Black community. Black officers themselves felt they were upholding an unjust system. At the same time, they weren’t accepted by that system.
Years later, that concern has persisted.
“As an African American, and one who is having to prove himself,” Ture said of his time serving in Georgia law enforcement agencies from 1998 to 2004, where he would experience racial and religious harassment from his fellow officers, “I was too Black for the blue uniform.”
Choosing to be Black in a blue, tan or camouflage uniform isn’t a unitary decision rooted only in serving one’s community or country, Black officers across branches told The Washington Post. They outfit themselves in clothing that could ostracize them within their social structures so they can be the change they want to see and gain the capital to support their families, among other reasons.
Dwayne Preston grew up in Prince George’s County, Md., where, he said, at 16 years old, a county police officer grabbed him by the neck. It was, he said, “totally unprovoked” — he was merely standing outside of a school dance — and it shook him.
About five years later, in 1990, he started at the police academy.
“If anything, it probably motivated me to move forward, to do something different, to not treat people in that same way,” said Preston, now deputy chief of the Bowie Police Department. “If anything, it motivated me to be better because I knew that wasn’t what officers should be about.”
For another officer, a member of the D.C. police, it was surviving a violent crime that motivated him to join.
“I’m trying to be a different officer than the ones you’ve seen in the past or on TV,” said the officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
The young officer said he knew what he was signing up for when he joined the police because the aftermath of Philando Castile’s death lingered in the background while he was in the police academy.
“You read these things and you do your own research,” he said. “You have to acknowledge your uniform’s role and acknowledge what’s still currently going on and make a difference how you can and when you can.”
Getting called an “Uncle Tom,” a “pig” or a “sellout” was never a good feeling, but those disparaging moments sometimes cause a moment of reflection on his role in a system that has been historically oppressive to Black people.
Within the past two years, he said, he’s become more of an abolitionist at heart, while recognizing how far that goal actually is because other societal factors have to change.
Yet Preston said he’s never questioned his decision to become a police officer. He said he supports the peaceful protests, which his 21-year-old daughter has attended, but doesn’t think the country’s injustices can be solved through changes to policing alone.
“I think the issues are much larger than law enforcement, and I think that’s something — a narrative that I think is not being discussed as much as it should be,” he said. “Because police enforce laws. We don’t make the laws.”
He lives “on both sides of the issue.” Over a long career in law enforcement, he’s worked in difficult parts of town, has experienced losing an officer and says “not everyone has your best interests in mind.” But he’s been Black “even longer.”
“I think the thing that is disconcerting to me is when I have people that look at me, especially when I’m in uniform, and wonder whether or not I’m one of those that mistreat people,” Preston said. “The entire 30 years of my career have been the total opposite of that.”
In the in-between
The pain Black officers feel in the throes of protest could appear problematic to those calling for the abolishment of police and the dismissal of military presence at demonstrations, provoking allegations of ill-conceived allegiance to organizations rooted in racism for personal betterment.
The reality is that truth is somewhere between both sides, according to Arthur K. Spears, professor of linguistics and anthropology at the City University of New York.
“Selling out has its monetary value in reality. [The sycophancy] is bought,” he said. “Between the two, I’d rather be called a sellout. … There’s sort of a not-thinking, uneducated element to Uncle Tom to me.”
Bracken thought of her family when her fellow White officers sent her on wild goose chases for their amusement, and when she endured a scolding by a White superior who didn’t want her “Black a--” because he thought she took a spot away from his buddy. Then there was the time she saw a noose on her rearview mirror while leaving work one day.
She bottled her emotions, keeping them from her children and her family back home in Harrisburg, Pa.
“I left home promising I was always going to take care of home,” she said. “I couldn’t be weak.”
Name-calling from protesters had nothing on the physical and verbal bruises she carried from her years of training and service.
“When I step on that front line, they can’t see that,” she said. “I put on a mask every single day.”
Black officers who sign up to serve could argue that the color of their uniform is another cloak that hides the “twoness” within their identity as Black Americans whose strength keeps them from crumbling, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk.” Standing by that chosen occupation can become an even more difficult, internal struggle when examining the policies and leadership of the current administration, said Ture.
“How do you in good faith, protect the interest to pursue the mandates of [this] president? How do you put out a fire when the president is stoking the flames?” Ture said, highlighting President Trump’s actions and language that have been labeled racist and sexist.
The calls for better policing, the abolishment of the organization and the termination of racism have grown to a conflagration of protests and policy debates across the country that has been harder to extinguish in the wake of more Black men who have been wounded and killed in encounters with police.
That’s a sobering reminder for Abdelghany. He will soon retire and return to civilian life, where he will rethink how he has served and protected his community. And at what cost.
“I feel the pain. I understand what’s going on,” he said. “At the end of the day, once I take this uniform off, I could have been a George Floyd or a Breonna Taylor or any Black or Brown person that’s been a victim of police brutality and police violence.”