The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The racist roots of campus policing

Campus police forces developed as part of an effort to wall universities off from Black neighborhoods.

Police at the University of California at Berkeley guard the campus building where then-Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos was to speak on Feb. 1, 2017. (Ben Margot/AP)
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Last spring, the police killing of George Floyd, on the heels of officers shooting and killing Breonna Taylor and so many other Black people, spurred a summer of protests across the United States and abroad. In response, numerous university presidents and chancellors, as well as elected officials and corporate executives, publicly acknowledged the realities of police violence aimed at Black Americans. Some academic leaders even said, “Black Lives Matter,” a phrase that college administrators had typically avoided in the years before Floyd’s killing.

But then what?

In the past year, many of these same academic leaders have been less quick to implement operational changes to make anti-racism and Black liberation on campuses a reality. This has particularly been the case with campus police, whose departments have continuously received increased funding from administrators. For instance, in 2018-2019, the 10-campus University of California system spent approximately $138 million on policing. Yet despite concern about coronavirus-related budget cuts, most UC campus police department budgets were projected to increase in 2020-2021.

The steady increase of spending on campus police is not limited to the University of California. It is a national trend that reflects a long tradition of White administrators’ and White trustees’ disregard for Black lives on their campuses.

Campus policing is rooted in conflicts between institutions of higher education and the Black neighborhoods near where they are often located. And tensions between universities and Black communities are rooted in deep-seated discriminatory policies in housing. Since well before World War II, Black people demanded an end to racist restrictive covenants and redlining, practices in which Whites denied certain groups access to, or levied higher rates for, home loans and insurance based on neighborhoods. At the same time, many urban universities quietly supported these practices. In 1937, an editorial in the Chicago Defender, titled “University of Chicago and the Black Belt,” described how over “the last four years, a sinister movement, designed to impose further residential restrictions of Race citizens on this metropolis, has gained considerable impetus" — something the university played a role in.

Black residents’ demands for an end to racist housing practices quickly became relevant to White university leaders as overcrowded Black neighborhoods encroached on their campuses. This dynamic resulted in limited housing options that sometimes meant White faculty members and students chose universities not located in the heart of American cities. This issue was accelerated when, in 1948, the Supreme Court’s Shelley v. Kraemer ruling deemed restrictive covenants unconstitutional. While this was a success for the burgeoning civil rights movement that would theoretically allow Black Americans more easily to purchase homes, it posed a problem for universities worried about maintaining White control of neighborhoods around their campuses.

Seeking a new leader and new approach, in 1951, the University of Chicago hired Lawrence A. Kimpton as its chancellor. “We must find ways to reverse the trend” of White students and faculty leaving campuses due to the changing neighborhood, Kimpton said shortly after being hired.

To do so, Kimpton first organized the South East Chicago Commission, with himself as head of the group. The university provided nearly half the budget for the commission, which was dedicated to protecting the institution’s neighborhood interests. A few years later, Kimpton persuaded other urban university leaders to join the national effort to “save” American cities from losing White anchor institutions such as universities to “the cancer of blight” and coordinated the effort.

The University of Pennsylvania joined these efforts in Philadelphia. Harvard leaders looked to “reestablish friendly relations” in Cambridge, Mass., and Yale administrators joined an “imaginative urban renewal program” in New Haven, Conn. Administrators at New York University soon considered buying property near Washington Square in Manhattan, and campus officials at Temple University in Philadelphia also acquired 40 acres and looked to purchase more.

Soon, dozens of college presidents and chancellors who led campuses nestled in the heart of major metropolitan areas were involved. They became powerful voices in lobbying federal lawmakers to secure millions of dollars of urban renewal funding.

Kimpton told Newsweek, “We simply cannot operate in slums.” But slum clearance and university property acquisitions disproportionately displaced Black families and perpetuated racist norms.

By 1958, a Chicago Urban League report stated that two-thirds of the city’s 86,000 residents displaced by urban renewal projects were Black. Despite widespread concern expressed by Black residents, the University of Chicago used its influence and an aggressive public relations campaign to continue its efforts.

Kimpton and other campus administrators used the threat of “crime” — particularly the specter of Black crime — as justification to expand their university police presence. Previously, Chicago had only a small campus security team. Relying on crime statistics that were highly flawed, the university formally established a police department in the 1960s.

In 1961, the University of Chicago police chief commanded a unit of 36 officers, three university squad cars and two police dogs. The university even contracted an additional 25 Chicago Police Department officers who worked on campus during their off hours “to give the university grounds 24-hour protection.” The heavy police presence on campus focused its attention on the surrounding Black communities.

In one instance, neighborhood scuffles between Black and White girls prompted University of Chicago officials to ramp up policing and neighborhood control. Academic leaders circulated internal memos that discussed “assaults against” the daughters of White faculty members.

“In each of the three cases, Negro female students from Ray School attacked female students, all White, from University High School on their way home from school,” wrote Sy Friedman, a member of the university’s public relations department. “In each case, there appeared to be no apparent motive for the Negro girls attacking the White girls.” He added: “The Negro girl who assaulted Judith was muscular in build.”

Mainstream media soon adopted the narrative that universities needed expanded protection from the dangers of city life and that university-driven urban renewal projects were necessary. In 1961, the New York Times wrote of college leaders, “they must halt the encroachment of slums which turn the lack of space for expansion into a straitjacket of physical danger.” Around the same time, U.S. News & World Report reported brightly, “The slums are being replaced with housing — largely for middle-income families.”

An article in the Chicago American, beneath the headline “The Ivy Cops vs. Crime: Guard U. of C. Area,” was accompanied by a staged photo of a woman being grabbed by a larger person hiding behind a deteriorating building, and the caption read, “muggers, rapists, and burglars.” The news report focused on campus officials’ efforts to halt crime and made one thing clear: The campus neighborhood of Hyde Park must rid itself of criminals and the dilapidated structures that sheltered them. Therefore, if Black residents were most often living in overcrowded and decrepit structures, the coded language about crime and run-down property actually meant that urban renewal was about Black removal.

This history has shaped university campuses and cities for more than a half-century, as campus police budgets have grown and institutions have bought up land and properties.

It is not just Confederate monuments and iconography or relics of slavery that reveal the history of racism on college campuses. Actual operating institutions, such as campus police departments, are still advancing anti-Black violence. For example, last fall, at Northwestern University, faculty members in the Department of African American Studies noted that Black students are only 6 percent of the student body but Black people accounted for up to 40 percent of officer-initiated police stops on campus.

If today’s presidents and chancellors understood the history of why their predecessors developed campus police forces, they would be able to see the deep connections between campus policing and anti-Blackness. If higher education truly sees itself as advancing the public good and playing a role in solving society’s most complex problems, its leaders should ensure that campus operations are advancing that mission — not perpetuating our policing problems.