Continue Dr. King’s Fight Against Institutional Racism by Reforming Police

Editor’s Note: Detroit civil rights Attorney Leonard Mungo has successfully sued the Michigan State Police for racial discrimination in hiring in a noted case where he represented Black state troopers. He is the owner of Mungo & Mungo at Law PLC and the general counsel for the National Black State Troopers Coalition. For submission inquiries contact Bankole Thompson, the editor-in-chief of The PuLSE Institute at

By Leonard Mungo

If the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had lived to see the Trump era and the violent invasion of the Capitol building by Trump rioters, egged on by the president himself, he may have beenshocked and dismayed. But he would not have been surprised by the double standard demonstrated by Capitol police and the Donald Trump Administration, which clamped down hard on Black Lives Matter protestors for racial justice last summer, but treated White mobsters who threatened elected officials gently and kindly on Jan. 6.

“Racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame,” Dr. King told local politicians in a 1967 speech in Atlanta. “And we must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for White Americans but simultaneously a dictatorship over Black Americans.”

Dr. King also wouldn’t have been surprised by the apparent complicity of the Capitol police for their alleged roles in the storming of the Capitol that led to the deaths of five people and left the Capitol building physically damaged, or by the alleged involvement of police officers and members of the military from around the nation. Dr. King understood firsthand, from the police dogs, fire hoses and brutal police chiefs that opposed him and other civil rights demonstrators, that local law enforcement has been a lethal instrument of institutional racism in America.

As an attorney who has studied police reform and successfully sued police departments (such as the Michigan State Police) for major settlements and jury awards, I have a simple, but proven, common-sense solution for the institutional racism that we see at work in police departments across the country. Federal, state and local governments should order police departments to remove discriminatory criteria used to hire, promote or discipline their officers. I’m talking about job applications, tests and even job descriptions that keep people of color out.  For instance, if applicants seeking to join the police force are asked to submit their credit report, that works against those who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. And if a police officer wants a better position, he or she can be shut down by a job description that includes tasks not related to the job—so that a supervisor can hire whom he wanted in the first place.

Institutional racism is like high blood pressure. It’s a silent killer. In law enforcement and other organizations, institutional racism does not bear identifiable characteristics on its face. You won’t find a memo from a top official that says: “We’ve got to keep the Black guys down.” What you’ll find are unfair hiring and promotion practices that produce a culture that devalues African Americans and other people of color. This culture carries over to the street. It can lead to unnecessary traffic stops and unjustified killings like George Floyd’s public suffocation by Minneapolis police in 2020, and questionable killings by police of two Black men—Andre Hill and Casey Goodson, Jr. —in Columbus, Ohio, last month.

Here’s how you attack institutional racism, and it’s the same, whether in law enforcement or in private industry. You find the same experts—industrial organizational psychologists—who have helped me identify imbedded components of institutional racism responsible for discrimination against people of color in police departments. Using employment statistics and examining hiring and promotion practices, these experts identify application forms and tests and other methods used to screen out African Americans and other groups at a disproportionate rate. Once these selection practices and procedures that are not valid or otherwise related to the job are identified by the industrial organizational psychologists, then they must be removed by the organization. The U.S. Justice Department has used this systematic approach to create more diverse police forces in the past—for example, using a consent decree with the Michigan State Police department between 1977 and 1992 to dramatically increase the numbers of Black, Latino and women officers. Now is the time for local and state government leaders across the country to make immediate changes in police hiring and promotion practices. President-elect Biden has made federal funding for police reform initiatives a priority for his Administration.

There’s no question that those who want to keep police departments white and rigid are using the “Black Lives Matter” and “Defund the Police” slogans to whip up opposition to reform in law enforcement. But the demand for police reform, which was galvanized by the George Floyd case last year, isn’t going anywhere. In fact, the Biden-Harris website describes public appetite for change as “the most compelling call for racial justice since the ‘60s.”

Dr. King noted in his 1967 Atlanta speech that the civil rights movement was already being met by a “White backlash.” He explained: “It’s just a new name for an old phenomenon. The fact is that there has never been any single solid, determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of White Americans to genuine equality for Negroes. There has always been ambivalence.”

It is the job of today’s freedom fighters to use political power to push the general population past ambivalence, toward real progress. Just as African Americans and our allies in Georgia changed the national political landscape by electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in the November presidential election and Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff this month in two U.S. Senate races, all of us can use our political power to help transform law enforcement across the country. Let’s demand exposure and expulsion of White supremacists in local and state police departments. Let us also root out institutional racism from our law enforcement organizations by identifying and getting rid of the policies, practices and customs that operate as invisible barriers to adding more persons of color to the ranks of our law enforcement agencies.

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