A 1974 Interview about Police Racism with Renault Robinson, a Black Police Officer

Tony Zhou
Tony Zhou
Jul 8, 2016 · 6 min read

This is an excerpt from Studs Terkel’s book “Working.” It’s an interview with a Chicago police officer named Renault Robinson. It was published 42 years ago, in 1974.

I do not own the rights to this book or interview (they’re owned by The New Press), and it is not my intention to violate their copyright. If I am asked to remove this post, I will do so. However, in light of the murders of Alton Sterling & Philando Castile, it seemed that Robinson’s words were absolutely relevant in 2016, and should be part of the public discussion.

The titles for each section (in bold) are my addition. The rest are Renault Robinson’s words, as published in “Working.”

Renault Robinson in uniform, ©Getty Images, The LIFE Images Collection

Why Traffic Stops Are More Common for Black People

“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. It’s easier to stop a person on the pretext of a traffic violation than to stop him on the street. It’s a lot easier to say, “Your tail light’s out.” “Your plate is dented.” “You didn’t make that turn right.” You can then search his automobile, hoping you can find some contraband or a weapon. If he becomes irritated, with very little pushing on your part, you can make an arrest for disorderly conduct. These are all statistics which help your records.

Certain units in the task force have developed a science around stopping your automobile. These men know it’s impossible to drive three blocks without committing a traffic violation. We’ve got so many rules on the books. These police officers use these things to get points and also hustle for money. The traffic law is a fat book. He knows if you don’t have two lights on your license plate, that’s a violation. If you have a crack in your windshield, that’s a violation. If your muffler’s dragging, that’s a violation. He knows all these little things….

So if they stop the average black driver, in their mind the likelihood of finding five or six violations out of a hundred cars is highly possible…. After you’ve stopped a thousand, you’ve got 950 people who are very pissed off, 950 who might have been just average citizens, not doing anything wrong — teachers, doctors, lawyers, working people. The police don’t care. Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree.”

How We Have Two Justice Systems

“We have a black police officer who looks white and works in a white district. They don’t know he’s black. He’d come to our meetings [of the Afro-American Patrolman’s League] and say, “You wouldn’t believe the things they say. “Give the whites the benefit of the doubt. If a guy says he left his license at home, drive by his house so he can get it. Don’t misuse these people ’cause they’ll just complain and we’ll get hell. Don’t give people a ten-dollar ticket for going shopping. It’s only going to be five or ten minutes.” In our area: “Give ’em tickets. Don’t come back and tell me you didn’t.” Just outrageous double standards and nobody ever talks about it. The media always plays down the treatment blacks receive at the hands of the police.”

How Cops Are Incentivized to Make Arrests

“You have to remove salesmanship from police work. Don’t put me on a commission and say, “Every time you stop a guy, you get X amount of points.” It takes a certain amount of points to reach a certain plateau. You can’t go back to the boss and say, “I didn’t see anything.” He says, “I know they’re out there. Go out and get ‘em.” So the policeman has to create a little something.

So many points for a robbery, so many points for a man having a gun. When they go to the scene and the man with the gun has gone, they’ll lock up somebody anyway, knowing he’s not the one…. They’ll get a point even if the case is thrown out of court. The arrest is all that counts.”

White Cops in Black Neighborhoods

“The majority of the policemen in the station where I worked were young whites. The older white officers were trying to get off the street, trying for a soft job in a station somewhere. They were tired. It’s the young white officer who’s in most of the black areas. They want to go there. It gives them the opportunity to be where the action is. They don’t want to go to white districts because they’re considered slow.

A large amount of young white officers are gung ho. It’s an opportunity to make a lot of arrests, make money, and do a lot of other things. In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty. So the black people don’t cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they’re begging for more police service. They’re over-patrolled and under-protected.

The young white guys turn out to be actually worse than their predecessors. They’re more vicious. The average young white policeman comes from a working-class family, sometimes with less than a high-school education. He comes with built-in prejudices. The average young white cop is in bad shape. I think he can be saved if a change came from the top. If it could be for just eight hours a day. They may still hate niggers when they got off duty. They may still belong to the John Birch Society or the Ku Klux Klan. So what? They could be forced to perform better during the eight hours of work.”

Working with White Cops, as a Black Cop

“I myself didn’t work with the young ones much. They were just too much. I worked with older, seasoned cops on the vice squad. They hated blacks, but we worked together, we drank together. They lived in Gage Park and on the Northwest Side, so we didn’t visit each other’s homes. One of them — he and I would talk frankly about how we felt. He’d say, “I don’t like your people, but I can work around you. Maybe I’m wrong in feeling that way, but that’s how I was brought up. I got basic feelings about my kids going to school with blacks and it can’t be talked away. You can’t talk me out of my fears.” I respected him for his opinion and he respected mine. We got along.”

How the Policing System Makes Cops Worse Over Time

“Those who were enlightened had one major hang-up. If they did the right thing, they’d be ostracized by the other cops. A lot of these guys have mixed emotions, but they’re neutralized. If they’re by themselves, they perform quite well in the black community. But if they’re with another white who wants to do it the rough way, and they object, their names go on the list — trouble makers.

The job makes those who aren’t really bad bigots worse after a while. You could take a tender white boy, give him a badge and a gun, and man! he becomes George Wallace over night. You have to change the rationale by which they work. We must have a system where they get points for helping people rather than hurting them.

You can take the worst bigot in the world, and if he works in a steel mill, he can’t take it out on anything but a piece of steel. If these white guys show they can’t work with black folks, put ’em in an auto pound. Let ’em guard the lake, put ’em on factory detail. Don’t take their job away from ’em. They gotta eat, they gotta feed their families.”

Tony Zhou

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Tony Zhou

Creator/Editor/Narrator: Every Frame a Painting