History Of Racism In Policing

A History of Racism in Policing, the Texas Rangers, and the Texas Border Patrol

Compiled by Nancy Baker Jones for the Ruthe Winegarten Foundation for Texas Women’s History

Can you imagine a country in which the needs of its citizens are so equitably and universally met, a place so safe and humane, that no police forces were necessary? The answer to this can help us re-imagine the society we need. The place to start is by knowing how we got here.

Our purpose is to provide

· historical context for today’s protests,

· fact-based information about racism in policing against Americans of color, and

· a rationale for reform.

Part 1: A History of Racism in Policing

Police departments did not exist in the early United States. The first organized policing groups were slave patrols, created over 300 years ago to enforce the slave codes that controlled virtually all aspects of enslaved people’s lives. Patrols arrested enslaved people for any reason and subjected them to many forms of violent and deadly corporal punishment. There was no due process.

All White males were required to serve on these patrols, regardless of class. The purpose of this was to create a sense of community among Whites based on race and to instill pride in whiteness and the authority inherent in it.

Slave patrols continued to exist until the Confederacy surrendered in 1865. The same year, the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery, became law. But it also contained an enormous loophole: slavery and involuntary servitude could continue as punishment for crimes. “Black codes” appeared immediately, criminalizing nearly all forms of African American freedom, like mobility, political power, and economic independence.

Over time, bureaucratic systems of law enforcement flourished, notably through the spread of prisons and prison farms. These became especially prolific in Texas and eventually made it the country’s largest carceral state. (Texas’ treatment of prisoners was so terrible that in 1980 the Supreme Court declared it cruel and unusual punishment and therefore a violation of the Constitution.) Unlike the industrializing North, where formal police forces spread, the agrarian South relied on vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan to control African Americans. Historians now classify white supremacist groups like the KKK as terrorist organizations. They enforced their will through harassment, brutality, armed violence, and lynching. There was no due process.

Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, although intended to provide equal rights for African Americans, were largely ignored as Union forces returned north. Across the South more than 2,000 African Americans were lynched during Reconstruction, a number some think is low. Unfettered after the end of Reconstruction, when federal troops were withdrawn from the former Confederate states in 1877, white supremacy, virulent racism, and the return of the Klan propelled those states to re-establish the Old South they grieved for. They created Jim Crow segregation that legitimized a brutal American apartheid well into the 20th century.

By about 1916, such conditions drove Black people to escape the South by the thousands every year in what historians call the Great Migration. Northern cities had already been influenced for several decades by an English trend to create modern, urban police forces that emphasized crime prevention and community control, maintained visibility with street patrols, and adopted a military image by using uniforms, rank designations, and command-and-discipline structures.

The North into which African Americans escaped had been transformed by European immigrant populations of Irish, Italians, and Poles, who themselves had been met by White xenophobia as they competed for work and housing. When they demanded labor unions, police forces called the immigrants anarchist agitators and infiltrated their groups with secret “Red Squads” and assaults so violent that a police brutality commission had to be convened to investigate.

Despite this prejudice against European immigrants, African Americans found themselves at the bottom of the urban racial hierarchy when they arrived in the North. They were segregated into the worst neighborhoods and offered the worst jobs. Police usually took the sides of racist Whites and immigrants in disputes. In fact, many Black people had been hired as strike breakers, which they did not know until they appeared for work, a situation that enflamed relations. During and after World War I, this social mixture exploded in race riots such as those in East St. Louis in 1917, Philadelphia in 1918, Chicago in 1919, and Tulsa in 1921. In the Chicago riot, a Black child who had unknowingly used a Whites-only beach was stoned until he drowned. When African Americans demanded justice, police did nothing. Hundreds died. The police arrested primarily African Americans.

Research conducted at the time by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the National Urban League, among others, revealed systemic, massive policing problems: Police officers commonly used what is now called stop-and-frisk to arrest African Americans for “crimes” like suspicious character. In Philadelphia, for example, Black people comprised 7% of the population but 25% of arrests. Lynchings continued. The arrival of Prohibition, from 1920 to 1933, resulted in widespread crime sprees as workers and other entrepreneurs turned to bootlegging and bribing police and judges. For the most part, the lawlessness was conducted by White people.

Efforts to reform and professionalize the legal enforcement system in the early 1930s led to examining forms of police brutality used to extract evidence from detainees (called giving people the “Third Degree”), closing legal loopholes, centralizing record systems, and making crime reports more uniform nationwide. In the process, however, ethnic distinctions among various nationalities of European immigrants were collapsed into one, “White,” while African Americans, although in the minority numerically, remained easily noticed and counted. These newly developed statistical sampling processes, corrupted by racism, falsely appeared to reveal a decrease in White ethnic crime and an increase in crime by African Americans.

By the end of Prohibition, this “consolidation of whiteness” spread assumptions that working class Whites were victims of crime while Black people were not only more likely to be criminals but also that they were genetically disposed toward criminality. Into the 21st century, such pseudo-scientific sociological and crime studies continued to examine “innate” lawless tendencies in African Americans.

One significant result of this racist fear occurred after the Watts riots that spread across Los Angeles in 1965, when the Los Angeles Police Department initiated a new paramilitary force it called SWAT teams that used weaponry, munitions, and armored equipment, now called riot gear, to quell disturbances. The late 1970s saw a rise in public distrust of the federal government fostered by conservative politicians who redefined the federal spending on social issues that had occurred from Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as a “welfare state.” This resulted in widespread reductions in federal funding for safety-net programs that addressed mental illness, homelessness, drug abuse, and domestic abuse. Increasingly, police forces took responsibility for dealing with troubled public behavior that was once handled by social service groups.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Saudi Arabians on the United States resulted in a wholesale redirection of attention toward terrorism and armed terrorist groups as the causes of domestic crime, violence, and anti-social behavior. Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002, and police forces nationwide further militarized their training, tactics, and equipment, relying on weaponry and force to solve disturbances once referred to other kinds of support organizations. Profit-making interest groups like the National Rifle Association increasingly encouraged American citizens to amass for their personal use the kinds of weaponry and ammunition—including high-powered and automated firearms—that had previously been available only to combat military forces. Using the Second Amendment as a basis, Congress over time deregulated private arms acquisition. In 2020, police, un-identified paramilitary groups, and the military used tear-gas, riot gear, clubs, and low-flying helicopters to confront and disperse peaceful protesters near the White House.

Part 2: A History of Racism in The Texas Rangers

The Texas Rangers are older than the state, having been mobilized in 1823 as an unnamed volunteer militia to protect Anglo colonists and enslaved people, living in what was then Mexico and is now considered East Texas, against Indigenous groups who objected to their presence. Over time, as with slave patrols, these militia behaved with impunity and without due process against anyone they regarded as problematic. In 1835 they were named Texas Rangers and organized into military-style companies with commanding officers and rank hierarchy. Aside from being scouts and couriers, they waged continuing war against Cherokee, Comanche, and other tribal groups, and then fought alongside the U.S. Army in the U.S.-Mexican War. Their atrocities against Mexicans, including women and children, earned them condemnation from Zachary Taylor and Ulysses S. Grant, two American army officers who fought in the war and later became presidents.

Not surprisingly, rangers fought for the Confederacy. Their violence against African Americans then and later was notorious well into the 20th century. They ignored and refused to prosecute horrific lynchings, which many White people regarded as entertainment. Post-Civil War violence and lawlessness in Texas, often in the form of cattle rustling raids along the Rio Grande border, sparked vigilante action by Texans and attracted rangers to protect Anglos. In the 1870s, illegal ranger crossings into Mexico and their violent retaliatory tactics caused indelible resentment and hatred among Mexicans and Texans of Mexican descent.

In the 1870s, the Texas Legislature created the Frontier Battalion of Texas Rangers to fight alongside the U.S. Army to subdue and remove Comanches and Kiowas as well as rustlers and outlaws like Sam Bass and John Wesley Hardin. But the violent subjugation of Mexicans and Tejanos remained a continuing, defining aspect of their behavior. By the early 20th century, the Rio Grande Valley population had nearly doubled with newly arriving Whites, resulting in land grabs of ethnic Mexican property, increasing segregation and disfranchisement of Tejanos, and rising social tension.

What the history project Refusing to Forget has called some of the worst racial violence in American history occurred along the Texas border with Mexico from 1910 to 1920 during the Mexican Revolution. Scholars have estimated that as many as 5,000 men, women, and children were killed, usually through extralegal executions. So many, in fact, that a San Antonio journalist reported that the “finding of dead bodies of Mexicans, suspected for various reasons of being connected with the troubles, has reached a point where it creates little or no interest.” The Texas Rangers played a big role.

The arrival of tens of thousands of Mexican refugees and immigrants escaping from the Revolution angered White tenant farmers and others, who viewed these immigrants with trepidation and racial animus. Responding to the resulting political, economic, and racial turmoil, rangers stationed themselves in South Texas. In this atmosphere, peopled with various supporters and opponents of the Mexican Revolution and of the United States, the 1915 appearance of a series of manifestos collectively called the “Plan de San Diego”—demanding the formation of a republic independent from Texas and other southwestern states that would join with Mexico—threatened a race war against Anglos. Raids and skirmishes that killed 21 Whites, attributed to supporters of both sides of the revolution, erupted in 1915 and 1916, originating on both sides of the border. Rangers and former rangers took prisoners and hanged or shot them. They also routinely patrolled the countryside for Tejanos to run out of their homes and off their own lands. U.S. military troops stationed at the border to quell unrest were themselves so alarmed by lynchings and mass executions carried out by rangers and local law enforcement officers that they threatened to enact martial law.

With World War I, Texas increased the size of the ranger force, and the governor assigned “Loyalty Rangers” to each county to assure patriotic behavior. In the Valley, this resulted in repression of Tejano voting and the harassment, disarming, and hanging of Mexican-descent office holders. In addition to the deaths, Whites took control of thousands of acres of land owned by Tejanos, and over 90,000 Mexican immigrants returned to Mexico. Fear of the Texas Rangers was one reason for this exodus. Although historian Walter Prescott Webb referred to the period as an “orgy of bloodshed” and criticized ranger “excesses,” he continued to foster heroic myths about rangers that spread through popular culture.

The sole Tejano state legislator, J.T. Canales, filed charges against the rangers in 1919, demanding an investigation and a reorganization by the legislature. The Canales Hearings discussed ranger killings in public, but ranger supporters pictured them as the besieged, hardworking defenders of Texans and the enemies of Mexican outlaws. Canales feared for his life during the hearings, and his reform bill did not pass. Nevertheless, the hearing transcripts were so descriptive of ranger violence that the House of Representatives refused to publish them. Although Gov. Miriam Ferguson fired every ranger and started over, the “white hat” Ranger myth had solidified through such successes as their capture and killing of Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s and the popularity of western novels, films, and the radio and television show, “The Lone Ranger.” At mid-century, they remained unreformed, known for union-busting and helping segregationists prevent African Americans from integrating all-White public schools.

But in 1958, a book by Américo Paredes, “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero, produced for the first time a view of the rangers from the perspective of the people they most often affected. Paredes called the rangers rinches, “armed and mounted and looking for Mexicans to kill.” The emerging Chicano movement applied the term to racist law enforcement of any kind, and Chicano scholars, by injecting the perspectives of policed populations into ranger history, succeeded in creating a new understanding of their deeply ingrained racism. After decades of complaints, exposés, law suits, investigations, and reorganizations, the Texas Ranger myth was shredded, and they were converted into today’s group of 160 uniformed, often office-bound investigators within the Department of Public Safety.

Part 3: A History of Racism in The Border Patrol

Policing of the U.S.-Mexico border began in the early 1900s with independent, sporadic mounted patrols who rode the border in search of anyone crossing illegally into the U.S., regardless of their origin or purpose. The 1907 Immigration Act authorized a force designed to regulate the flow and to deport such immigrants, with a focus on contract labor law violations. Not surprisingly, interest in and fear of Mexican immigrants intensified among Anglos during the Mexican Revolution, as did resistance of White laborers and unions to their presence. Gov. Oscar Colquitt authorized the formation of Anglo vigilante groups called “home guards” who reported on the comings and goings of anyone they categorized as Mexican, a word that became an epithet to many Whites. With World War I, vigilante actions took on a patriotic rationale, including complaints that the Texas Rangers were inadequate for the task of maintaining order and Anglo safety.

What we now recognize as the Border Patrol was established under the National Origins Act of 1924, which established discriminatory quotas based on country of origin. Mexicans, however, were excluded from quotas through pressure from labor-dependent growers in Texas and other border states. As a result, early Border Patrol recruits were often White men with military, county sheriff, Texas Ranger, and Klan backgrounds who supported white supremacy and had experience participating in brutal behavior against Mexican-origin people. Despite the lack of a quota for Mexican immigrants, other laws criminalized entry into the U.S. from nonofficial ports of entry, which allowed border agents to block entry of Mexican laborers using arbitrary requirements like fees and literacy tests. Border agents also initiated massive sweeps to coerce ethnic Mexicans to return to Mexico in the early 1930s. They used brutal tactics as well, including the near drowning of one migrant by former Texas Rangers.

Although Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor to President Franklin Roosevelt, attempted to institute reforms, political pressure resulted in the Border Patrol being placed within the Department of Justice. In the middle 1950s, the Border Patrol launched “Operation Wetback,” which deported over a million undocumented immigrants in about a year. In 1965, Mexican migrants were at last subjected to quotas, which ended the New Deal-era Bracero “guest-worker” program, making thousands of Mexican migrant border crossings illegal.

In the 1970s and 1980s, investigative journalism exposed the thorough lack of due process by Border Patrol agents, resulting in arrests of “illegal aliens” and the jailing of their children. Research revealed beatings, torture, rape, and murder by agents as well as the separation of children from their parents to force those parents to confess to illegal activity. Parents often had their legal documents seized, and even children who were U.S. citizens were deported alone, without human or financial resources. Patrol officers often worked out of isolated substations where witnesses were rare. The organization Human Rights Watch reported in 1993, for example, that the Harlingen, Texas substation used physical abuse, brutality, threats, and forced signatures of “voluntary departure agreements.”

Gradual militarization of the Border Patrol during and after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (1993), the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (2002), and the creation of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (2003), was justified by the fear of terrorism and drug trafficking. In 2015, the state financed a surge of border policing carried out by local, state, and federal agencies (including the Border Patrol) involved in what was called the war on drugs. One result for the largely Tejano population was, and continues to be, an increase in racial profiling, civil rights abuses, and high-speed vehicle chases that affect innocent residents. In Starr County, for example, residents have complained about their need to sacrifice both their security and their quality of life as a result of “saturation” policing that, in effect, considers all border residents to be suspects.


Racism in policing has existed since before the United States was a country. The reality, however, is that White citizens have not encountered it to the degree that citizens of color have. Efforts to change have resulted in little lasting difference. Instead, there appear to have developed two systems of law enforcement, based on skin color. Middle- and upper-income White people often regard the police as their own protection agencies, called upon when needed but otherwise not often encountered. Meanwhile, it is currently estimated that, nationwide, an African American is killed by the police every two to three days.


Sources for Further Learning

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010, 2012).

Anderson, Carol. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 2017).

Blue, Ethan. Doing Time in the Depression: Everyday Life in Texas and California Prisons (New York: New York University Press, 2012, 2014).

Carrigan, Wiliam D. and Clive Webb. Forgotten Dead: Mob Violence Against Mexicans in the United States, 1848-1928 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

Chase, Robert T. We Are Not Slaves: State Violence, Coerced Labor, and Prisoners’ Rights in Postwar America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020).

Cox, Karen L. Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003).

DeLeón, Arnoldo. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1983).

DeLeón, Arnoldo, ed. War along the Border: The Mexican Revolution and Tejano Communities (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2012).

DuVernay, Ava and Spencer Averick. “13th: From Slave to Criminal with One Amendment,” documentary film (Los Angeles: Kandoo Films, 2016).

Grandin, Greg. “The Border Patrol Has Been a Cult of Brutality Since 1924,” The Intercept (https://theintercept.com/2019/01/12/border-patrol-history/).

Hernandez, Kelly Lytle. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol (Oakland, University of California Press, 2010).

“The History of Racial Violence on the Mexico-Texas Border,” (www.refusingtoforget.org., 2019).

Johnson, Benjamin Heber. Revolution in Texas: How a Forgotten Rebellion and its Bloody Suppression Turned Mexicans into Americans (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).

Kang, S. Deborah. The INS on the Line: Making Immigration Law on the U.S.-Mexico Border (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).

Karibo, Holly M. and George T. Diaz, eds. Border Policing: A History of Enforcement and Evasion in North America (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2020). See especially James Dupree, “The Roots of the Border Patrol: Line Riders and the Bureaucratization of U.S.-Mexican Border Policing”; Miguel A. Lavario, “Home Guard: State-Sponsored Vigilantism and Violence in the Texas-Mexico Borderlands”; and Santiago Ivan Guerra, “Border Surge: Drug Trafficking and Escalating Police Power on the Rio Grande.”

Martinez, Monica Muñoz. The Injustice Never Leaves You: Anti-Mexican Violence in Texas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020).

Montejano, David. Anglos and Texans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1987).

Muhammad, Khalil Gibran. The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010, 2019).

National Public Radio, “American Police,” Interview with Khalil Gibran Muhammad, UpFirst Podcast, June 7, 2020.

Orozco, Cynthia. No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009).

Paredes, Américo. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and Its Hero (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1958.

Perkinson, Robert. Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2010).

Sandos, James. Rebellion in the Borderlands: Anarchism and the Plan of San Diego, 1904-1923 (University of Oklahoma Press, 1992).

Swanson, Doug J. Cult of Glory: The Bold and Brutal History of the Texas Rangers (New York: Viking, 2020).

Watson, Dwight. Race and the Houston Police Department, 1930-1990 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2005).

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Vintage Books, 2010).

Copyright Ruthe Winegarten Foundation for Texas Women's History; Not to be duplicated or without permission.