White children learn early on the policeman is your friend. He keeps us safe.
It is their truth. But the truth is often skewed, as simplistic as these vintage school book illustrations.
The truth is as simple as black and white – the criminal justice system is guilty of treating young black men different from young white men.
If racial identity shapes the way we are treated by police it also shapes the way we are likely to view them.
The all American all white schoolbooks of my own 1960’s childhood served as nothing less than a primer on white privilege.
Without exception, mid-century schoolbooks always presented a heroic picture of police – police officers are the folks who help us when we are lost, keep us safe, protect our homes or who treat us to a thrilling ride in a patrol car in order to show us how exciting it is to be a policeman.
Books with sunny titles like “Working Together” whose stated purpose was to “Help elementary school children develop a healthy perspective of the job of local law enforcement and enable them to function in their expanding environment.”
Police Keep Us Safe
In “our environment police keep us safe. Friendly police help get our beloved family cat down from the tree, or drive us home to our split level when we are lost.
Is it any wonder we experience police most often as helpful protectors of our lives and property.
But whites don’t see the way blacks often experience law enforcement.
In order to stay safe, black children grow up learning rules for surviving encounters with law enforcement learning how to dress walk and respond to police. Fundamental trust and security of policemen is often just one more thing excluded from a black childhood.
Stories We Tell Our Selves
Nothing drove home the gap between what we learned in our schoolbooks more than the civil rights movement which by 1963 dominated the news.
The helpful policemen pictured in our primers who served in these make-believe towns were as interchangeable as the conflict-free towns themselves; friendly, welcoming middle class communities with wholesome names like Maplewood, Greenfield and Brookside.
Red, White and Blue
Mid-century School books like “Our World Around Us” were designed “to help guide children through pictures and stories to appreciate and understand their American heritage,” where truth, justice and fairness as exemplified by law enforcement, were the American way.
But our American heritage was being viewed in a different light
These wholesome pictures and words stood in sharp contrast to TV nightly news which began showing very different pictures of the world around us.
On the same familiar RCA TV that brought us pleasant fictional towns like Beaver Cleaver’s Mayfield (that bore a striking resemblance to our school books), we began seeing real towns like Selma and Birmingham where real American teenagers were clubbed by police for sitting at a Birmingham Woolworths, and police attacked helpless schoolchildren with fire hoses and German shepherds.
Our Friend Policeman Bill…no Bull
In “Greenfield USA” a book geared to second graders, readers are introduced to “Our Friend Policeman Bill” who keeps the fictitious town safe and sound in 1963. “Policeman Bill,” we are told “is very strong. Helping to keep Greenfield safe is hard work.”
That same year we were also were introduced to infamous Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor who bore no resemblance to Friendly Policeman Bill.
Burly “Bull” didn’t need to be strong to enforce segregation and keep people safe- he used ferocious dogs and fire hoses.
Of course there was never racial disparities in Lily white Maplewood, Brookside, Greenfield or any fictitious towns we visited.
The gap between our experience of current events and a world populated by friendly white folks would continue to fracture as the decades wore on.
Our Friend The Policeman-Then and Now
We continue to choke on the artifices and discrepancies. Fifty years later, Our Friend the Policeman seems a distant memory and The Ghosts of Bull Connor seems to have come back to haunts us.
The gap between then and now has only grown wider.
Policeman Bill keeps Greenfield safe . His uniform and badge tell people he is a policeman
Policeman Bill Helps Our Children To Be Safe
What do you see in the picture that tells you the policeman is a kind and helpful person? Do you think he likes children?
Policemen Protect Our Community
Policemen Bill keep our streets safe for all Greenfield
Policemen Keep Our Streets Safe
Policeman Bill had to learn how to enforce laws and traffic rules and they learn the best ways to make our streets safe.
Policeman Bill Helps When Things Go Wrong
People like Policeman Bill. They think he does a good job.
Policemen go to school to learn the best possible methods of protecting life and property
Police Are Our friendly Helpers
The policeman is a good friend and helper in the time of trouble .
If people are hurt Policeman Bill helps them.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.