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Black men are target practice: America's grotesque history of racist games

Our country's more perverse forms of leisure and recreation are instructive about the way white supremacy works


Chauncey DeVega
June 12, 2015 12:15PM (UTC)
This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

AlterNet In this age of police thuggery, it seems that almost every few days brings another video recorded incident of white-on-black police violence and excessive force. Last week a white police officer in Mckinney, Texas was recorded pulling out his gun and threatening a group of black teenagers at a pool party before throwing a young girl onto the cement as she cried for help. The officer has since resigned.

From the American founding to the South’s slave patrols and now in the age of Obama, there is a seemingly endless pile of black and brown bodies, the poor, disabled and mentally ill, who have been subjected to unjust legal violence by the State, as well as those it has gifted with the power of life and death (like George Zimmerman, empowered by "stand your ground" laws").

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Violence by the State, and those who are designated as having the power to dispense it, reveals a great deal about the nature of power in America. If the ability of the government to use violence against its citizens is a type of social control, then a society structured around maintaining white privilege and white supremacy -- as well as class inequality -- will use violence in an unequal way along the colorline (as well as against the poor and working classes en masse).

Stuart Hall observed that “race is how class” is lived in Europe and the United States. There is a corollary to his brilliant observation: the experiences racially marginalized groups such as blacks, First Nations, Hispanics and Latinos have as victims of legal violence by police, prisons, schools, and other social institutions, also reflects how race is lived in the United States.

Here, some people are deemed as valuable and others disposable. Some groups of people are protected and others made vulnerable. There appears to be a simple and basic calculation that applies even in a society such as the United States with its rhetoric of “equality of opportunity” and American Exceptionalism: the human worth of some individuals and groups is deemed to be greater than that of the Other.

This ugly fact is revealed in many ways: there's the grotesque photograph of Chicago police officers posing with an innocent black man they costumed as a dead animal, with deer antlers. There's the fact that North Miami Beach’s Police department used the photographs of black men for target practice.

These lessons about the value of life across the colorline are taught by the media, schools, political elites, and other opinion leaders. But play and recreation should be added to that list as well; popular culture is political. America has a long history of obscenely racist forms of leisure and recreation. Thousands of blacks were lynched in the decdes after Reconstruction, and those deeds existed within a broader culture where simulated and symbolic violence against black people was a form of entertainment.

One of the most popular games at America’s traveling circuses and carnivals of the 19th and 20th centuries was the "African Dodger," "Hit the Coon" or "Hit the Nigger Baby." The purpose of the game was to hit the target with a ball—with one of your three throws—and win a prize. It sounds like a common carnival target game, but there was one unsettling part of the game; namely, the game's target was a live human being, a "negro." In St. Louis in 1913, it was reported that carnival organizers were "unable for hours today to secure an 'African Dodger' who would allow baseballs to be thrown at his cranium at the usual rate of three for 5 cents." The reason was that future Hall of Fame fastball pitcher Walter Johnson was rumored to be at the fair.

The game was so popular nationwide that newspapers mentioned the African Dodger game along with trained animals, illusionists, penny arcades, merry-go-rounds and magic shows in the list of a carnival's attractions. Dodgers made headlines when they were seriously and horrifically injured; otherwise, they were nameless victims.

It may be hard to imagine a world where such barbaric games were accepted and played, and to understand why people would allow themselves to be targets. This is another example of the complexities of relationships during the Jim Crow era. The idea that African Americans were subhumans was prevalent and widely accepted. Religious speakers, politicians and scientists all agreed and "proved" that the African was a "less evolved" creature and therefore not subject to humane treatment. Almost everything in American society pointed to a hierarchical structure, whites on top and blacks at the bottom.

Shooting, hurling objects at and abusing black Americans reinforced a cultural script that devalued their lives, and in which humiliation paid a type of psychic wage to white people (the “fun” of dunking a black person precisely because they are not white) and reinforced a political and social order that placed blacks in the basement of America’s white supremacist racial order. In all, the carnival was a populist and democratic space where even poor and working-class whites could enjoy humiliating and degrading a black person.

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And such "innocent" games could easily be translated into more lethal practices.

It's hard to shoot at another human being. Research conducted after World War II found that only 15-20 percent of US infantry fired their weapons at the enemy. Work by experts such as Colonel David Grossman has suggested this is because American soldiers were trained to fire their weapons by aiming at targets that did not resemble real human beings.

America’s military replaced such targets with lifelike figures, and also introduced other techniques to lower the inhibition soldiers have to firing their weapons and taking a human life. The results were huge: by the Vietnam War, 95 percent of soldiers were now firing their weapons with direct intent during combat. Police departments also use video games and other types of simulations to condition their officers for the use of lethal force. Video games and other digital technologies have also provided valuable insight into how racism and other types of bias influence police use of deadly force against black Americans.

In a series of experiments using video game technology, psychologist Joshua Correll found that both civilians and police were more likely to shoot black people.

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He explains:

Using images of white and black men, each gripping a cell phone, a wallet, or a handgun, Correll and his Colorado colleagues devised a video-game experiment that requires split-second judgments. One after another, images flash onto a monitor and participants must assess whether the man in each picture is carrying a gun. Within 850 milliseconds (or fewer, depending on “how much we want to push people,” Correll says), they must press one key to shoot or another to leave the figure unharmed. The “targets,” as Correll calls them, stand in different poses—kneeling, striding, arms crossed, hands near their pockets—and they’re placed before mostly urban backgrounds: a public fountain, an apartment-building courtyard, a construction site, a leafy park, a parking lot.

In experiment after experiment—Correll has tested undergraduates, DMV customers, mall food-court patrons, and police officers—people’s mistakes, although rare, follow a pattern: they shoot more unarmed blacks than unarmed whites, and they fail to shoot more whites than blacks who turn out to be holding weapons. Recounting the results of four separate studies in a 2002 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology article, Correll and fellow researchers wrote, “In the case of African American targets, participants simply set a lower threshold for the decision to shoot.” That trend held true even when the participants themselves were African American.

The trend is less likely a function of active prejudice than of ambient social stereotypes, Correll says. These cultural biases “come not from what you personally believe or want to believe, but from long-standing associations drilled into our heads every time we go to the movies or pick up a newspaper or hear a joke.” In surveying the participants, he has found keen awareness of stereotypes more reliable than racial prejudice at predicting performance. “So those who report that in America black people are more often seen as violent—not those who actually consider black people to be more violent—are the ones most likely to show bias.”

Video games are an invaluable tool for exploring how racism and other types of biases operate in an ostensibly “post racial” and “colorblind era.” While white supremacy and overt racism may have largely moved to the “backstage” of post civil rights era American life, digital and other online spaces are able to provide a keen insight into actual white racial attitudes.

Sociologist Jessie Daniels writes:

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The way we play is the way we understand the world, according to scholars who study gaming. This is most obviously expressed through the way we play games and is uniquely represented through video gaming because videogames represent how imaginary and real systems work…These ways of constructing and playing in different worlds can be an important mechanism of socialization into the offline world for people who play them. This is sometimes referred to as “the real” world of materiality.

People learn the implicit rules of society through the explicit rules of play. Because those same people create video games, each designer’s view of social reality provides a means through which cultural practices are communicated.

Racism exists in online games in a variety of forms, both overt and more subtle. Even as video games  increase in popularity, few within gaming culture, acknowledge the systemic racism in many of these games. Here, we have argued that the reasons for this are multifaceted. Simultaneous with vitriolic racist hate speech, often spread via the Internet and video games, the dominant white culture claims to be “colorblind” and dismisses concerns about racism as irrelevant.

First-person shooting games are especially useful in this regard because as Vit Sisler notes in Digital Arabs: Representation in Video Games:

When speaking of the 'Other' we may refer to somebody like ourselves, whom we identify as 'one of us', a stranger ('one of them') or even the unknowable Other…In the majority of action games (especially first-person shooters), the point of the game is to kill 'others', who typically are 'one of them'…The key question, then, is how the 'Others' are constructed by the game.

Researchers who study race and digital media havealso explored this:

What happens when white video game players see themselves as black characters in a violent game?
These results are the first to link avatar race in violent video games to later aggression, said Brad Bushman, co-author of the study and professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University.
And it raises another troubling impact that violent video games can have on players, he said.
“Playing a violent video game as a black character reinforces harmful stereotypes that blacks are violent,” Bushman said.
“We found there are real consequences to having these stereotypes – it can lead to more aggressive behavior.”
The results appear online in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science and will be published in a future print edition. The media have the power to perpetuate the stereotype that blacks are violent, and this is certainly seen in video games,” Bushman said.

This violent stereotype may be more prevalent in video games than in any other form of media because being a black character in a video game is almost synonymous with being a violent character.”A new study suggests some disturbing answers: It makes the white players act more aggressively after the game is over, have stronger explicit negative attitudes toward blacks and display stronger implicit attitudes linking blacks to weapons.

Clarity and precision are important here: the argument is not that video games or other types of digital media necessarily cause racism or prime individuals for violence.

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White supremacist violence was reinforced, taught, and circulated with great efficiency by pre-Internet technologies such as postcards, photographs, print, radio, the telegraph, and TV for many decades.

However, if a given society has already taught its (white) members deeply learned and internalized lessons about black and brown people, those attitudes will be expressed in the space for fantasy and wish fulfillment provided by video games.

In a culture of cruelty and near perpetual war, it is no coincidence that the gun camera footage of the actual murder, immolation, and destruction of human bodies from America’s wars overseas that can be found online is eerily similar to the “simulated” killing experience offered up by first-person military shooting games such as the Call of Duty series. This is teaching people lessons about “natural” and “legitimate” violence against a designated enemy under the guise of play and fun.

The black doll/white doll test was used to bring down Jim and Jane Crow during the landmark Brown v. Board decision. The grotesquely distorted physical dimensions of the Barbie doll, and the lies of the Disney princess franchise, teach girls antiquated norms of femininity and a negative body image; likewise, boys are given guns in order to teach them the lies of hegemonic masculinity. America’s sporting events are also locations for political socialization as well, where the Pentagon spends millions of dollars to create a propaganda spectacle of American empire and pseudo patriotism.

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From the era of racist carnival games to the present, violence as sport and entertainment, and how individuals learn to value some types of bodies and devalue others, is not an aberration. It is part of America’s national character. Those lessons are learned by children who grow up to be adults. Those lessons are also learned by individuals who choose to become police, and are given the power of life and death by the State—a power they often exercise in unfair and unjust ways against people of color, the poor, the mentally disabled, the handicapped, and any other groups and individuals deemed to be “less than” both at home in the United States, and abroad in its wars.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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