I am a black man. I am an American. I am not a monster.
Like so many other black people in America, I have been followed around department stores by security guards, harassed by police, and encountered racial discrimination in the workplace. These are not minor inconveniences: to be made to feel unwelcome in one’s own country is no petty insult.
It is a reflection of a society where some groups are viewed as full and equal citizens because of their skin color and others are denied the same rights and privileges. In all, this is racism and white supremacy as quotidian life experience. It can kill a person because of the cumulative effects of stress and anxiety; it can also kill a person in a moment of punctuated violence.
Tamir Rice was 12-years-old. He was a black child. He was not a monster. The Cleveland police street executed him in less than two seconds while he played in a park with a toy gun — in a state where the “open carry” of real firearms is allowed.
Michael Brown was 18-years-old. He was a black teenager. He was not a monster. Darren Wilson, a member of the Ferguson, Missouri police department shot him at least six times. Wilson would later say about Brown that, “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up." According to Wilson, Brown could also run through bullets unharmed and had the amazing strength of Hulk Hogan. These are racist, fantastical, and bizarre comments more fit for a drug induced hallucination than sane observations that were accepted as reasonable facts in testimony to a grand jury. Nevertheless, Darren Wilson succeeded in transforming Brown into the white racist archetype of the “giant negro” and “black brute” (or its modern day equivalent “thug”).
Legend Preston is 10-years-old. He is a black child. He is not a monster. Newark police claimed that he “fit the description” of a 20-year-old adult suspect in an armed robbery. The Newark police then proceeded to point their guns in his face. Legend Preston committed no crime. He was left psychologically traumatized. No apology can repair the damage — and the Newark police have offered none. In that moment, Preston learned that black children in America are not allowed the luxury of innocence. Adultification is a feature of black life along the color line — especially when dealing with police or other representatives of the state. As researchers have demonstrated, adultification also means that white people consistently judge black children to be much older than their actual age. Once and again, the White Gaze distorts black humanity.
Geneva Smith is 84-years-old. She is a black woman. She is also a grandmother. Geneva Smith is not a monster. In the early morning hours of Aug. 7, Muskogee, Oklahoma police pursued her son into their home. Frightened by the commotion, Smith asked the police what was happening. As shown by their body cameras, the Muskogee police then proceeded to pepper-spray her in the face for refusing to comply with their orders. Geneva Smith was arrested and brought to jail. Given her age, she could have suffered serious and permanent injury, or even death, from such a powerful irritant. Fortunately, Geneva Smith survived. She is pursuing legal action against the Muskogee police. To be black, 84-years-old, and a grandmother in America is still to be a threat to the United States’ militarized police.
These are but a few recent examples of how America’s police show little restraint in how they treat black and brown people. They confront “monstrous blackness” with extreme prejudice. Consequently, black men who are unarmed are three times more likely to be shot than white men who are unarmed. Police are also faster to use lethal violence against black men than they are white men. Even when allowing for racial disparities in crime, police are also much more likely to beat, club, throw to the ground, and use other types of physical violence against black people than they are white people.
This is part of a long and ugly history that begins with the origins of modern American policing in the slave patrols of the antebellum South and continues through to the present in the form of racial profiling, “stop and frisk,” and a general culture of police thuggery and abuse towards people of color. These are not bugs or outliers but rather fixtures of the American legal system.
If blackness is perceived as something monstrous by America’s police, then whiteness is perceived as a type of innocence, an identity that is inherently benign and harmless. To that end, white people are (almost always) treated with restraint.
There are numerous examples of this type of white privilege in action. White men have committed mass shootings and been arrested unharmed; white men have shot at (and killed) police and have been arrested unharmed; white people have pointed guns at police and federal agents and have either escaped or been arrested unharmed; white people often brandish firearms in public without being arrested, harmed, or interfered with by police.
And in one of the most powerful and bizarre examples of white privilege in action, several weeks ago Austin Harrouff attacked three people in a Florida, and then proceeded to eat the face of one of his victims. The police eventually arrived while Harrouff was engaging in his cannibalistic smorgasbord. Miraculously—unlike a mentally ill black man by the name of Rudy Eugene, who in a much-publicized incident in 2012 was shot and killed by Miami police as he ate a person—Andrew Harrouff was taken into police custody unharmed.
Why is there such a difference in how America’s police treat white people as compared to people of color?
There are many reasons for this outcome. Racism is a learned behavior. America’s schools, media, and other social and political institutions reproduce and circulate social values and norms which emphasize that the lives of white people are to be valued and those of non-whites are to be devalued. Police, like other (white) Americans, have internalized these values. Moreover, the mainstream corporate news media is especially powerful in how it reinforces negative racial stereotypes: social scientists have documented how crime committed by blacks is grossly over-reported by the news media while crime by whites is under-reported.
Anti-black and brown racial animus also operates on a subconscious level as well. Social psychologists and other researchers have repeatedly documented how “implicit bias” impacts cognition, creativity, and decision-making. Racial animus and (white) anxieties about black people are so powerful that they even have the ability to distort a given (white) person’s sense of time. A recent article published by the American Psychological Association explains:
Time may appear to slow down for white Americans who feel threatened by an approaching black person, raising questions about the pervasive effects of racial bias or anxiety in the United States, according to research published by the American Psychological Association.
In a series of experiments, white adults viewed faces of white and black people who appeared to be moving toward them on a computer screen. Participants rated the apparent speed or approximate time that each face was on the screen and completed a survey that measured their anxiety when around people of a different race.
White participants who reported more racial anxiety perceived the approaching black faces as moving more slowly or appearing longer on the computer screen than the white faces. Although participants saw both male and female faces, there was no difference in observed effects based on gender. The same effects weren’t found when the black faces appeared to be moving farther away, possibly because they weren’t perceived as a threat, the study noted.
The consequences are wide-ranging:
The study findings may have important practical implications, including inaccurate eyewitness identification and the misinterpretation of innocent actions by black people as threatening, Kenrick said. “If you perceive time as slowing down, then you may feel overconfident about identifying the approaching person later or interpreting their actions,” she said. “However, more research is needed to reach firm conclusions.”
That some white Americans are so anxiety fueled and fearful of their fellow citizens is a profound indictment of the country’s civic and social culture. It is white racial paranoiac thinking that on an individual level interferes with forming meaningful relationships across lines of race, and on a mass scale fuels the proto-fascism and bigotry of Donald Trump and the American right wing.
Psychologists have also shown that many white Americans view black people as somehow being supernatural, superhuman, and less sensitive to physical pain. This locates black people as somehow different and apart from the human family, thus making it far easier to identify them as some type of monstrous Other.
As I suggested in an earlier piece here at Salon, police brutality and thuggery against black people will not stop until white Americans look at children such as Tamir Rice and Legend Preston and see the faces of their own children. On the other end of the generational spectrum, police brutality and thuggery against black and brown people will not stop until white Americans can look at the face of an 84-year-old black grandmother who is being assaulted in her own home by the police and see their own honored elders and kin.
America loves it black athletes, entertainers and first black president. Unfortunately, White America all too often does not love black and brown people as individuals. It most certainly does not love the black or brown stranger. This enables a type of emotional distance that contributes to racial injustice and makes the United States a less than fully democratic and fair society. It is only when White America and its police cease to see black people as some type of monstrous Other that they will be able to finally embrace their own full humanity. Racism does not just harm black and brown people. It hurts white folks too.