Friday, July 08, 2016

Racism is about Fear before it's about Hate

Three mornings in a row, we've awakened to live recordings of fatal confrontations between police and black men broadcast by eyewitnesses via social media.  This morning, it's attacks by a sniper "mad at police" during a peaceful protest of the previous two shootings. Tuesday night in Baton Rouge, police who responded to an anonymous report of a black man brandishing a gun pinned Alton Sterling down and shot him.  Wednesday night, an officer in St. Paul who pulled Philando Castile over for a faulty tail light shot him repeatedly while the driver followed the officer's instructions to produce identification. 

In the St. Paul incident, we hear the participants immediately after the officer fired the shots, streamed live on Facebook by the driver's girl friend.   The policeman, distraught, gun still pointed, tries to justify himself to himself: "I told him to keep his hands visible!" he screams.  The girl friend, in measured, level tone, reminds the officer that he himself had ordered Castile to produce ID.  Castile had also informed the officer that he was carrying a gun and was licensed to do so.  

This is all so painful, and it's bringing forward an aspect of racism that I believe has been absent from most discussion I hear:  an irrational deep-seated fear of black men.  L.A. attorney Constance Rice (cousin of former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice), spoke most clearly on this fear during an interview broadcast on NPR's Morning Edition December 5, 2014.  [Photo: Rice with LA County Sheriff Lee Baca, 2007.  E. Charbonneau, WireImage, via Getty.]

I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them.... They would say things like, "Ms. Rice I'm scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I'm really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they've got great hulk strength and I'm afraid they're going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men." 

We'd heard this fear in the testimony of officer Darren Wilson about why he shot teenager Michael Brown:  "When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding Hulk Hogan…that's just how big he felt and how small I felt from grasping his arm."

We find this fear implied in our history and literature going way, way back.  While we think that white racists have seen blacks as "sub" human, the shadow side has always been a racist fear that blacks are "super" human.   The two ideas aren't contradictions:  We still stay "he's an animal" or "he's a beast" when we describe either someone remarkably powerful or, on the other hand, someone savage and dangerously uncivilized.  Back in 1860, Mississippi's articles of secession repeated as well-known fact that only black people had the physical stamina to endure exertion in hot weather.  White men avoided direct physical competition with black boxers, baseball players and basketball players.  We laughed about it in the title of a movie, White Men Can't Jump, which suggests that black men accept the compliment.   But, as we're seeing, even "complimentary" racism is dangerous and irrational.

Of course, there's the connotation of "animal" as a super-potent sexual creature.  "Animal magnetism" was a euphemism for sexual attraction during the prissier half of the 20th century.  As far back as Shakespeare's Othello, English-speaking men have feared that a black man is irresistible to a white woman.

I have a personal story about white men's deep-seated belief of black men's irresistible "animal" power. I'll never forget driving down Ponce De Leon Avenue in Atlanta back in 1975.  My passenger was a mild-mannered middle-aged white man.  We worked alongside friendly black men every day at my dad's factory.  When he was recuperating from a broken leg, I had to drive him through town.  Suddenly he swore, spluttered, twisted and climbed, cast and all, over his seat and into the back to slam his palm on the rear window. It was awhile before I could understand what he said about what had set him off:  he'd seen a white woman and black man walking together.

We hear all that in the words of Darren Wilson, and in the quivering voice of the officer in St. Paul.  These officers, who may have not one shred of conscious racial animus, still believe, deep down, that they face an implacable entity such as we see in movies, a Hulk, a Terminator, a powerful animal or killing machine for which one bullet is never sufficient.    

Rice's prescription, practiced over years in L.A., is to go beyond "community policing," for police to be involved with the population they serve in collaborative effort to solve community problems:

You have to be able to step into the frightened tennis shoes of black kids; black male kids in particular. You have to be able to step into the combat boots of scared cops, and racist cops, and cruel cops, and good cops.
Let's also acknowledge the racism that doesn't "hate," that doesn't "disrespect," but kicks in during confrontations when reason and civility are most important. 

NPR Staff. "Civil Rights Attorney On How She Built Trust With Police." NPR Morning Edition. December 5, 2014.  

Morgan, Piers,  "This farce in Ferguson: Darren Wilson is the first 6ft 4in, 210lb five-year-old in history."  Daily Mail Online.  25 November 2014.

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