Last weekend, several St. Louis Rams took the field with hands held high, the universal sign for surrender: Hands up, don’t shoot. Like thousands of Americans honoring Michael Brown, they adopted the stance to signal solidarity and demand justice.
The backlash was swift. The St. Louis Police Officers Association and pundits like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough chastised the players for implying that police want to kill black men. The protest, they say, wrongly suggests cops never feel fear so strong it justifies killing.
Their criticism misses the point. Protesters aren’t saying cops are bad; they’re saying the system is bad. If we linger on the idea that this is about either respecting or denigrating cops, we’ll sleepwalk though a crucial moment in our history.
For conversation’s sake, let’s give Darren Wilson the benefit of the doubt: Let’s assume he was terrified. Let’s assume all cops killing black males are good people experiencing the most primal fear imaginable.
The question is why? Why was Wilson so afraid — afraid for his life? Even if Brown punched or tussled with Wilson, Wilson was an adult, a police officer, in a vehicle and armed. Brown was a kid, on foot and weaponless. Why have other cops been so petrified interacting with black men?
Black males are 21 times more likely to be killed by cops than white males. One possible reason is that cops are more likely to fear for their lives in the presence of black males and, therefore, to fire their guns. (Compare how police interactions ended for unarmed Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice with Eric Frein’s fate. Frein, a white survivalist accused of ambushing a police barracks, killing one cop and injuring another, was taken into police custody alive.)
Research from the American Psychological Association shows that cops overestimate black children’s ages and are more likely to assume black kids are guilty of crimes. This bias cripples black boys: They’re held responsible for their actions while white boys enjoy the benefits of presumed childhood innocence and immaturity. Black boys also are believed stronger and tougher — more adult — then they actually are.
Add to this our tradition of merging black men and criminality. After the Civil War, laws punishing “offenses” such as standing together on the sidewalk or being unemployed were enforced against blacks, but not whites. In fact, they were written to oppress blacks. Before long, blacks filled prisons. Many were leased by the prisons as laborers or forced to work on plantations. These Black Codes replaced slavery with something disturbingly similar — and they enmeshed black men and danger. Soon, all the criminals were black, and many of the blacks were criminals — never mind the despicable laws that made it so.
Fast forward to today. From “Birth of a Nation” to gorilla effigies of President Barack Obama; Willie Horton to “Cops”; the Central Park jogger case to Webster’s definitions of “black,” which includes evil and sinister; from Trayvon Martin walking home to Darren Wilson fighting a “demon” — we’ve been primed to fear black males despite empirical reality. This doesn’t necessarily make us racist, because many of us don’t mean to; it makes us American.
The most important question Ferguson asks isn’t whether cops are good or bad. It isn’t even whether Wilson was afraid “enough” to justify killing. It’s why black boys and men make so many people so profoundly scared. Either there is something irredeemably dangerous in the very DNA of black males justifying the fear — or we’re living a lethal lie.
If we’re willing to unpack and unlearn this lie, then lasting good will come out of Ferguson.
published in the Detroit Free Press on December 5, 2014