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In Darren Wilson’s Testimony, Familiar Themes About Black Men
November 26, 2014 3:11 PM ET
After Michael Brown was shot dead in August, his mother, Leslie McSpadden, said, “My son was sweet. He didn’t mean any harm to anybody.” He was, she said, “a gentle giant.”
But when police officer Darren Wilson fired the shot that ended Brown’s life, he saw things differently. “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan,” he said in his testimony to the grand jury. “That’s just how big he felt and how small I felt.” Wilson said “the only way” he could describe Brown’s “intense aggressive face” was that it looked like “a demon.” He feared for his life.
Many observers, such as Slate’s Jamelle Bouie and Vox’s Lauren Williams, pointed out that Wilson’s testimony has historical echoes of the “black brute” caricatures that portrayed black men as savage, destructive criminals.
After the Civil War, many white writers argued that the institution of slavery was what kept the supposed savagery of black men in check and also justified the punishments that they met. In the Reconstruction-era novel Red Rock, for example, Thomas Nelson Page wrote of a black politician — a “repulsive creature,” Moses — who tried to rape a white woman: “He gave a snarl of rage and sprang at her like a wild beast.”
But these depictions haven’t just been banished to old books. On Twitter, the hashtag #Chimpout started trending this week as tweeps used it to describe those protesting the grand jury’s decision. Again, drawing upon animal imagery, Urban Dictionary defines the term as “used to describe the bad behavior of black people, especially when they behave like animals.”
Contemporary studies suggest that language like this, as well as the language in Wilson’s testimony, has deeper psychological roots.
Take, for example, research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year. The report, titled “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children,” found that African-American boys as young as 10 were significantly less likely to be viewed as children than were their white peers. Philip Atiba Goff, an assistant professor of social psychology at UCLA and one of the lead authors of the report, spoke to NPR’s Michel Martin when it came out. “In black boys’ lives, what we know from developmental psychology is there are more situations that demand that they be adults than there are in the average white boys’ lives,” he said. “And the problem is we rarely see our black children with the basic human privilege of getting to act like children.”
As an example, Goff mentioned the death of Trayvon Martin after he was shot by George Zimmerman. “All of a sudden a 17-year-old boy was portrayed as a manly thug. He was seen sometimes by people to be older than he actually was,” Goff said. ” ‘He was a boy in a man’s body’ was something I heard multiple times. And you don’t hear that when it’s white children in the same context.”
Adam Waytz, a psychologist and assistant professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has looked into why this happens. He points out psychological studies where “people demonstrate a racial bias whereby they believe black people experience less pain than white people.”
Waytz also points to literature and pop culture that depict African-Americans as stronger than whites. “Spike Lee’s famous terming of — and I quote — the mystical ‘magical Negro’ as a stock character comes up in a lot of films,” he says. “And even Melissa Harris Perry’s done some academic work on the myth of the strong black woman, which is … this popular trope in American culture of black women being superhumanly strong and being able to keep the family together and all of those things.”
Based on all this, Waytz recently co-authored a study, “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks.” It examined whether people were quicker to process words related to supernatural concepts like “wizard” and “magic” compared with words related to humanity like “person” or “citizen” when looking at black or white faces.
“Essentially what you see is that white participants in our studies were quicker to process superhuman words when these words were preceded by a black face,” he says. Participants were then asked which face — black or white — would be more capable of possessing superhuman strengths, superhuman speed, the ability to withstand heat or to suppress hunger and thirst in a more-than-human fashion. More than half the time, the black face was assumed to possess superhuman capacities.
Participants who made these assumptions were also more likely to think the black people shown were less sensitive to pain. And Waytz says this is not a good thing.
“We know dehumanization often emerges as people treating others as subhuman, like vermin in the case of the Holocaust, [or] as apelike in depictions of African-Americans in U.S. history, and that denies people humanity,” he says. “What we’re saying is that superhumanization is another way of denying humanity and ‘othering’ African-Americans by saying that they exist sort of outside the human realm.”
Waytz also says he recognized much of this language in Wilson’s testimony. “Superhuman strength, superhuman speed, this idea of him as a demon; this depiction of Brown as Hulk Hogan versus a child,” he points out. “All of this was exactly consistent with the types of capacities that we were asking about in our studies.” And Waytz says there are reasons why he might draw upon these depictions. “The other side of the superhumanization coin is you believe that black people are less sensitive to pain, and perhaps [Wilson] is suggesting that because of the superhuman nature of Brown in this moment, which he perceived, more excessive force was required.”
So could that be right? And do these perceptions usually affect police officers? “Of course,” says Tracie Keesee, a 25-year police veteran and co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity and the director of community outreach. “We’ve always talked about those social stereotypes that go along with aggressiveness,” she says. “How do you describe what aggressiveness looks like on a black male versus a white male?”
Stereotypes, implicit biases and media images, Keesee says, factor into the decisions officers make. “Your mind is trying to make sense of those things in a very rapid and quick fashion. And so what we always like to train, and fashion our training around: Are you reacting to the correct thing?”
That is on the mind of police chiefs across the country, she says. “How do we not only identify that we are engaging in this type of behavior, but how do we fix it?”
Amruta Trivedi contributed to this report.
When will our society respect the humanity of ALL people?
The new threat: ‘Racism without racists’
By John Blake, CNN
updated 8:03 PM EST, Wed November 26, 2014
Whites and blacks don’t speak the same language when they talk about racism
For many minorities, racism is less about overt hostility and more about bias
One sociologist calls it “racism without racists” and says “we are all in this game”
A new conversation on race can start with three phrases that often crop up
(CNN) — In a classic study on race, psychologists staged an experiment with two photographs that produced a surprising result.
They showed people a photograph of two white men fighting, one unarmed and another holding a knife. Then they showed another photograph, this one of a white man with a knife fighting an unarmed African-American man.
When they asked people to identify the man who was armed in the first picture, most people picked the right one. Yet when they were asked the same question about the second photo, most people — black and white — incorrectly said the black man had the knife.
Even before the Ferguson grand jury’s decision was announced, leaders were calling once again for a “national conversation on race.” But here’s why such conversations rarely go anywhere: Whites and racial minorities speak a different language when they talk about racism, scholars and psychologists say.
The knife fight experiment hints at the language gap. Some whites confine racism to intentional displays of racial hostility. It’s the Ku Klux Klan, racial slurs in public, something “bad” that people do.
Attorney: Cop’s ‘demon’ term revealing Ferguson couple: We’re afraid, staying What #Ferguson stands for New commission to help Ferguson heal
But for many racial minorities, that type of racism doesn’t matter as much anymore, some scholars say. They talk more about the racism uncovered in the knife fight photos — it doesn’t wear a hood, but it causes unsuspecting people to see the world through a racially biased lens.
It’s what one Duke University sociologist calls “racism without racists.” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who’s written a book by that title, says it’s a new way of maintaining white domination in places like Ferguson.
“The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits,” says Bonilla-Silva.
“The more we assume that the problem of racism is limited to the Klan, the birthers, the tea party or to the Republican Party, the less we understand that racial domination is a collective process and we are all in this game.”
As people talk about what the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson means, Bonilla-Silva and others say it’s time for Americans to update their language on racism to reflect what it has become and not what it used to be.
The conversation can start, they say, by reflecting on three phrases that often crop up when whites and racial minorities talk about race.
‘I don’t see color’
It’s a phrase some white people invoke when a conversation turns to race. Some apply it to Ferguson. They’re not particularly troubled by the grand jury’s decision to not issue an indictment. The racial identities of Darren Wilson, the white police officer, and Michael Brown, the black man he killed, shouldn’t matter, they say. Let the legal system handle the decision without race-baiting. Justice should be colorblind.
Science has bad news, though, for anyone who claims to not see race: They’re deluding themselves, say several bias experts. A body of scientific research over the past 50 years shows that people notice not only race but gender, wealth, even weight.
When babies are as young as 3 months old, research shows they start preferring to be around people of their own race, says Howard J. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” which includes the story of the knife fight experiment.
Other studies confirm the power of racial bias, Ross says.
One study conducted by a Brigham Young University economics professor showed that white NBA referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Another study that was published in the American Journal of Sociology showed that newly released white felons experience better job hunting success than young black men with no criminal record, Ross says.
“Human beings are consistently, routinely and profoundly biased,” Ross says.
The knife fight experiment reveals that even racial minorities are not immune to racial bias, Ross says.
“The overwhelming number of people will actually experience the black man as having the knife because we’re more open to the notion of the black man having a knife than a white man, ” Ross says. “This is one of the most insidious things about bias. People may absorb these things without knowing them.”
Another famous experiment shows how racial bias can shape a person’s economic prospects.
The first thing we must stop doing is making racism a personal thing.
— Doreen E. Loury, director of Pan African Studies at Arcadia University
Professors at the University of Chicago and MIT sent 5,000 fictitious resumes in response to 1,300 help wanted ads. Each resume listed identical qualifications except for one variation — some applicants had Anglo-sounding names such as “Brendan,” while others had black-sounding names such as “Jamal.” Applicants with Anglo-sounding names were 50% more likely to get calls for interviews than their black-sounding counterparts.
Most of the people who didn’t call “Jamal” were probably unaware that their decision was motivated by racial bias, says Daniel L. Ames, a UCLA researcher who has studied and written about bias.
“If you ask someone on the hiring committee, none of them are going to say they’re racially biased,” Ames says. “They’re not lying. They’re just wrong.”
Ames says such biases are dangerous because they’re often unseen.
“Racial biases can in some ways be more destructive than overt racism because they’re harder to spot, and therefore harder to combat,” he says.
Still, some people are suspicious of focusing on the word bias. They prefer invoking the term racism because they say it leaves bruises. People claiming bias can admit they may have acted in racially insensitive ways but were unaware of their subconscious motivations.
“The idea of calling it racial bias lessens the blow,” says Crystal Moten, a history professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
“Do you want to lessen the blow or do you want to eradicate racism? I want to eradicate racism,” she says. “Yes I want opportunity for dialogue, but the impact of racism is killing people of color. We don’t have time to tend to the emotional wounds of others, not when violence against people of color is the national status quo.”
‘But I have black friends’
In the movie “The Godfather,” the character of Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino, hatches an audacious plan to kill a mobster and a crooked cop who tried to kill his father. Michael’s elders scoff at his plans because they believe his judgment is clouded by anger. But in a line that would define his ruthless approach to wielding power, Michael tells them:
“It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.”
Ferguson has become a symbol of how some whites and racial minorities speak differently about racism, some say.
Ferguson has become a symbol of how some whites and racial minorities speak differently about racism, some say.
When some whites talk about racism, they think it’s only personal — what one person says or does to another. But many minorities and people who study race say racism can be impersonal, calculating, devoid of malice — such as Michael Corleone’s approach to power.
“The first thing we must stop doing is making racism a personal thing and understand that it is a system of advantage based on race,” says Doreen E. Loury, director of the Pan African Studies program at Arcadia University, near Philadelphia.
Loury says racism “permeates every facet of our societal pores.”
“It’s about more than that cop who targets a teen while ‘WWB’ (walking while black) but the system that makes it OK to not only stop him but to put him in a system that will target and limit his life chances for life,” she says.
Racial bias is so deeply engrained in people that it can manifest itself in surprising places, says Charles Gallagher, a sociologist at La Salle University in Philadelphia. He gave a hypothetical example:
“A white police officer in Ferguson may be married to a black woman and have black and Latino friends, but that doesn’t mean the officer is above racial profiling,” Gallagher says.
These old and new ways of talking about racism can be seen in how some whites and blacks perceive the events in Ferguson.
Many have already looked at them as something beyond a personal interaction between a white police officer and a young black man. They point out that two-thirds of Ferguson’s population is black, yet the mayor, police chief and five of six city council members are white — as are 50 of the 53 people in its Police Department.
Ferguson is like countless multiracial communities, they say: calm on the surface but seething with racial disparities beneath.
But those disparities are invisible to many whites, who often see themselves as victims of discrimination, writes Jamelle Bouie of Slate magazine in a recent essay, “The Gulf That Divides Us.”
“Median income among black Americans is roughly half that of white Americans. But a narrow majority of whites believe blacks earn as much money as whites, and just 37% believe that there’s a disparity between the two groups. Likewise, while 56% of blacks believe black Americans face significant discrimination, only 16% of whites agree,” he writes.
“Many whites — including many millennials — believe discrimination against whites is more prevalent than discrimination against blacks.”
But as Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in The New York Times, the U.S. has a greater wealth gap between whites and blacks than South Africa had during apartheid.
The main problem nowadays is not the folks with the hoods, but the folks dressed in suits.
— Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism without Racists”
Such racial inequities might seem invisible partly because segregated housing patterns mean that many middle- and upper-class whites live far from poor blacks.
It’s also no longer culturally acceptable to be openly racist in the United States, says Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism Without Racists.”
Overt racism is so widely rejected in America that a white supremacist in Montana recently announced that he is creating a new inclusive Ku Klux Klan chapter that will not discriminate against people because of their color or sexual orientation. Instead, according to one report, the chapter’s new mission will be to prevent a “new world order” where one government controls everything.
Another recent article revealed how white supremacists in America are facing such hostility at home that some have moved to Europe in an attempt to link up with far-right groups.
“The new racism, like God, works in mysterious ways and is quite effective in maintaining white privilege,” Bonilla-Silva says. “For example, instead of saying as they used to say during the Jim Crow era that they do not want us as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as ‘I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’ ”
‘Who you calling a racist?’
When protests erupted in Ferguson after the shooting this summer, various white and black residents tried to talk about race, but such discussions didn’t bear fruit because of another reason:
People refuse to admit their biases, research has consistently shown.
Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” cited a Dartmouth College survey where misinformed voters were presented with factual information that contradicted their political biases.
There were voters, for example, who were disappointed with President Obama’s economic record and believed he hadn’t added any jobs during his presidency. They were shown a graph of nonfarm employment over the prior year that included a rising line indicating about a million jobs had been added.
“They were asked whether the number of people with jobs had gone up, down, or stayed about the same,” Ross wrote. “Many, looking straight at the graph, said down.”
Ross says it’s even more difficult to get smart people to admit bias.
“The smarter we are, the more self-confident we are, and the more successful we are, the less likely we’re going to question our own thinking,” Ross says.
Some of the nation’s smartest legal minds aren’t big believers in racial bias either, and that could complicate efforts in Ferguson to reduce racial tensions.
Some say they could be eased by hiring more officers of color in Ferguson’s police force.
A conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could get rid of an important tool against racial bias, some say.
A conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court could get rid of an important tool against racial bias, some say.
But the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, has been suspicious of efforts to achieve diversity in workforces, believing that they amount to reverse racism or racial preferences, legal observers say.
Some fear the court is about to get rid of one of the most effective legal tools for addressing racial bias.
The court recently took up a fair housing case in Texas where the conservative majority could very well rule against the concept of “disparate impact,” a legal approach that doesn’t try to plumb the racist intentions of individuals or businesses but looks at the racial impact of their decisions.
Disparate impact is built on the belief that most people aren’t stupid enough to openly announce they’re racists but instead cloak their racism in seemingly race-neutral language. It also recognizes that some ostensibly race-neutral policies could reflect unintentional bias. A disparate impact lawsuit, for instance, wouldn’t have to prove that a police department’s white leaders are racist — it would only have to show the impact of having all white officers in an almost all-black town.
Roberts distilled his approach to race in one of the court’s most controversial cases in 2007. The court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that a public school district in Seattle couldn’t consider race when assigning students to schools, even for the purposes of integration.
“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts said in what is arguably his most famous quote.
Roberts has equated affirmative action programs with Jim Crow laws, says Erwin Chemerinsky, author of “The Case Against the Supreme Court.”
“Chief Justice Roberts has expressly said that the Constitution and the government should be colorblind,” Chemerinsky says. “He sees no difference between government action that discriminates against minorities and one that benefits minorities.”
What that means for Ferguson is that any aggressive attempt to integrate the police force could be struck down in court, says Mark D. Naison, an African-American Studies professor at Fordham University in New York City.
Unless a lawyer can find smoking-gun evidence of some police department official saying he won’t hire blacks, people won’t have much legal leverage to make the police department diverse, he says.
Racial biases can in some ways be more destructive than overt racism.
— Daniel L. Ames, UCLA researcher
“Once the doctrine of disparate impact is weakened, you have to prove discriminatory intent in order to declare a practice discriminatory,” Naison says. “Huge racial disparities in law enforcement can be tolerated if they are the result of policies which are race-neutral in how they are written in the law even through the implementation is anything but.”
The courts may ignore colorblind racism, but ordinary people ought to be aware of it when they talk about racism, others say. Ross, author of “Everyday Bias,” says being biased doesn’t make people bad, just human.
He says people are hardwired to be biased because it helped keep our ancestors alive. They survived, in part, by having to make quick assumptions about strangers who might prove threatening.
“We need to reduce the level of guilt but increase the level of responsibility we take for it,” he says. “I didn’t choose to internalize these messages, but it’s inside of me and I have to be careful.”
Part of being careful is expanding our definition of racism, says Bonilla-Silva, author of “Racism Without Racists.”
Racism has evolved, but our language for describing it hasn’t, he says.
“Colorblind racism is the new racial music most people dance to,” he says. “The ‘new racism’ is subtle, institutionalized and seemingly nonracial.”
How long before another Ferguson erupts is anyone’s guess. But if and when it does, the knife fight experiment suggests that before people look at videotapes, read police reports and listen to radio talk shows to form their opinions, they should do something else first:
Look within themselves.
Life isn’t predestined — you can always make choices and no matter where you start in life, your choices can make your life what you want it to be. No one is stuck where they are.
Peace is a choice we all can make, regardless of where you start.
Important words from Bob Marley, because sometimes we need to be reminded:
Wake and Walk Out
If I flinched at every grief, I
would be an intelligent idiot. If
I were not the sun, I’d ebb and
flow like sadness. If you were not
my guide, I’d wander lost in Sanai.
If there were no light, I’d keep
opening and closing the door. If
there were no rose garden, where
would the morning breezes go? If
love did not want music and laughter
and poetry, what would I say? If
you were not medicine, I would look
sick and skinny. If there were no
leafy limbs in the air, there would
be no wet roots. If no gifts were
given, I’d grow arrogant and cruel.
If there were no way into God, I
would not have lain in the grave of
this body so long. If there were no
way from left to right, I could not
be swaying in the grasses. If
there were no grace and no kindness,
conversation would be useless, and
nothing we do would matter. Listen
to the new stories that begin every
day. If light were not beginning
again in the east, I would not now
wake and walk out inside the dawn
Form is Ecstatic
There is a shimmering excitement in
being sentient and shaped. The
caravan masters sees his camels lost
in it, nose to tail, as he himself is,
his friend, and the stranger coming
toward them. A gardener watches the
sky break into song, cloud wobbly with
what it is. Bud, thorn, the same.
Wind, water, wandering this essential
state. Fire, ground, gone. That’s
how it is with the outside. Form
it ecstatic. Now imagine the inner:
soul, intelligence, the secret worlds!
And don’t think the garden loses its
ecstacy in the winter. It’s quiet, but
the roots down there riotous.
If someone bumps you in the street,
don’t be angry. Everyone careens
shout in this surprise. Respond in
kind. Let the knots untie, turbans
be given away. Someone drunk on this
could drink a donkeyload a night.
Believer, unbeliever, cynic, lover,
all combine in the spirit-form we are.
but no one yet is awake like Shams.
I was at the hospital today, visiting my friend who is recovering from the surgeries well, but she still has Stage 4 cancer. And I could hear Rumi putting words in my head, and I could feel his energy and his reminder that his religion is Love, and our religion is Love, no matter what path you follow. The ecstasy in the path of Love can help you get through the trying times and sometimes in the devastating times. When the going is the toughest, it’s good to remember that the God is Love, Lover and Beloved, and nothing else can be all three.