There are two subtle moments from the past week that has shed a light on America’s irrational fear of Black men, and how comfortable we have all become with accepting it as a reality. Last week, when officer Betty Shelby killed Terence Crutcher, people saw the helicopter footage and as soon as he fell to the ground they were immediately outraged. When I watched it, there was point that has been often overlooked in the reporting of this incident. There is a brief moment when the police officer, who ostensibly live-narrates the video, describes Crutcher. Knowing nothing about him, from hundreds of feet in the air, the officer off-handedly comments that Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.”
Halfway through Tuesday night’s presidential debate Lester Holt broached the subject of race. He did not offer a specific problem for the candidates to address; he just asked, “How do you heal the divide?”
Instead of engaging in a nuanced conversation about income disparities, the inequalities in education or the uneven unemployment rate, both candidates immediately launched into a dialogue about crime, guns and the prison system.
This is what Black America has been reduced to in their eyes. We are either a collection of criminals gangstas (make sure you pronounce it with the “a,” lest you be confused with Al Capone, Bonnie, Clyde or another America anti-hero) “bussin’ guns” at the sky, or poor victims confined to “inner cities” dodging bullets and ducking thugs. When combined, these two incidents shine a glaring light on how this country views people of color.
To them, Black people are bad dudes.
Make no mistake about it; this is how they view us. An estimated 80 million people watched Tuesday night’s Presidential debate. The two candidates were no longer speaking to their base audiences; they were speaking to America. Trump was no longer insulated by his throngs of Alt-right devotees, nor was Hillary Clinton surrounded by her entourage of enthusiastic supporters who are “with her.” Tuesday’s debate was not for Black voters—because there is only a scant sliver of our voting bloc who have yet to make up their minds on who they’ll support. Debates are for undecided voters. It is a chance to convince moderates and sway people who are on the fence. Debates are for White America. With all their measured words and political doublespeak, when they reached the two-minute opportunity to talk about the country’s “negro” problem, they had no qualms with the scary brown people.
When they revert to the dog-whistle words that instill subliminal fear into the Caucasian heart, they know what they are doing. They pepper their conversations with phrases like “inner city” and “urban communities” to conjure up images where simply walking down the street, according to that great researcher of race theory, Donald Trump, “will get you shot.”
They forget to mention that 79% of Americans live in cities so most White people are also “urban.” They conveniently leave out the crime-ridden Black neighborhoods were created by America’s long history of redlining and confining Black people to segregated areas. They never bring up the point that White people in poor neighborhoods commit crime at the same rate as poor Black people. They do not address the causes of poverty or even—in the richest country on the planet that is supposed to shine a beacon of freedom and equality for the world to see— why the term “Black neighborhoods” is a real thing.
And on the biggest stage, in front of microphones, and under the lights, when the only two people who have a realistic chance of becoming the next leader of the free world had an opportunity to address any issue that faces Black America, they talked about so-calling Black-on-Black crime. They did not revert to this trope because this is who they believe we are. They did it because they know this is how America sees us. This is how the average, nonpartisan, Budweiser-drinking, flip-flop wearing suburbanite from Wyoming sees Black people—as predators.
It is why a man wearing Khakis in the middle of the road in Tulsa with his back to a police officer looks threatening. It is why a man in Charlotte backing up with his hands by his side looks scary. It’s why they can reconcile that a seventeen-year old boy named Trayvon could pose imminent danger to a man stalking him who was 50 pounds heavier and carrying a loaded gun. It is why Korryn seemed menacing with a baby on her lap. It’s why John’s BB gun looked foreboding even in the gun section of WalMart. Black people are dangerous. Not just to the barely-trained skittish shooters of Tamir and Philando, but to them, we’re a threat to the entire country.
Occasionally, a presidential candidate will wander into a Black church and pretend as if they are sympathetic to the problems of Black people. You will never see them at the school board meeting of an all-Black district, though. They never appear at corporate headquarters to ask CEOs why they don’t hire more African-Americans. Their success is based upon perpetuating the myth, and furthering the lie. There are no Presidents who upset apple carts. Superman needs Lex Luthor. Without The Joker, Batman is just a rich dude who went crazy and walks around at night wearing a cape. Without the myth of the big, Black boogeyman police officers are just ticket-writers who occasionally transform themselves into intermittent execution squads. Trump used the idea of a Mexican menace just like Hillary branded young Black men as “Superpredators.”
Every hero needs a villain, and we are forever theirs.