People experience the impact of stereotypes everyday. Although all stereotypes are bad—as they paint an entire group the same way—some are far more insidious and far reaching than others. We rarely think twice when we hear stereotypes about Whites not having rhythm or White boys not being able to “jump” or Asians being geniuses and Kung Fu experts. We all know many Whites and Asians for whom these stereotypes are not accurate and although they can be harmful and offensive, they rarely, if ever, result in death.
What happens then when the stereotypes ascribed to your group have the capacity to be fatal?
On August 5, 2014, unarmed John Crawford (22) was gunned down by police as he carried a toy gun (being sold by a retailer) through a store in Ohio. Fellow shoppers called the police while in the store, indicating they felt threatened by Crawford and the “gun.” A woman Crawford was on the phone with indicated that she heard him yell “It’s not real”, in reference to the toy gun. Seconds later shots rang out and the 22-year-old Black father was dead. Research about stereotypes suggests that the store patrons might not have felt threatened had the man with the toy gun been a man of a different race. Might stereotypes actually have played a role in the death of Crawford?
Stereotypes are generalizations about groups that can have positive or negative attributions which are never true for every individual in that group. Black men and boys are plagued with some of the most dangerous stereotypes in the world. We are often seen as uneducated menaces to society who fail to parent their multiple children, readily use illicit drugs and have an affinity for criminal activity and violence. Unlike the stereotypes that exist about other groups, the stereotypes about Black men and boys can and do have dire consequences.
Stereotypes about Black men are prevalently endorsed across virtually all media. It is easy to find images of Black men in modern media fighting, going to prison, selling drugs or walking away from their children. It however remains challenging to find images of them as doctors, responsible fathers or successful businessmen. The more frequently people are exposed to these negative images, the more easily their brain relies on them when making choices about behavior. Research shows that racial cues are perceived more quickly than others and can activate stereotypes that impact decision-making. These cues can often make race an inappropriate factor in the decision for police officers and civilians to fire their weapon.
This exact question was frequently discussed after the 1999 NYPD murder of unarmed Amadou Diallo, a 22-year-old who was shot over 40 times.
On August 12, 2014, unarmed Ezell Ford (24) was murdered by police in South Los Angeles. Witnesses allege that Ford was shot several times while face down on the sidewalk. Evidence has consistently been found that police use greater force, including lethal force, with minority suspects than with White ones. Black suspects are five times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer than Whites. Over 20 simulated studies show that participants were faster and more accurate when shooting an armed Black man than an armed White man. These studies show that when Black men are shot, the decision to shoot happens more quickly than with other men and the shots fired are more accurate, hitting vital organs and generating incapacity.
On August 10, 2014, unarmed teen Michael Brown was killed by Missouri police in Ferguson while walking from his grandmother’s home. Witnesses allege that Mr. Brown had his hands raised in a surrendering position when he was shot multiple times. Do you believe that this boy’s race and ethnicity had nothing to do with the lethal force used against him? It is a statistical impossibility that the disparities we see with this one group representing less than 7% of the US population is solely based on their behaviors alone. There has to be other factors informing both the decisions about them and the decision makers’ attitudes toward them.
When we look at the disparities for Black males across many sectors, the conclusion is that there is more to the puzzle than often meets the eye. Black boys are suspended and expelled at higher rates and at younger ages than their White counterparts. We are even seeing a problem with Black preschool aged boys being suspended at disproportionate rates! Black adolescent males have lower graduation rates and higher adjudication rates than their White counterparts and Blacks males, and as we have recently seen proof of again, are killed by law enforcement at a significantly higher rate than other citizens.
As a Black man and the father of a Black boy I am fearful that my life is not strictly defined by my actions and or inaction. There is a system of unknown maps and passcodes needed to navigate the mine fields that Black men move through on a daily basis. I reflect on Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Aaron Campbell, Alonzo Ashley and too many other unarmed Black men and boys cut down like dogs by the very people paid to protect.
In order to contain this genocide it is necessary that we open honest dialogue about race and stereotypes, holding people accountable while working to eliminate bias. We can no longer shy away from these honest and necessary discussions, when we do, we contribute to the blood spilled on the streets.
This is the new Strange Fruit.