The Michael Brown Case: America’s Fear of Black Men

Earlier this year, I’d written a big piece some of the history behind America’s fear of black men and its relevance to the Michael Brown case. Now that the verdict that most people knew was coming (no indictment) has come about, I thought it pertinent to repost this article, since it gives clarity as to why America still views black men as inherent criminals.

This research is by no means complete.  And I just have to state as a blanket rule on this particular piece that if you have hate in your heart towards black people for no reason other than the fact that you’re a racist, please don’t leave a comment.

EDIT: I’ve got to point out that some of Darren Wilson’s testimony has come out, and he calls Michael Brown a “demon,” “it” and compares him to “Hulk Hogan” (which, to me, is weirdly ironic, considering Hulk being white but still used to illustrate stereotyped black “superhuman” qualities):

I put these tweets here because in reprinted post below, I write that I don’t know what was going on in Darren Wilson’s head. The original post was written this summer, so of course, we didn’t have this version of events. Now that we know that Wilson was thinking all of this, it gives us a very good picture of what he was thinking of Brown. The statements align well with prejudicial stereotypes many have of black men, as outlined in the post below.

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I have watched the coverage of the Michael Brown case for the past two weeks, and honestly, I’ve had a hard time wrapping my head around all of the components of the case. This case is one that has a lot of moving parts, more than it probably seems to at the outset. The short response to this case is that it outlines the systemic racism that exists, despite claims of post-racialism, in the United States. I’ll endeavor to break down the points I’ve noticed in this case in a series of blog posts.

The first one is: Inherent black fear To me, (and to a lot of people in America) there is no doubt that the inherent fear of African-Americans, a fear intrinsic to America, is at the heart of this case. Of course, I can’t say that Darren Wilson had racism in his heart when he shot Brown; I’m not in his head. But what the case reveals–along with the many similar cases before it–is how America still feels threatened by black people, particularly black men. It’s an imagined threat.

The narrative that was trying to gain ground is that Michael Brown posed a severe threat to Darren Wilson, even though Brown was unarmed and, according to witnesses, was trying to run away from Wilson and also held his hands up in surrender. While Brown is the one who sustained at least six bullet wounds, including the “kill shot” to the head, the Ferguson PD released video of Brown stealing cigarillos from a store, seemingly in an attempt to show how “dangerous” he might have been that day.

Even though Brown was unarmed and killed in the middle of the street, reports of Wilson’s alleged injuries, including a fractured eye socket (a report that later turned out to be false, according to a source), are supposed to show that Brown was, in fact, dangerous and such a threat to Wilson that Wilson had to kill Brown with six shots, including the one to the top of the head. Thankfully the media rejected this narrative with the forceful help of the Ferguson citizens, witnesses, talking heads, experts, and activists, such as actor/activist Jesse Williams.

But why was this narrative the one the police seemed to reach for? It’s because the myth of the Scary Black Man is still one that has traction today due to America’s unwillingness to examine its racist history. The myth of the “savage” black man has been in place since slavery times. For working purposes, black men were valued for strength and hardiness. Take a look at this quote, detailing the examinations of slaves in the largest slave auction in America, also known as “The Weeping Time.”

The sale had been advertised for several weeks. Every hotel in Savannah was filled with potential buyers. In the days before the auction, potential buyers went to the racetrack to look over the people for sale. The slaves were humiliated when the buyers pulled open their mouths to see their teeth and they pinched their arms and legs to check for muscle strength. The slaves said nothing, unless they hoped to be bought by the person examining them.

Slaves were sold in brackets; each bracket cost relative to their age and working potential. Number One Men (ages 19-25) were sold for $1,250-$1,450, which at the time of this article, 1988, was equivalent to $20,800-$24,100. According to the CPI Inflation Calculator, that now amount of money is now equivalent to $30,414.33-$35,239.67. The next highest selling bracket, Best Boys (ages 15-18) sold for $1100-$1200. In 1998, that amount of money was worth $18,300-$20,000. In today’s time, that’s $26,758.75-$29,244.54.

But that same supposed value was used as a method of suppression. Scientists of the 18th and 19th centuries legitimately believed that Africans were closer to apes than humans, citing “the abnormal length of the arm, which in the erect position sometimes reaches the knee-pan,” “weight of brain, as indicating cranial capacity, 35 ounces (highest gorilla 20, average European 45),” “short flat snub nose,” “thick protruding lips,” “exceedingly thick cranium,” “short, black hair, eccentrically elliptical or almost flat in section, and distinctly wooly” and “thick epidermis.”

Along with these bogus scientific findings, black people were also thought to have less sensitivity to physical pain and weren’t able to think abstractly. According to these “findings,” this made them suitable for slavery. One of the most ridiculous and horrific statements supporting this claim is that “Negresses…will bear cutting with nearly, if not quite, as much impunity as dogs and rabbits.” Also, as explained in the below quote, a new stereotype, the Sambo, was created to shame black males and teach them to fall in line, as well as give supposed justification for slavery.

This pervasive image of a simple-minded, docile black man dates back at least as far as the colonization of America. The Sambo stereotype flourished during the reign of slavery in the United States. In fact, the notion of the “happy slave” is the core of the Sambo caricature. White slave owners molded African-American males, as a whole, into this image of a jolly, overgrown child who was happy to serve his master. However, the Sambo was seen as naturally lazy and therefore reliant upon his master for direction. In this way, the institution of slavery was justified.

Myths of black men being “sexually insatiable,” “wild,” or “animalistic” developed, even though white slave-owners were largely the barbaric ones, using sexual control to demean both black men and women. Take a look at this paragraph:

The fear of the whites towards blacks can be seen as the very nature of the brutality of slavery. These white masters not only owned the bodies of the black women slaves but they also owned the masculinity of black males. This is best seen in Lewis Clarke speech about why, “A Slave Cant Be a Man”, in which he talks about the worst thing about slavery is the patter-rollers who go around at night and make sure the slaves are not up to no good. Lewis states, “If a slave don’t open to them at any time of night they break it down, they act just as they please with his wives and daughters”, (Lewis Clarke, 144). This action that Lewis goes on to speak about just breaks the very soul of being a man. Not being able to protect your family kills the very fabric of a man’s’ masculinity.

And compare that with this analysis of both the “Sambo” and “Savage” stereotypes:

While the Sambo represented “happy darkies in their place,” the Savage or Brute represented the danger of emancipated African savages running wild and wreaking havoc on white civilization—as depicted in D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation by a lusting marauding black male, chasing after a pristine white woman considered the epitome of Southern femininity, who prefers leaping from a cliff to her death rather than submitting to the ignominy of interracial rape. Both the Sambo and the Savage were representations of the purported biological inferiority of blacks. Yet, in fact, they were polar archetypes of the white imagination: the Savage being the repository of white nightmares, fears, and anxieties concerning a black uprising (such as the Nat Turner rebellion), and the Sambo being the embodiment of white dreams and aspirations to transform enslaved Africans into a race of harmless, humble, servile, comedic entertainers. Sambo became the preeminent entertainer on the American stage (although most often depicted by whites in blackface), the “American Jester,” differing from traditional medieval court jesters in the fact that he never embodied the principle of sagacity feigning as foolery (the wise man or political satirist playing the part of the fool) but only foolery.

The myths of the dangers of black men led to the idea that black men had to be controlled, either by taming tactics, such as denying the black men their manhood and pride by having to be subservient (an example: having to respond to “boy” instead of their name), incarceration, or through death (lynchings, shootings and other types of executions).

America likes to think it’s beyond these tensions, but America has never properly dealt with the history of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and other racist eras. Instead of dealing with the imagined threat of black people–black men in particular–it has been left to fester throughout generations, trickling down even to other minority groups who immigrated to America and wished to fit within the country’s broken race-based system.

Nowadays, this fear of black people and black men is played out in “respectability politics”–the practice of acting culturally-clear in order to fit within the race-based system, racial profiling, new stereotypes, such as the Angry Black Man/Woman and, of course police brutality. In many ways, police brutality against black men could be viewed in the same light as the lynchings that were carried out by the KKK decades ago. In fact,despite Wilson’s own feelings about race, the KKK have made him a pawn in their disgusting worldview and are raising money to support Wilson, showing how the Scary Black Man narrative is still seen as true by way too many in America.

Further proof of the broken race-based system at work: A study revealed that many white people, regardless of their attitudes toward race, can still be provoked into fear by the stereotype of a black male simply by looking at pictures of a black male. Also, it’s worth noting that the majority of black men killed by police or vigilantes are within the age ranges in which black male slaves were considered the most salable: Trayvon Martin:17 Michael Brown: 18. John Crawford: 21 Amadou Diallo: 23 Ramarley Graham: 18 There are many more I could add to this list, but you get the idea.

The theme throughout all of this is that black people aren’t seen as humans within this system. Black people are seen as objects whose meaning can be interpreted by the majority. Through control tactics, appropriation, and brutality, black people are still seen as sub-humans whose value can be stolen from them. We are still seen as creatures who need to be tamed, broken-in, and even killed to “keep the peace.”

Sources (linked above):
New York Times: Autopsy Shows Michael Brown Was Struck at Least 6 Times
The Root: Report Claim: Darren Wilson Was Beaten Up and Got a Fractured Eye Socket Before Shooting
Vox: Did Darren Wilson have a broken eye socket after his encounter with Michael Brown?
America’s Story from America’s Library: The Largest Slave Auction, March 3, 1859
South Carolina’s Information Highway: South Carolina–African-Americans–Buying and Selling Human Beings
Racial Stereotypes From the Days of American Slavery: A Continuing Legacy by S. Plous and Tyrone Williams, Wesleyan University
Stereotypes: Negative Racial Stereotypes and Their Effect on Attitudes Toward African-Americans
Stereotypes of Slaves Sexuality
“Racial Stereotypes.” The Jim Crow Encyclopedia 
Missouri KKK Chapter to Raise Funds for Ferguson Cop Who Killed Michael Brown
Black Male Faces More Likely to Be Seen As Threatening
Image from page 24 of “The American anti-slavery almanac, for … : calculated for Boston, New York, and Pittsburgh ..” (1836) Picture source: Internet Archie Book Images
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