Stereotypes are dangerous. And for Michael Brown, they proved to be deadly.
Of all that we heard Monday night about the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Brown, what kept me awake for hours after the announcement was made was Wilson’s testimony.
Testimony in which Wilson said that Brown “had the most intense, aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon; that’s how angry he looked.”
It was rife with imagery that dates back hundreds of years as it relates to how white men often perceive black men. His use of vivid language, describing Brown like “Hulk Hogan” while describing himself, in comparison, like a small child holding on for dear life, is troubling. This is the power and danger of racial “stereotypes.”
When we believe that another human being is, in fact, not human, we remove ourselves from how we treat, and entreat, them. We justify prejudices. We justify disrespect. We justify dehumanization in ways that can, and often do, lead to tragedy.
Whether it was young Oscar Grant being shot and killed while handcuffed and on the ground by a police officer at Oakland, Calif.’s Fruitvale Station in 2009 or Rodney King being beaten by Los Angeles police officers in 1990, the history of how racial stereotypes against black men often play out in real life is tragic and must be addressed at the root core from the time our children are small. It all starts there.
The anger and violence that erupted last night in Ferguson is so much bigger than Brown’s tragic death, though. It’s not really about whether Wilson was “justified” in taking a life. Or whether Brown robbed a grocery store for cigars, “charged” Wilson or caused the officer to fear for his life. It’s about a community that feels disenfranchised—and assaulted by the very officers sworn to protect it.
This American tragedy is about a long-standing history of “fear” between white law-enforcement officers and young black men (unarmed, in uniform, in suits or driving while black). And until we address that issue, we will continue to see more teens like Trayvon Martin stalked and gunned down by unarmed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. And we will continue to see the use of deadly force to “subdue” black male suspects who have not been given their fundamental rights of due process.
Look at the revealing research (pdf) of Stanford University’s Jennifer Eberhardt on the subject of subconscious biases, imagery and racial profiling of black male suspects in criminal situations.
In the final analysis, we Americans continue to be cowards about race. We refuse to talk about institutionalized racism and cultural biases that affect our everyday judgments as people. And until we “go there,” for real, with the support of our political leaders, clergy, educators and industry executives, nothing will change.
The fact that we have a black president in America does not mean we live in a “post-racial” America. It is, however, my ardent hope that Ferguson will teach us, as an American family, something life changing: that stereotypes, and fear of one another, can be deadly. History has proved this with slavery, the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing and war.
It’s time for America to want better than what we saw in Ferguson. All Americans, not just black Americans, should be outraged by excessive and deadly force used against unarmed, young black men.
As President Barack Obama expressed Monday night, in our society, clearly, we still have many problems we haven’t solved, and “communities of color are not just making these problems up.” That is really the issue here. Black and white Americans still experience and see the world through two very different lenses. Unless and until we start listening, and talking to each other beyond racial stereotypes, nothing will ever change. It’s time for us to have a courageous conversation as Americans. We have to want more for each other. We have to want more for our sons.
Sophia A. Nelson is an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book The Woman Code: 20 Powerful Keys to Unlock Your Life. Follow her on Twitter.