Police Shoot Dead Wounded, Innocent Black Man -- How the "White Gaze" Kills
Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/Christos Georghiou
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On Saturday, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man. Jonathan Ferrell was in a horrific car accident and ran towards three police officers seeking help, just like any reasonable person in a crisis would do.
Again, a black man in America who is interacting with the police is not given the presumption of being a full citizen, innocent until proven guilty, and perhaps in need of assistance.
For the White Gaze, "black" and "male" equals threat and violence.
This is part of a historic pattern of stereotyping and threat in the United States, one which still looms over the popular imagination in the present. There, Jonathan Ferrell, we, those of us black and male, are "giant negroes" possessed of natural ill will, malevolence, and a proclivity to kill and rape as "black brutes" who must be shot dead whenever possible.
Sometimes black men are "armed" with "dehumanizing stares". In other instances, our waving empty handed at the police is interpreted as a violent act. Cans of iced tea, bags of skittles, house keys, flashlights, and other objects are magically transformed into means for legitimating our own murder and assault by the police and White authority figures. The power of our empty hands against those armed with guns is legendary.
Apparently, unarmed black men are titans who inspire fear in the hearts of the police and White America.
The shooting of Jonathan Ferrell by police officer Randall Kerrick is not a surprise. Given America's long history of institutional violence by the State and its proxies against people of color (i.e. vigilantes such as George Zimmerman), "the system" operated as intended and designed.
As a function of internalized anti-black bias, people of color are not viewed by many whites as deserving full human empathy, respect, and dignity. In a complementary finding, research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology details how the White Gaze quite literally does not "see" people of color.
The sum effect of these processes is that black and brown folks' humanity disappearswhen viewed by and through Whiteness and "White" eyes.
Citizenship is most fundamentally an assumption of belonging, and a sense that one's human rights will be respected in a community where your safety and security is protected by the social compact. By almost all measures of income, wealth, incarceration, health outcomes, access to schooling, and equal opportunity in the labor market, people of color are systematically denied the full rights and privileges that come with (white) citizenship in the United States.
Systematic police violence against people of color is not an aberration or outlier: it is a norm. Moreover, it is part of an interlocking system of violence that black and brown folks, because they are both racialized and more likely to be poor, are uniquely subjected to in post civil rights America.
As part of a society where there is "racism without racists", and "colorblind" racism is the new racial regime, the reaction to Jonathan Ferrell's murder by the police will likely follow a predictable public script.
There will be white folks who are so deeply in denial about white privilege and White Supremacy that they will naturally find some "reasonable" explanation for what they see as a horrible mistake and aberration. Their cognitive map cannot accept that white racism killed Jonathan Ferrell because to do so would mean to question a set of deeply held and self-serving beliefs about the myth of meritocracy, and how racism no longer limits anyone's ability to succeed and achieve in the United States of America.