Are Whites Really Physically Afraid of Black Men?
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Two months earlier, when jet-lagged Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested outside his Cambridge, Mass. home by Sergeant James Crowley, Crowley had nothing to fear from Gates. But Gates had plenty to fear from the armed and duly sworn Crowley. Black Americans, even those who are 6-foot-tall teenagers, own no tanks, atomic bombs, and govern no prisons, police forces armies, reserves, or chemical weaponry with which to affect a hostile takeover of the American government, even one snatched purse at a time.
From the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case to more recent lies perpetrated by child murderer Susan Smith and 2008 McCain volunteer Ashley Todd, who falsely reported a mugging, much of the paranoia about predatory black males has been unfounded. The old “black man attacked me” ruse has triggered many a community sweep. From the 1900s through the 1940s, entire American cities have exploded into race riots based on similar rumors. But you'd be hard-pressed to find examples of major American urban uprisings that were actually instigated by angry black males.
From the 1920s through the 1970s, when migration patterns changed the racial face of urban America, black males from Boston to Oakland were traditionally harassed, asked to display draft cards and other form of identification, and often tossed on police squad car hoods and frisked by occupying police forces who didn't display timidity. In those days, a pocket knife, much less a handgun, had a very short shelf life in the black community. It wasn't simply fear that drove what the Black Panther Party likened to Gestapo tactics.
In the 1980s, fear of rampaging, “ wilding” black males was hyped in the media. Stories of open-air crack cocaine merchants armed with illegal assault weapons flooded the airwaves. You would think that at any moment, young black males would turn these weapons on whites in some Malcolm X film-influenced, gangsta rap-inspired retaliation for slavery and Jim Crow. But if anything, it was the black middle-aged and senior residents of those communities who feared those heavily armed boys, and hunkered in their homes, nostalgic for the days when neighbor admonished neighbor, including other people’s children. These citizens sometimes shirked community watch opportunities and volunteer neighborhood foot patrols in favor of their own safety. Rather than shoot the offending and intimidating youngsters in an ultimate act of dehumanization, those elders peeked through their curtains and longed for the times when young men treated them with respect.
If whites were as afraid of black men as we are asked to believe, then I would not, as a longtime commuter, have witnessed so many white subway passengers who have bumped, brushed past without apology, or opened their newspapers directly in the faces of black fellow riders. The truth is that in such situations, most black Americans are simply too invisible to fear, as innocuous and inconsequential as they were on early episodes of "Mad Men." A harmless ethnic blur.
Whites have little historic reason to fear the repercussions of rudeness, or even violent attacks on black men. The terrorist night riding, paddy rolling, and senseless police murders have been committed on the other side of the ledger. The Yusuf Hawkins, Rodney Kings, Amadou Diallos, Jena 6s, Sean Bells, and Trayvon Martins are black. The media and law enforcement would do well to be more attentive to a justified trepidation black Americans feel around some whites. This eggshell walk is evident every day in retail establishments, body language, excessive politeness, and even nightly travel routes.
Mythical monstrous black men have provided convenient scapegoats and false leads for criminal culprits and dirty cops. But black men experience a profound lack of respect that shapes our attitudes and behavior. Usually it manifests itself nonviolently, and one never knows. Sometimes it is fatal. Trayvon Martin, with his Skittles and iced tea, was not a physical threat. He was viewed as less than human. And now he is dead. Try carrying that thought around when you ride the subway at night.