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Are Whites Really Physically Afraid of Black Men?

Mythical black men are convenient scapegoats in our society. But it is the oppressed, rather than the oppressor, who has reason to fear.

Photo Credit: AFP


The furor surrounding the shooting of young Trayvon Martin has refueled an American dialogue that is older than the nation itself, centering on the idea that whites are afraid of black people, especially black men. From unspoken visceral reactions to violent encounters, fear is said to drive typical white responses to a black presence. Chauncey DeVega has made some cogent points on the topic (" Face It: Trayvon Martin is Dead Because Many White People Are Afraid of Black People"). But is fear really the whole story? And who really has reason to be afraid?

I believe what some define as a "fear" many white Americans harbor is more properly defined as disrespect. From the days of Nixon's euphemistic calls for “law and order” to the Willie Horton campaign ads, right-wing politicians have long exploited an inherent societal disrespect for black folks that is hidden under the false curtain of fear. A supposed fear of black men is a convenient pretense for abuse of everything from racial privilege to police power.

What often goes unmentioned, especially in mass media, is the hesitance with which millions of black Americans navigate daily interaction with whites -- a hesitance driven not by fear, but by the assumption of our powerlessness and our invisibility. You can bet that blacks are more afraid of white men in hoods, than whites are of black men in hoods.

History, along with personal and anecdotal evidence, illustrates that whites do not necessarily physically fear black folk, or more particularly, black males. From the colonial 1620s, through the 1960s, those white Americans who could afford African slaves, or later, domestic help, trusted their staff to bathe, clothe, tutor, and nurse their infants and children, prepare family meals, and tend to their livestock. Would you hire household help who are inclined to abuse your babies, sexually molest your daughters, or spit in your stew? Black men have served as stable grooms, valets, butlers, waiters, Pullman Porters and cooks for private schools, families, upscale hotels and resorts, and passenger trains on which they waited on male and female sleepover passengers.

If physical fear was the simple answer, blacks would not have so many “It happened to you too?” dinner party conversations recounting invasive white social workers of both genders, brassy insurance salespersons, and other door-to-door activity in inner-city apartments where our lives are invaded by whites who seem perfectly comfortable just barging in. We would not share so many stories of being asked inappropriate or insulting questions by whites without the slightest remorse or reservation.

My parents live in a college community in Washington, DC. Since the 1980s, when public decorum near the campus began to erode, students have strolled across their lawn on the way home from pubs or parties, littered in their front yard, and knocked down their lawn's stone bordering wall in a vehicle. In the late '80s when there was a theater near my folks' home that hosted a few punk rock events, kids used to sit in their neighbor's front yard for hours after the concerts. None of these inconsiderations demonstrate a fear of black people, though they all speak to a disrespect for personal property and communities. So the integration-era phrase, "There goes the neighborhood" works both ways.

I have had white strangers ask me things, often crowding my personal space and loudly interrupting a conversation, in a way that hardly suggests physical intimidation. I've also heard racial slurs from whites that no cowering individual would dare utter. Even since the 1980s, I have seen both patrons and personnel in service industries disrespect my mother when whites have butted in front of her in lines waiting to be served. The pattern is always the same -- the bystanding customers rally to the defense of both the rude patron and the mistaken customer service person in a manner I doubt would occur if these self-appointed defenders imagined my mom had a shank in her handbag.

If whites simply feared blacks, or black men, a minority of Brits, Dutch, Portuguese, Belgians, or French, respectively, would never have been able to colonize and perform missionary work in the nations of Africa and the Caribbean. And where was this legendary, King Kong-metaphor,  Birth of a Nation-style fear when those bigoted terrorists in Money, Mississippi found the black community Emmit Till was visiting during the summer of 1955, entered his grandfather's home, and demanded Till's relatives wake the sleeping teenager and deliver him? In the dead of night, surrounded by negroes (switchblade toting? violence prone?), did these whites fear for their lives? Till's older relatives told the men where the boy slept, and the child was dragged out of bed. Wasn't the fear actually on the other foot?

Trayvon Martin of Sanford, Fla., was a victim of dehumanization more than fear. Since most blacks arrived on American shores to fulfill roles of servitude, brown skin has carried with it the veneer of inequality. The stereotyping of black males as dangerous "others" has not been borne out in their comportment even when they gather en masse, as they did during the 1963 March on Washington and 1995’s Million Man March. In the earlier example, all Washington, DC liquor stores were closed as a precaution. In the more recent case, law enforcement surveillance by air and land were the order of the day. Yet not a flea was harmed on either day.

Everyone has different fears and red flags, but in general, it is the oppressed or objectified groups that fear their oppressor more than the reverse. I recall vividly how a female colleague explained to me how physically intimidated women feel in not knowing which sidewalk cat callers and other verbal harassers will prove violent or threatening. The sense of the possibility of physical harassment is something that women carry with them in public situations as a matter of course. Catcalls are not experienced as "compliments" when the person making them brings an attitude of disrespect.

Those twin demons, disrespect and dehumanization, are both highly prevalent in Western racial psyche. When U.S. Representative Joe Wilson yelled “You lie,” interrupting President Obama during a joint session of Congress in September 2009, he was motivated by a disrespect rarely associated with the presidency in such circumstances, not by fear.

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