Recently, a friend asked me, “Why has there been such an increase in unarmed black people being killed by the police?” While my friend was genuinely curious, let me unpack the problem with that question. It naively implies that racial tensions have somehow escalated, that there have been more incidents of violence towards blacks in recent years, and that there was a time when the killing of unarmed blacks was rare. These assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. In actuality, what has changed is not the number of unarmed black people being killed, but the number of killings caught on video. Sadly, in America, the killing of unarmed black people by the police has been fairly commonplace for two hundred years.
In the past, these killings were nearly always justified with the blame laid at the feet of the dead black person. However, even in recent years and with damning video evidence, public outrage, long investigations and occasional trials, most police officers are cleared and acquitted. The officer gets away with murder. Each time this happens, people shake their heads in bewilderment, confused about how killings we’ve watched on video could prove justifiable. Yet the explanation for these exonerations isn’t mysterious. It is the expected outcome of a system designed to justify the killing of black people.
Let me explain. In justifying the police shootings of unarmed black people, courts have consistently set a low bar. Based on rulings by the United States Supreme Court, if the police officer was threatened, using their weapon to defend themselves or others is considered legally justifiable. Unfortunately, a primary factor in determining the legitimacy of a threat is the state of mind of the officer. If the officer says they felt threatened, this is usually accepted as compelling evidence of a threat and justification for their actions.
In other words, using your weapon to defend yourself and kill an unarmed black person is only justifiable if there is a legitimate threat. How do we test the legitimacy of a threat? We ask the officer who used their weapon to kill an unarmed black person if they perceived a threat. If they say they felt threatened, most courts conclude their use of their weapon was defensible. Once we understand this circular logic, we can see why so few police officers are found guilty of murder or manslaughter. Unless the judge and jury find the perception of threat unreasonable, the police officer is absolved of any crime.
Here is where the flaws in the system should be obvious. Most of the review boards, prosecutors, judges and juries being asked to determine if “the perception of threat was reasonable” are predominantly white. They are people, who whether they acknowledge it or not, also feel threatened by the presence of black people. When a black person approaches them, knocks on their door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters their normally white world, they too respond with fear and anxiety. Having experienced many of these moments of perceived threat, white people are predisposed to believe that the officer felt threatened. They can sympathize with the officer and not with the victim.
Almost instinctively, most white Americans fear black Americans.
This wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, white people did not see black people as a threat. They saw them as property. They bought and sold them. Raped, whipped and killed them. They forced them to work long hours. Black people were no more threatening than farm animals. As long as they were disciplined and domesticated, black people weren’t dangerous. A single white person could keep dozens of black people cowed and docile. If one slave misbehaved, they were quickly and severely punished. If they ran away, their family paid the consequences. If black slaves had been considered threatening, people wouldn’t have purchased them by the millions.
Indeed, in the late 1700s, whites were so confident of black inferiority and submissiveness that the French colony of Saint Dominigue had 40,000 white people controlling, enslaving and brutalizing nearly 500,000 black people on sugar plantations. In those years, the lands we now call Haiti were considered some of the richest real estate in the world. The French economy, like the American economy, was built upon this foundation of safe and free labor. That all changed in 1791.
In that year, the slaves of Saint Dominigue, led by Toussaint Louverture, overthrew their enslavers in a bloody revolution that killed thousands of whites and blacks and established the first black democracy in the world. Though Louverture’s accomplishments have been largely ignored by white historians, what he created at the close of the 18th century is as historically significant as the French and American revolutions. Over the course of the next ten years, he and his armies would defeat one British and two French armies – the very crème of the European white society.
While few white Americans know of Louverture and the Haitian revolution, this event from two hundred years ago is directly connected to the present day fears of white Americans. In the years following the Haitian revolution, many of the white people who escaped from Haiti came to Charleston and New Orleans with their stories of black retribution. They came to a nation where many Southern counties had more black residents than white residents. Their message that black slaves were dangerous resonated deeply.
The events in Haiti led to two very different responses by white people. In Europe, white people moved to end the slave trade and eventually outlaw slavery. In America, white people passed draconian laws to control and punish the slightest act of disobedience or resistance on the part of black slaves. White Americans, rather than seeing the similarities between their revolution from European dominance and the revolution of the Haitian blacks, responded to the righteous retribution of black slaves with even more brutalization.
This is the irony. White fear of black people is rooted in the real fears of 19th century white Americans. While the white American ethos celebrates the throwing off of British shackles to demand equality and justice, our national history is much different. In the 1800s, in response to the Haitian revolution, Americans doubled down on injustice and oppression. In this moment of existential reckoning, white Americans ignored what we held to be self-evident and – for the next sixty years – responded to the injustice of slavery with increased violence and exploitation. No wonder our fears increased. If the French enslavers in Haiti deserved their fate, what did we deserve?
In many ways, the history of racial relations in America has been a continuation of the vicious cycle that began in the early 1800s. White Americans, knowing what they were doing was evil, continued to oppress black people. Afraid of the consequences of this evil behavior, they attempted to alleviate their fears by rigidly controlling, intimidating, diminishing, discriminating and – when all else failed – eliminating black people. All of which increased the guilt and fears of white Americans. This is the story of American slavery, of the KKK, of Jim Crow laws, of lynching, of the mass incarceration of black men and our present plague of unarmed black people being killed by police officers. At some deep level, white Americans fear a long delayed retribution.
This is why many police officers feel threatened, but it is also why most of us are fearful and anxious when a black person approaches us, knocks on our door, steps into the elevator or otherwise enters our normally white world. We are afraid of them because they are evidence that we are not who we claim to be, that our highest principles have been fraudulent, that we did not hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There is no greater fear than having your hypocrisy exposed.
Unfortunately, until white Americans are prepared to fully acknowledge the truth of our history, the depth of the injury we have done to black people and our continued fearful and violent response to the slightest perceived threat, our fears will remain. The only way to truly alleviate our fear is to end the behaviors that make those fears inevitable.
This is why we quake when black women stand before us and call out the names of those who have been killed. This is why we tremble when blacks take to the streets to protest that Black Lives Matter. This is why we respond to the protestors in Ferguson with police officers in armored cars and riot gear. It is not because black people are doing us violence. It is because we know – if black people did – it would be justified.
This is where we are. After hundreds of years of enslavement, brutalization, oppression, discrimination and wanton violence, when a police officer kills an unarmed black person, we justify it as the legitimate response to a perceived threat. We seldom acknowledge that the perceived threat might not be rooted in the actions of the black person, but rooted in our deepest guilt and fear. Instead, as we have done for centuries, white Americans continue to blame the black people we brutalize for the fears we have. about them.