Millions of Americans shrugged off their fear of the coronavirus this holiday weekend when they flocked to crowded beaches, lakes and restaurants.
But there is another type of contagion that still keeps some of White America paralyzed: Fear of black men in public spaces.
This Memorial Day weekend saw the release of two disturbing videos involving black men. One showed a white Minneapolis police officer with his knee on the neck of a black man who was gasping, “I can’t breathe.” The man later died.
In the second incident, a white woman was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park when she got into a dispute with a black man who asked her to leash her pet. A video, shot by the man, shows her vowing to call the police and saying, “I’m going to tell them there’s an African American man threatening my life.”
Both episodes came not long after the release of another video that showed Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old black man, shot to death after encountering two white armed men while jogging in Georgia.
I don’t even look at many of these videos anymore because they’re so soul-crushing. All those incidents have a depressing familiarity to many black men. It’s part of the ambient racism of our everyday lives.
“As a six-foot-three black man, it’s possible that I haven’t gone a day in the last ten years without someone showing fear in my presence,” says Shayne Lee, a professor of sociology at the University of Houston.
Black men have long been a bogeyman in White America’s collective psyche. There’s something about us that brings out the worst in many people.
Still, these recent incidents prompted me to ask questions I’ve never quite asked before.
Why are black men still so feared in 2020? And what will it take for it to stop?
Why this fear of black men persists
Ask where this fear comes from and there’s one easy answer.
White America has long associated black men with criminality and hypersexuality. It permeates our history and our art. We are Nat Turner, who terrified plantation owners when he led a 19th-century slave rebellion; we’re Bigger Thomas from Richard Wright’s “Native Son;” we’re Marlo Stanfield, that ice-cold drug dealer from HBO’s “The Wire.”
It’s why some social science experiments show that even trained police officers are biased to see black man as threats.
This fear of black men doesn’t just spring from racism. It’s psychological. There is a body of work in literature and psychology that speaks to a historical tradition where some white people – white men, in particular – project the primal aggressions that they refuse to see in themselves onto black people.
This is what author James Baldwin meant when he wrote in a 1962 essay that the racial tensions menacing America “are involved only symbolically with color.”
“These tensions are rooted in the very same depths as those from which love springs, or murder,” Baldwin wrote. “The white man’s unadmitted – and apparently, to him, unspeakable – private fears and longings are projected onto the Negro.”
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Then there is a hard answer.
The stereotype of the dangerous black man is burrowed so deep in our collective imagination that even many black Americans see black men as automatic threats.
Consider this famous statement: “There is nothing more painful to me … than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery, then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved.”
That quote came from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, one of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders, when he spoke in 1993 about crime in the black community.
Living with this fear as a black man
Lee, the University of Houston professor and author of “Tyler Perry’s America: Inside His Films,” says he’s learned how to live with what he calls the “fearful gaze.”
He says this fear of black men afflicts even black people because it is part of being human. We humans are the descendants of hunter-gatherers who survived because they were attuned to threats from those who didn’t look like them. Our brains automatically react to perceived threats before our conscious mind has tells us to slow down our thinking, he says.
That kind of intellectual knowledge, though, is little consolation when you’re facing a jumpy white police officer pointing a gun at you.
Lee says he recently started walking through a white, affluent area of Houston on his way to work. On one such stroll, a police officer pulled up and told him that the department had received three calls from worried residents wondering what he was up to.
“I can understand it even as I hate it,” Lee says of the fearful white gaze. “I’m not a masochist. I don’t enjoy it.”
There was a time that I thought if White America saw more examples of successful black men that things would change. I thought that having a president like Barack Obama would shift something in America. Perhaps it did for some. But it was astonishing how the fearful gaze of White America transformed even Obama into another black male threat who was lynched online or labeled “Primate in Chief.”
If Obama couldn’t conquer that fear, I don’t know what it will take. Sometimes I wonder whether some white Americans would be secretly happy if all the nation’s black men – except for athletes and entertainers – vanished tomorrow.
How America can fight this fear
So how do we defuse that fearful gaze? It’s a question I’ve seen black men answer in different ways.
We have some public behaviors that are almost unconscious because we no longer think of them: Never walk up too closely behind a white person in public. Cross the street if you’re approaching a white person at night so they won’t have to. And if you’re in a corporate workplace, never, ever get angry or raise your voice.
Some point to education as a solution – training people in racial bias or concepts like “white fragility.” Lee, the sociologist, says there may be little anyone can do because of how our brains have evolved to fear those we perceive as outsiders.
I believe another way to fight fear of black men is through exposure. Until more white people actually live among and befriend black people, that fear will persist. We have stories of white people who learned how to see the full humanity of black people after being forced into environments where they were “the only white person in the room.”
Some were white jazz musicians or athletes who learned what it was like to share rooms, meals and private lives with black men.
One was Bill Bradley, the former Rhodes Scholar, NBA player and US Senator who talked about how he changed after becoming one of the few whites on the New York Knicks in the 1970s.
“I better understand distrust and suspicion. I understand the meaning of certain looks and certain codes. I understand what it is to be in racial situations for which you have no frame of reference,” Bradley said in a 1991 speech to the National Press Club. “I understand the tension of always being on guard, of never totally relaxing.”
I don’t think many whites put themselves in those kind of situations. Much of America remains segregated.
Until something changes, we black men must learn to live with the fearful white gaze. We keep our voices down, tiptoe through public spaces and stifle our fear.
We try everything we can to avoid being the next black man in a viral video.