Black Skin in America

New Yorker
Cover of The New Yorker’s upcoming issue.

Black skin has long been the source of abject fear in American society; it’s practically woven into our fabric. For some, there is this belief that with enough distance from history and the happenings of the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, we’ve somehow “bleached” this fear from our fabric. If anything, we’ve only woven over it a new tapestry that deludes us into thinking it doesn’t exist. In other words, there are those that think the way to solve racial tensions is to be colorblind. To pretend as if they do not see race. To pretend as if race does not matter. But for far too many black men and black women, race does matter because their black skin is still a source of fear within our society, particularly among the police.

On CNN, Don Lemon was talking with a group of young black men and they spoke to the harassment they face from the police. Cops always thinking they are peddling drugs or some other such offense that necessitates a talking to, a pat down, a this or a that. One young man talked about how he had just stepped out of his apartment and saw a police car go by. He said he thought the officer would come back. Sure enough the officer did and wanted to know if this young man had something to do with drugs in another apartment complex.

Solomon Alexander speaks to this abject fear in the St. Louis-Dispatch:

No matter what evidence comes to light in the Michael Brown case, one question will undoubtedly be addressed: Was Officer Darren Wilson afraid for his life? Those who support him will believe he was. I mean, who wouldn’t be afraid of a 6-4, 260-pound-plus black man running at them full-speed? Imagine what he would do if he got his hands on the officer.

These thoughts transform black men into the monsters found in horror films. In the presence of fearful whites, we suddenly develop superhuman strength, world-class speed and near invincibility. We can walk through a hail of bullets. The only way to stop us is to put us down permanently.

He speaks about how within the black community, black boys are raised differently; they are raised to be aware of white people’s fear. Don’t be in a big group. Don’t talk too loudly. If you’re stopped, keep your hands visible and make the officer feel comfortable. Those sorts of things. He was pulled over recently for a broken taillight and these sorts of thoughts went through his head. He said:

I’m a big, black man. That’s all an officer can see. He can’t see my master’s degree or the fact that my undergrad is from a private, Catholic university. He doesn’t know I’ve been married almost 14 years and my only child is by my wife.

Black men have to constantly prove, as Solomon says, that they are not animals. The reason Michael Brown’s death resonates within the black community and manifests such rage is that many blacks know it just as easily could and may one day be them lying dead in the street with a pool of their blood trailing their dead body.

He gets it. Yes, black men do commit crime. Sometimes they did “do it.” But he continues:

We also ask why Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Oscar Grant just couldn’t be arrested. Why couldn’t they have their day in court?

Police were somehow able to arrest Jared Lee Loughner after he opened fire on a sitting U.S. congresswoman and killed six people, including an 8-year-old. James Holmes was still wearing tactical gear behind an Aurora, Colo., movie theater after shooting 70 people, killing 12 of them. He was somehow taken into custody and is standing trial. Some of the most dangerous people in the history of our nation had their day in court.

Gacy, Manson, McVeigh, Dahmer, Gein and Bundy combined to kill literally hundreds of people and commit the most gruesome crimes any of us have ever heard of. All of them were successfully taken into custody. Not Michael Brown, though. He was too dangerous.

Black skin is dangerous. However, I can already see the response to Solomon’s post. The stammering, “Bu-bu-but, what about X, Y and Z.” Or some such. It’s nonsense, though. Solomon, as a black man, is speaking to his experiences as a black man. That I, as a white person, haven’t had similar experiences does not mean that Solomon didn’t have those experiences. As Steve Horwitz said:

“Astonishing to watch white guys use their personal experiences with race as part of an argument claiming that a black man’s personal experience with race isn’t a valid form of argumentation.”


This idea that black men are especially monstrous and animal-like runs alongside nicely with the Michael Brown case and the belief that he “charged” at Wilson. Consider this from Jim Pinkerton at Fox News’ Happening Now show:

“We’ll know more with a blood test. If he was high on some drug, angel dust or PCP or something…it’s entirely possible you could take a lot more than six bullets and keep charging.”

But of course, toxicology showed he had only marijuana in his system, but no matter, he’s still dangerous. As Jacob Sullum says at Forbes, “This kind of fear mongering is also regrettable because it harks back to a shameful history of warnings about people with dark skin and drug-infused blood.”

Sullum points out that a similar defense was used in the beating of Rodney King, that he was on PCP, but toxicology reports showed he wasn’t. It didn’t stop Sgt. Stacey Koon from testing that he was “Hulk-like.” Which is all besides the point, again, as Sullum points, the academic medical science literature indicates that the stereotype of PCP as creating Hulk-like individuals prone to violence simply isn’t true. He finishes:

The message of these false narratives is pretty clear: Illegal drugs are scary, especially when mixed with the blood of African-American men.

Black skin, black blood, it’s all dangerous. Mariame Kaba backs this up in the Washington Post, saying, “His [referring to Michael Brown] dangerous, “weaponized” black skin means that he can only be an aggressor and never a victim. The bodies of Michael Brown and other black youth therefore become human magnets for police bullets.”


Let’s get back to what black parents tell their black children growing up, as Solomon touched upon. From Jazmine Hughes at Gawker:

Every black male I’ve ever met has had this talk, and it’s likely that I’ll have to give it one day too. There are so many things I need to tell my future son, already, before I’ve birthed him; so many innocuous, trite thoughts that may not make a single difference. Don’t wear a hoodie. Don’t try to break up a fight. Don’t talk back to cops. Don’t ask for help. But they’re all variations of a single theme: Don’t give them an excuse to kill you.

Emphasis mine. Certainly, I think it’s a shared idea to “use manners” when dealing with the police, but the experiences are different and the likely potentially deadly outcomes are certainly different. She then offers a slew of emails from black parents and black youth talking about how they raised or were raised as people with black skin to a society that still fears it. I’m not going to copy and paste all of them here, but this one in particular stuck out at me:

It was the last day of school, and I was walking with my dad, preparing to leave. Suddenly, he paused, looked at me intently and said, “Son, you’re a black male, and that’s two strikes against you.” To the general public, anything that I did would be perceived as malicious and deserving of severe punishment and I had to govern myself accordingly.

I was seven years old. (From Robert Stephens, 26, Kansas City, Missouri)

Of course, again, the stammering, “Bu-bu-but,” will occur here. They’re just fear-mongering. They’re just playing the victim card. They’re just assuming society is out to get them. It’s unfortunate.

Ferguson Love

Going back to the lived experiences of blacks, which more often than not, falls on deaf ears from white people, consider how whites and blacks in Ferguson view Ferguson.

That above sign is part of a campaign to ensure people don’t see Ferguson merely through the lens of the Michael Brown shooting:

Behind the signs and T-shirts is Friends of the City of Ferguson, a group started by former Mayor Brian Fletcher, who held office from 2005 to 2011. “You look at Wikipedia and go to the ‘History’ and Michael Brown is the whole thing,” he said over the phone, “We’re trying to show what Ferguson is really like.” So far, Fletcher and the group have sold more than 3,000 T-shirts and raised more than $13,000, which they plan to use to help local businesses repair damage to their stores and stay in the area.

Likewise, there’s been a growing campaign for Officer Darren Wilson:

Along with the rapid progress of this group’s campaign is the explosive growth of the Internet fundraiser for Officer Darren Wilson. Thousands of donors have given more than $220,000 to campaign for Office Wilson, who is on paid administrative leave. The comments in support of Wilson range from banal (“This is for Darren Wilson to use in any way he sees fit”) to racially charged (“All self-respecting whites have a moral responsibility to support our growing number of martyrs to the failed experiment called diversity”) to outright racist.

Racism Racism1 Racism2

That $220,000 far outpaces the money raised for the Brown family.

Take this quote from an NBC News profile on how whites and blacks within Ferguson view what has happened:

“The people I associate with are people like me, and we’re what you call colorblind,” said Kathy Noelker, 69, a white woman who has lived in Ferguson her entire life.

There’s that lovely word: colorblind. Then this perspective:

“Ferguson is all separation,” says Donnell Johnson, 44, a black Emerson Electric technician who moved to North County 25 years ago and to Ferguson in 2002 to escape blight in St. Louis. “We live amongst each other but we do not associate with one another at all,” Johnson said. “We all stay in our own place.”

If blacks in Ferguson want to see more representation on school boards, city government and on the police force, why don’t they just vote? That’s what white Ferguson residents say. That’s what I’ve heard others say.

Missouri State Senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson and is black, pushed back against the idea that the problem is African-Americans who aren’t stepping up to the tables of power. She tells stories of well-qualified black applicants for jobs at the Ferguson police department who were never interviewed.

“When you don’t try to integrate yourself into this diverse city,” she said of many white residents, “you get real comfortable and blind. There is inequality in Ferguson. It’s in education, in economics, and now we see it in expressing our First Amendment rights.”


Finally, there’s Touré in the Washington Post talking about the “perfect black victim” and how we seem to “thuggify” victims:

It’s as if a black person must be a perfect victim to escape being thuggified, an angel with an unblemished history in order to warrant justice. The burden of the perfect victim suggests that only impeccable résumés may qualify for protection under the law and the support of the community.

But it doesn’t matter whether Brown was an angel. He was young and growing and human, and he made mistakes. That’s okay. The real question is not: Was Brown a good kid? The real question is: How are police officers supposed to treat citizens? California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has put it well: “Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White.”

Too late. He’s a thug. Fuck him, right? If I died tomorrow, it’s likely family members and friends would say glowing things about me, but if others dug hard enough, they easily could turn up stories that made me look bad. They’re there. Whether in the right context or not, they could make me look bad. But I wouldn’t be a thug. I’d just be a white dude that died prematurely. If I was black, I could be brandished a thug and therefore, whatever happened to me was probably deserved.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s