Yesterday I listened to an NPR interview with Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who regularly sued the Los Angeles Police Department in the 1990s because of its treatment of minorities, then subsequently worked with the department to improve police-community relations. She interviewed a lot of cops, and she came to the conclusion that a lot of them had been worked up into a state of absolute terror:
Cops can get into a state of mind where they're scared to death. When they're in that really, really frightened place they panic and they act out on that panic. I have known cops who haven't had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren't overtly racist. They weren't consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn't realize that they needed an outlet to talk.And this is a common feeling in the white population, as Adam Serwer notes:
They would say things like, "Ms. Rice I'm scared of black men. Black men terrify me. I'm really scared of them. Ms. Rice, you know black men who come out of prison, they've got great hulk strength and I'm afraid they're going to kill me. Ms. Rice, can you teach me how not to be afraid of black men." I mean this is cops who are 6'4". You know, the cop in Ferguson was 6'4" talking about he was terrified. But when cops are scared, they kill and they do things that don't make sense to you and me.
... nearly half of whites believe "many" or "almost all" black men are violent. Whites overestimate the amount of crime, in particular violent crime, involving blacks. Whites are also more likely to ascribe supernatural physical abilities to black people, in particular the ability to resist physical pain, a stereotype that harkens back to slavery. Black children like Tamir Rice are "more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime."(Rice, who was shot carrying a toy gun, was twelve, but the cops thought he was twenty.)
The usual subject of this blog is the political system and the way right-wing rhetoric shapes it. To me, the white belief that blacks are all-powerful supervillains is reminiscent of what we hear on a regular basis from right-wingers about liberals: that they have a relentless desire to commit evil acts and a superhuman ability to do the awful things they want to do. We hear this about undocumented immigrants, who are believed by much of the right to be engaging in an unrestrained orgy of criminality here in America. We hear this about Islamic radicals -- we can't possibly allow Guantanamo prisoners to set foot on the U.S. mainland, even if they're headed for the most secure prisons, because they're the most hate-filled people who ever lived and their ability to wreak havoc is limitless.
I think the evil-black-superman myth is the template for all of this.
I've long felt that, since the days of Reagan, conservatives have thrived by modifying the "Southern strategy" demonization of blacks -- the demons now include Democrats, liberals, college professors, Hollywood stars, feminists, gay people, immigrants, and other groups. The rhetoric frequently circles back to race, of course -- especially, needless to say, while we have a black president -- but the same basic anger is stoked when the top Democrat is Bill Clinton or Nancy Pelosi.
I'm sticking with that theory. Race hate is the root of this, and often enough we get it in pure form. But the right can create other all-powerful evil demons as well. We'll see that again before you know it. And no, I have no idea how to diminish the visceral appeal of the idea that some people are just supernaturally evil.