Saturday, December 06, 2014


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.

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.
And this is a common feeling in the white population, as Adam Serwer notes:
... 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.


Ten Bears said...

Fear. Adolscent fairy tales to explain away the dark, keep the bed dry at night. Facilitated down through the centuries by religion (red/black "demons") and greatly enhanced with advent in the nineteen-thirties of mass media. None of this is new. Hitler, and Machaivili, though laughing uproureously in hell, were really rather minor characters in a far grander game.

Victor said...

FOX and radical talk radio have accomplished far, far, more than what the feared Communist "Fifth Columnists" could have even dreamed of!

Ken_L said...

If you are a white American, you are part of an enormously privileged section of the global population. You can tell yourself you deserve it by inventing all kinds of myths about your exceptionalism and unique virtue and being a light to the rest of the world and so on, but deep down you're not convinced. You know you're just lucky.

And you are terrified that "they" know it too, and they're gonna come and take all your nice stuff for themselves.

mlbxxxxxx said...

Fear really does seem like almost a necessary ingredient for conservatism. Or perhaps it is only an inevitability of the mindset. Even the "saner" conservatives, e.g., Andrew Sullivan, are prone to panic.

squiregeek said...

Scared of black men out of prison? Why were they there in the first place? Racial profiling? Why is it that blacks are disproportionately imprisoned? Could it be they're targeted?

Assuming black men are dangerous is the definition of racism. Live with it.

Palli said...

I agree with all of this.

I want to add another fear though. I think the next rung up the Law Enforcement ladder has additional fear. DAs fear cops. The fear of retaliation while the fear of non-cooperation is a banal fear. DAs know what could be unleashed against them personally if they don't play the cop dance card.

For so many prosecuting lawyers to make such convoluted decisions basically against the rules of law means more than racism. Powers That Be have the control of African Americans pretty well established, besides, what can they do? But cops, well cops have the guns & and much more.

Joey_Blau said...

In NYC I read stories of people getting beaten and robbed and old ladies getting their arms broken by a mugger.. and the predators are almost always black. Sometimes Hispanic but that is usually for drug crimes. Strong arm robberies and street level mugging are done by black kids.. and girls can be especially tough .. look out when they get out of schools.

Otoh attacks on LBGT are mostly white frat boys... when they are not punching out each other. Also crimes against property when they smash things up.

And then you have the biggest theives of all.. the bankers and they are almost always white!!

Dark Avenger said...

This was written 50 years ago:

Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.

Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:

How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.

Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:

As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.