A version of this article was previously published at Huffington Post. It has been republished here as part of a 5-part series for Black History Month.
Ask most White anti-racism activists how they got involved in anti-racism activism and they will probably tell you about seeing the police kill a Black man on TV or the internet. Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Walter Scott. Alton Sterling. These are just a few of the high profile police killings in recent years.
For me, it was Philando Castile. I had been involved in anti-racism work before Castile was killed by a police officer, but seeing that murder had a profound impact on me. It prompted me to take up a vigil outside my Unitarian church with a Black Lives Matter sign on Sunday mornings, while church services were going on, for several weeks in the winter. Standing in the cold while passing drivers yelled at me was all I could think of to do with my outrage.
I have a confession to make. I was raised to be afraid of Black men. This was communicated in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from my sweet-as-pie grandmother whispering the word “Black” like she was afraid one of “them” would hear her, to the myriad ways our media, from entertainment to the news, portray Black men as dangerous.
This fear of Black men was perpetuated by unfamiliarity. I grew up in the rural Midwest, in a middle class family. The neighborhoods I lived in and the schools I went to were almost entirely White. I interacted with Black people only in superficial ways in public. And except for my best friend in second grade, I had no Black friends. Though I was taught to be “colorblind” and to abhor (overt) racism, I had very little meaningful contact with Black people. As a result of this combination of racist messaging and unfamiliarity, I developed a racist fear of Black men.
It’s shameful. I would have denied it if anyone accused me of it. But it’s true. It’s real. And it’s not just me. Studies have shown that Black men are generally perceived as more threatening than White men, even when the only difference is the color of their skin. At the same time, the reality is that it is Black men who are really in danger. Black men are in much more danger around White people, than White people are around them. This is becoming overwhelmingly clear as video after video of police shooting Black men is released.
Philando Castile was shot and killed by a police officer, Jeronimo Yanez. I believe Officer Yanez shot Castile because he was afraid, and I believe Officer Yanez was afraid because Castile was Black.
The video of the shooting of Philando Castile by a Minnesota police officer has now been released, just days after a jury found the officer not guilty of second degree murder. It is a very disturbing video, but you should watch it. Here’s a summary of what happened:
- Officer Jeronimo Yanez pulls over a vehicle doing driven by Philando Castile and occupied by Diamond Reynolds and her 4-year-old daughter.
- The officer tells Castile he has a brake light out.
- Officer Yanez then asks Castile for his license and insurance. Castile hands him the proof of insurance.
- Castile tells the officer that he has a firearm on him. (He was lawfully licensed to carry the gun.) Note, this is exactly what we are told we are supposed to do if we are pulled over by the police and have a licensed firearm in the car.
- The officer tells Castile, “OK, don’t reach for it then. … Don’t pull it out. … Don’t pull it out!” We can’t see what happened inside the car, but Castile was unbuckling his seat belt so he could get his wallet. What’s hard to hear on the video is that, in response to the officer’s exclamations, Castile says “I’m not pulling it out”, and Castile’s girlfriend, Reynolds, also says, “He’s not pulling it out.” It’s important to remember here that the officer had asked Castile for his driver’s license, which is why he was reaching for it.
- Within five seconds of Castile telling the officer that he had a gun, the officer is shooting at Castile.
- The officer fires seven times at point blank range and hits Castile five times.
- Castile moans, “I wasn’t reaching for it.”
- Castile dies from the gunshot wounds.
Now, superficially, this appears to be a terrible case of miscommunication. Officer Yanez asked Castile for his license. When Castile advised the officer that he had a gun, the officer then told Castile not to pull the gun out. Castile told the officer he was not pulling his gun out and reached instead for his wallet. The officer mistook Castile reaching for his wallet as reaching for his gun and shot him.
However, there’s obviously more going on here. It is clear that the officer overreacted. He overreacted by shooting Castile, who was simply following the officer’s direction in retrieving his driver’s license. He overreacted by firing seven times. And he overreacted by shooting at Castile when a 4-year-old girl was in the line of fire, sitting in the passenger-side back seat. The fact that the officer missed twice at point blank range shows that he was not in a state of mind to be shooting at anyone.
Now, why did the officer overreact? To answer this, we have to go back to the reason why Officer Yanez pulled Castile over in the first place. Although he told Castile he has a broken taillight, the real reason the officer pulled Castile over was because he was Black.
We know this, because Officer Yanez said so. In an interview with investigators after the shooting, the officer he was looking for suspects in a robbery. Although he claimed that Castile matched the description of one of the suspects, the only description Officer Yanez could recall was that the man was African American, with long hair and “a kind of like a wide set nose.” This description is so generic, it’s obvious the only relevant piece of information which Officer Yanez could have relied on was that Castile was Black.
(The fact that Officer Yanez was a person of color does not change this. The racist fear of Black men affects people of color, even Black people, as well as White people. What makes the fear racist, is not the skin color of the people who have the fear, but the skin color of the people who we are taught to be afraid of.)
I believe this is why the jury acquitted Officer Yanez: They sympathized with his fear. But his fear was not reasonable; it was racist. That same fear has been killing and enslaving Black men for centuries and it is continuing to kill and enslave Black men. That fear of Black men is the same fear which killed Emmitt Till 60 years ago. It is the same fear which was fostered by slave owners in antebellum period, by Jim Crow lawmakers after that, by opponents of Civil Rights in the 20th century. And it is the same fear which props up systemic racism today. And we need to confront this fear if we are ever going to overcome it.
Now, at this point, you may be thinking that statistics support your fear of Black men. You may be thinking that Black people are statistically more likely to be violent or to commit murder. And then I point you to the statistics which show that the vast majority of homicide victims are killed by people of their own race, both Black and White people. If you’re White, you are many times more likely to be hurt or killed by a White man than a Black man.
But really, I don’t think statistics are enough, because I don’t believe that the fear of Black men is rational. When I see a Black man walking down the street toward me and my heart skips a beat, it’s not because false statistics are running through my mind. It’s because I’ve been socialized to believe in a myth, the myth of the Black male predator, a myth which dates all the way back to slavery. And that myth unconsciously colors all my perceptions.
Now, accurate statistics can help us overcome this myth. But I don’t think there is any substitute for White people actually spending time with Black people in Black spaces. White people like me will never get over our fear of Black people until White people spend enough time in spaces where we are the minority, and we discover that those space are safe for us in a way that White spaces are not for Black people. Only then will Black men stop being a bogeyman for White people.
It may seem strange to think of an emotion like fear as being racist. We tend to think of racism as something more active than fear. We tend to equate it with overt acts of discrimination. Rarely do we talk about fear itself as being racist. After all, someone who is afraid is the victim, right?
But our fear of becoming victims is actually turning other people into real victims. Officer Yanez’s fear made a victim out of Philando Castile (as well as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter). But Officer Yanez was not alone in his fear. The fear that we feel is part of the fear that killed Philando Castile. And that means that we are responsible too.
About the Author
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which works to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, and A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.