“Look at those thugs!”: the black savage narrative is still dangerous.

Ryan Lochte is not the only one who lies about robberies. A female delivery driver reported an armed robbery at the University of Missouri on Thursday. She was arrested Friday for filing a false report in which she described the perpetrator as a black male who was  “6-feet-tall, some facial hair with a possible goatee, upper arm tattoo, late 20s, with a handgun.”  This is not the first time a black male has been falsely accused of a crime, and it proves the danger of the  thug label that continues to circulate in our society and perpetuates the black savage narrative that leads citizens and law enforcement alike to believe that black people are inherently violent.

The narrative that black men are savages by nature goes way back. On September 25, 1919, during what is known as the Red Summer, Agnes Loeback was walking back home from a movie with Milton Hoffman until a man robbed Hoffman and dragged Loeback into a ravine where he raped her.  The next day, the Omaha Bee headlined that a “black beast” had assaulted a white girl. When someone told police and a large search party led by Loeback’s brother about a “suspicious negro” living nearby, they found Will Brown. Loeback couldn’t say for sure if it was him, but Hoffman identified Brown as the man who robbed him and raped her.  A September 27th editorial in the Omaha World-Herald read,“Our women must be protected at all costs” it seemed from Brown, but a physical examination showed Brown suffered from rheumatism that rendered him unable to assault anyone.   By the next day, 5,000 angry rioters were outside of the courthouse where Brown was held. The rioters assaulted black people, and their white allies, nearby.  They almost lynched Mayor Ed Smith for refusing to release him. They wrapped a rope around Brown’s neck and dragged him around the building while beating him before hanging him.  Brown was then the target of gunfire, dragged by a stolen police car, and burned on a pyre with oil. They dragged Brown’s charred remains through the streets.  Brown’s last words were “I am innocent.”

The Scottsboro Boys were a group of nine black males accused of gang raping two white girls in Alabama on March 25, 1931 and were hauled to a jail in Scottsboro, hence their nickname. Unlike Brown, an angry mob didn’t lynch them, but they were found guilty after numerous appeals and despite evidence that the witnesses and accusers were lying. Judge James Horton, who vacated their sentence and remanded for a new trial, spoke to a witness the prosecution refused to call to the stand, Dr. M.H. Lynch. Lynch said “he was convinced that the girls were lying, had told them so to their faces, and that they merely laughed at him.” Judge Horton stated the following in his decision:

“Her manner of testifying and demeanor on the stand militate against her. Her testimony was contradictory, often evasive, and time and again she refused to answer pertinent questions. The gravity of the offense and the importance of her testimony demanded candor and sincerity. In addition to this the proof tends strongly to show that she knowingly testified falsely in many material aspects of the case. All this requires the more careful scrutiny of her evidence.”

Despite the Supreme Court finding the “Alabama system of jury selection unconstitutional,” the Scottsboro Boys weren’t pardoned until 80 years later; even though Ruby Bates, one of the accusers, recanted her testimony.

Chicago detective Jon Burge targeted and tortured around 120 black males for 20 years.  After Mayor Rahm Emanuel agreed to pay reparations to his victims, Burge called them “human vermin” and “the most violent predators on the South Side.” On November 2, 1983, Darrell Cannon suffered beatings, mock executions, and cattle prodding of his testicles at the hands of Burge’s detectives until he falsely confessed to murder. Cannon said they called him the N-word “like that was my name,” and “If I had been white, I doubt very seriously if I would’ve been treated that badly, but because of the fact I’m an Afro-American, who’s going to believe me in court? Nobody.”

The Central Park Five  were a group of teenage boys who were coerced by the New York City police department into confessing to the brutal rape of the Central Park Jogger on April 19, 1989. Their attorney, Michael Warren, said, “Convicting these boys was the easiest route to take.” Donald Trump called for the death penalty saying, “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes.”  After Matias Reyes, the true culprit, confessed to the crime, the Central Park Five went home and settled with the city for $40 million. Trump called the settlement “a disgrace” and said, “These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”

Susan Smith  accused a black man of carjacking on October 25, 1994, claiming a black male forced her out of her car at gunpoint and drove off with her two small sons in the back. By November 3rd, the police arrested her for the murder of her children after she confessed to pushing her car into the John D. Long Lake.  She was convicted on two counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Smith wrote a letter to a reporter claiming “I am not the monster society thinks I am. I am far from it” before claiming she lied because she didn’t know what to tell people who loved her kids that they would never see them again. She’s eligible for parole in 2024.

The black savage narrative doesn’t always have criminal or deadly consequences. Despite the fact that George Zimmerman left his house with a gun before he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, Martin endured the thug label. Media outlets used the word “thug” 625 times the day after Richard Sherman yelled during his post-game interview with Erin Andrews. Sherman called it the new N-word, but it’s really nothing new at all. It’s just a continuation of an old stereotype that Matt Walsh recently applied to Black Lives Matter when he accused them of rioting in Milwaukee without providing evidence that it was them.MattWalshposton8-14-16

This narrative dehumanizes black people until they are treated like animals to be feared and hated but not respected. As a result, black people are met with suspicion and assumed violent, even by law enforcement. In cases when police are clearly in the wrong, calling black people thugs and saying they have “violent tendencies” is a powerful defense mechanism. As long as they are savages beyond reason, there is no logical argument against honoring their rights or bodily integrity as human beings.  So the slightest infraction provokes manhandling. Even black women are not exempt.

Is there any merit to this narrative? Most would say that stereotypes are born from at least a sliver of truth, but one study shows that’s not the case. In fact, prejudices can cause perception of a threat in the absence of information about the group you are prejudiced toward.  Still, many people point to “black-on-black crime” as proof(a racist argument as discussed here), but statistics show that poverty in predominantly black urban neighborhoods is a factor, one that may encourage criminal activity from anyone given the same situation. That points to the disenfranchisement of black people over the generations, not some inherent violent nature.

When you consider that disenfranchisement and poverty, plus the fact that American cities are still quite segregated and white people statistically have committed crimes against each other at a similar percentage without receiving as much racialized media attention, you can see where this prejudice comes from and why it’s misplaced.  It’s easier to look at black faces and assume they are more prone to violence instead of looking at the factors that cause violent crime in a society, especially if you are likely to have little interaction with black people. That makes it easier to lobby false accusations at black people under the assumption that they will be believed.  It’s a vicious cycle, one we must break by looking at each other, regardless of race, as people of equal value and telling ourselves that mere stereotypes cannot be relied upon.  It also wouldn’t hurt if our society continued its efforts to diversify housing, schools, and employment.  The more you encounter people who are different from you, the more likely you are to see that those differences are not cause for fear.

Nor are they an incentive for scapegoating.

We are all equals, my friends.

No apologies,

G. Miller


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