The quick transformation of Michael Brown from victim to demonized thug was accomplished with such ease as to dispel any notions of a post-racial America. Not that this writer needed any further evidence of the immense power of distorted racial stereotypes that remain at the core of how people of color are viewed. It is the feeling of how powerful stereotyped images and characterizations remain that left me so cold and isolated in despondency.
Native-Americans have no public image for white America to see, since they are ignored so completely that the building blocks for a more forthright and honest portrayal of their lives and existence are still missing. The genocide practiced upon Indians over centuries of United States history never make it into the consciousness of white Americans. The old stereotypical images of First-Americans as people in tepees, wearing feathered head bonnets and carrying tomahawks bear little connection with the real lives of these people. The dehumanization of Native-Americans has wiped away their true humanity and personhood making the Indian mascots, logos, and names whites adhere to them a kind of social genocide in the world they inhabit now.
Asian-Americans, Latinos, people of Middle-Eastern extraction, all have deeply imbedded stereotypes that operate powerfully on the minds of white people. It was the conception and perception of whites as they came to America in the seventeenth century that associated whiteness with superiority, authority, power, acceptance, and virtue. All darker colors were to be connected, and were connected deeply in the social fabric of the nation, as inferior, unintelligent, lazy, evil and criminal; somehow beyond the pale of racial and social brotherhood and sisterhood.
So it does not surprise me that throughout the drama played out in Ferguson, Missouri stereotypical images of black America are the controlling influences over how white America responded to the killing of an unarmed black teenager, and to how they will continue to respond to it. The real Michael Brown is not seen by white conservatives who have the greatest problems with racial stereotyping.
Simon Balto, a historian and scholar living in Chicago, reflected on this problem in a 2012 essay in The Progressive magazine. His observations of the racial landscape and how whites often hold such a distorted view of people of color “are presented as caricatures, human beings whose humanity seems somehow aspirational and less complete, people whose role in the social circle is that of ‘taking’ rather than contributing.”
The controlling factor in the Brown case has in reality been how whites in the community and around the nation see and conceptualize what being a black man means. Their stereotypical images of black men as dangerous, threatening, criminal beings too often control their reaction to those people as they interact with them both in reality and perception.
Stephanie Fryberg, a social psychologist at the University of Arizona, did groundbreaking research into how stereotypical images of American Indians impact on the social self-esteem of Native-American students who go to school facing stereotypical Indian mascots, logos, and images. These stereotypes were found to be, and conclusively are incredibly controlling and powerful. White students were found to have their distorted conceptualizations affirmed, and Native-Americans tied to the yoke of these negative images and perceptions.
Fryberg had been looking to connect traditional stereotypes of blacks, and other people of color to what was being experienced by Native-Americans. Since 1992 when her landmark study was published and peer reviewed, 300 further studies pursuing the same line of investigation have all strongly confirmed the veracity of the research. This should not be unexpected as decades of previous research of racial stereotypes of other people of color showed essentially the same responses and damaging impact racial stereotypes have on both the dominant white majority, and the racial minority demonized, marginalized, and rejected.
It’s important to understand that the reverse is also true. Whites are not racially prejudiced because they have white skin. It is because they and countless ancestors have constructed the very conceptualizations and perceptions of people who did not look like them.
So when national leaders rightly argue for police to wear body cameras, that they should be trained to distinguish between distorted and prejudiced conceptualizations of people of color, and the reality of their lives, it begins to sink in that racial prejudice, even animus, are so deeply embedded into many centuries of the American collective social consciousness, even the unconscious, that much needs to be done that is in substance much deeper and more fundamental then what has been suggested as a remedy.
Unequal treatment of black men demanding justice is so ubiquitous, that we have an immense amount of thinking, and experiencing the full dimensions and diversity of our common humanity than simply saying I am not a racist. Racial stereotypes operate more insidiously than that. American Essayist James Baldwin writing in his The Fire Next Time noted and highlighted how deep the rot went. He tried to tell America that while political and legal measures for equality of the 1960’s however important would not touch on the race prejudice that lurked beyond and deep within.
So measuring the truth of Ferguson, it becomes manifest that our post-racial America is as yet a dream; a very dangerous dream that blocks social equality and social justice for black America—for colored America
It also creates a social and racial minefield that all Americans must tread upon. It negatively impacts upon people of color since the dominant white narrative of skin pigmentation and its meaning are so skewed against them. Can black men get justice? The answer will depend on actions and how we think about and conceptualize race itself. Where and how can that change?