What McKinney Says About White American Fear of Black Citizens
On Sunday, much of America watched the YouTube video of the latest cell-phone footage of a violent encounter between a white police officer and a black person. This time, the encounter occurred after a teenage pool party in McKinney, Texas, about an hour’s drive north of Dallas. According to local police, officers received a complaint about a disturbance at the community pool in Craig Ranch North, a relatively affluent, racially diverse private subdivision. Some of the teens apparently did not “live in the area or have permission to be there,” according to the complaint. In the video, we see one police officer calmly ask a group of mostly black teens not to run away from the scene. Moments later, we see another officer, Eric Casebolt, barrel into the scene, yell profane directions at the teens, and tackle a 14-year-old black girl. At one point, Casebolt pinned at least one of his knees into the back of the girl, who was wearing only a bikini. Casebolt drew his gun and waved it at several kids.
Residents of the neighborhood later posted a sign outside the pool thanking the police for protecting them.
Now, McKinney is thrust into America’s long, painful debate about how law enforcement interacts with citizens. No one died during the encounter in the predominantly white Texas city of roughly 148,000 people. Naturally, the police officers quickly arrived on the scene prepared for anything—that’s the tricky danger of their job. But Casebolt’s aggressive response felt more appropriate for dealing with armed adults, not upset teenagers in bathing suits.
In the last year, police encounters with black citizens have turned our attention to Cleveland, New York City, Baltimore, and Ferguson, Missouri. In the wake of these episodes, we have discussed how police departments can undertake systemic changes, how use-of-force policies should be tweaked, whether body cameras can fix the problem, and what needs to be done to rebuild trust between black communities and the police who serve them. But perhaps it is not just the police who need better training or a Department of Justice investigation. Each of these encounters speaks to a distinctly white American institution: the fear of black people.
This fear is built into white America’s DNA, deeply rooted in destructive stereotypes of the black man as perpetual predator that harken back to slavery-era revolts. The 1831 rebellion led by the black slave Nat Turner in Southampton County, Virginia, is the bloodiest example: Turner led a group of slaves and freed blacks to plantations around the county, freeing slaves and killing more than 50 white people. In the rebellion’s aftermath, the state executed 56 black people, while white militias killed at least 100 more. The uprising also inspired legislation that made the education of slaves and free blacks illegal.
Today, this fear is still seeded by a media that overreports incidents of crime committed by black offenders. Take, for example, the perpetual story of a black male athlete caught assaulting his female partner or using steroids. White athletes do this too. But the accounts of black athletes dominate the news. In one 2010 study, white respondents overestimated the proportion of crime committed by blacks by 20 to 30 percent. Numbers like these make it easier to understand why a white resident might call the police to “handle” a black resident in unfounded anticipation of violence. Meanwhile, 83 percent of white people are killed by other white people.
Subconscious and implicit bias, too, play an important role in white fear, particularly for the vast segment of white Americans who would be loathe to self-identify as outwardly racist. While it is my job to think and report deeply on race and justice in my waking life—by the way, I’m a white woman from a predominantly white Midwestern city—I have also instinctively, and unthinkingly, clutched at my purse while crossing paths with a black man on a dark street, then felt disgust at my actions. I have locked my doors while driving through the South Side of Chicago. We see this bias and fear at work when a black man or woman tries repeatedly to hail a taxi and no drivers will stop. Or when cab drivers refuse to take passengers to predominantly black neighborhoods. These biases develop in children as young as seven.
Study after study show this subconscious bias across society. Behavioral economist Sendhil Mullainathan, of Harvard University, found job applicants with “African American-sounding names” were less likely to be called for an interview than white applicants with identical credentials, across occupations. Another study found white state legislators are less likely to respond to requests from constituents for help registering to vote when those requests come from names that sound African American. And prospective renters with stereotypically black names are less likely to get a response when pursuing apartments on Craigslist.
This pervasive pattern may not be an expression of physical violence in the context of apartment hunting or employment. But the violence of the encounters seen between black civilians and white police officers are a logical extension of the same subconscious impasse at work. When Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson described black teen Michael Brown, whom he shot after an altercation, as resembling “a demon,” Americans got yet another front-row seat to white fear. In a 2009 survey of white Americans, 30 percent said blacks were more violent than whites.
The terrible irony of this fear, of course, is that white Americans have wreaked centuries of physical, political, and legislative violence on black Americans. It was this same violence that laid the foundation for white power in our country—perhaps another reason why many white Americans subconsciously fear black people. Many of our Founding Fathers were slaveholders, and while some expressed discomfort with the practice’s obvious intrusion on liberty, this acknowledgment fell short of federal abolishment. Even after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, black citizenship remained deeply limited. Ceding any portion of that power—possessed consciously or subconsciously by white Americans today—could mean an upheaval of our forefathers’ slavery-wrought vision. Reckoning with that history of violence against black people is a scary thing, indeed.
If you’re white in America, it is unlikely you’ve personally endured the effects of these kinds of conscious and subconscious discrimination. This fact, on its own, makes the challenge at hand apparent. It’s harder to empathize with an experience you have not had. It’s even more challenging, and more uncomfortable, to step outside the story of your own white experience and actively listen to the experiences of black people—experiences that bystanders’ videos have made it impossible to deny. It's worth noting that empathy is not just about an attempt to understand pain, but also moments of joy. Thanks to the videos made by people like Brandon Brooks, Feidin Santana, and Ramsey Orta, violence against black people at the hands of police has become a central and undeniable part of the national conversation about race relations.
Paying attention to black lives only when racialized violence captured on camera shakes us awake—when it rouses us from our comfortable patterns—is not enough. As we all grow weary of the familiar headlines like those stemming from the McKinney incident, it is well past time to stop, listen, and consider these long-held fears.