I was in Paris when news broke of mass demonstrations following the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Images filled the media of police dressed in helmets and camouflage, wielding heavy artillery, riding in tanks, tear gas and smoke bombs exploding among crowds, huge dogs snapping and snarling and straining their leads. I sat in my small room, just off the Place de la Bastille, watching TV, anxiously reading the papers. I felt an odd sense of distance, immersed in a French vision of my homeland reconfigured as a not-entirely-fictional geography of exotic brutality and existential woe.
Adding to the surrealism of the moment, there were actual American tanks rolling through the streets beneath my window. That week was the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Paris, and there were re-enactments on every corner. Actors dressed as GI’s paraded through the streets while fireworks, light shows and tableaux vivants lit up the night. My heart struggled to reconcile the confetti-strewn celebration of liberatory military might with grim shots of domestic storm troopers “clamping down” in a time of purported peace.
A few days later, I happened upon a copy of The Week. There was a short summary of the second-degree murder conviction of one Theodore Wafer, a resident of Dearborn Heights, Michigan, for fatally shooting an unarmed teenaged girl who’d knocked on his door after she got lost. With just those deracinated facts, the preposterousness of Waver’s paranoia seemed apparent: He heard a knock on the door in the middle of the night; in response he grabbed a rifle and just started shooting through walls and a locked door. “It was them or me,” Wafer testified, explaining that he was “terrified.” As described in The Week, he sounded like a mental patient to me, someone caught in a netherworld of imaginary voices—the multitudinous them! That darkly looming plural!
Stereotypes of the imagined black super-predator inhabit our culture so completely that we do not appreciate the degree to which this is a form of magical thinking, one that dwarfs any statistical or empirical reality.
In the U.S., of course, Wafer’s conviction has been more commonly cast as the story of Renisha McBride, his victim. Her death is never recited without her African-American-ness at the forefront, the story driven almost uniquely by racial insinuation: White man shoots dark figure. Dark figure was drunk, disoriented and beyond the limits of her “own” neighborhood. The encroaching blackness of her didn’t knock, but “pounded” on the door. If that weren’t “terrifying” enough, Wafer’s house in Dearborn Heights was, as The New York Times described it, “just across the city line from Detroit.”
Wafer was sentenced to 17 years in prison for his rashness. But whether punished or unpunished, the impulse to shoot first and ask questions later claims lives with great frequency in United States. Watching from beyond our borders made starkly clear for me the literal insanity of our collective structures of belief: the deeply flawed normative distortions embodied in them, that always-encroaching phantom plural.
There has been much social science documenting the degree to which perception is affected by attributions of race: when audiences see pictures of a white man with a straight razor confronting a black man, viewers remember the razor as being in the hand of the black man. Stereotypes of the imagined black super-predator inhabit our culture so completely that we do not appreciate the degree to which this is a form of magical thinking, one that dwarfs any statistical or empirical reality.
August also brought us John Crawford, Jr. Crawford was shopping at a Walmart in Beavercreek, Ohio, when he picked from a shelf an air-soft rifle that was for sale. He continued shopping, ambling through the aisles while talking with his wife on a cell phone. Someone called the police to say a man was waving a gun at women and babies. Police arrived and quickly shot Crawford in the back. A grand jury found his death a justified use of force, although video cameras recorded Crawford’s motions, showing definitively that he never waved the gun around, never pointed it at anyone, never moved sharply or hastily, and that other shoppers seemed to be calmly pursuing their business all around him with no fear or aversion. It was, according to prosecutor Mark Piepmeyer, just “a perfect storm of circumstances,” a tragic case with “no bad guys.”
I suppose it is too easy to note that Crawford was black. Surely there are other observations, such as: it is insane that toy guns are made to look like real ones; or, it is insane that Walmart sells real guns as well as toy ones, both ever so casually located somewhere between bedding and paper towels; or, it is insane that after a 9-year-old girl killed her instructor while trying to operate an Uzi—an Uzi!—at an event in Colorado, neither her parents nor the gun range were held criminally responsible.
I do not posit these reflections to underscore the power of racial stereotypes. Ferguson, from France, is also about the vivid yet deadly hallucinations that have led us into full-blown war with ourselves.
Patricia J. Williams is a law professor at Columbia University and a regular columnist for The Nation.