A good friend of mine used to call me and share with me his frustrations when he and his girlfriend were fighting. This went on for about 6 months while we were both away at college in two separate states. Eventually, when I met her I was shocked. She didn’t have horns, or warts, or a broom. She was far different than the picture he painted for me over the phone and I struggled with getting to like the nice person in front of me when I couldn’t get away from the image that was given to me over the past 6 months. I was never comfortable around her because I couldn’t find the antidote for the 6 months of poison I was given. She never had a chance with me and that had nothing to do with her. I couldn’t see who she was because I couldn’t un-hear the bad image I heard through the phone.
The grand jury that assembled to review the John Crawford III incident in Dayton, Ohio decided the police officers should not be charged in John’s death. John Crawford III was the young man who was shot and killed in a Walmart while walking around the store carrying a toy gun.
I don’t get it….
I just don’t get it.
This last year has been a tough year. A little over a year ago I watched the Treyvon Martin trial and listened to the debates and saw the life of a young black man be deemed worthless. A jury acquitted George Zimmerman of killing an unarmed 17 year old and George has been raising hell since then but he still walks free.
In late 2013, a young Black woman, Ranisha McBride, was involved in a car accident where she hit a parked car in the early morning hours in Dearborn Heights just outside of Detroit. Ms. McBride left the disabled vehicle and showed up at the home of Theodore Wafer at about 4:30 in the morning asking for help. According to Mr. Wafer she was panicked banging on his door asking for help. Mr. Wafer fired his shot gun through his front screen door hitting Ms. McBride in the face and killing her. Mr. Wafer was charged and convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 15-32 years in prison.
On my birthday, August 9, of this year, Michael Brown was walking in the middle of the Canfield Drive, in Ferguson, Missouri with a friend. Officer Darren Wilson drove up to Michael and ordered Michael and his friend to walk on the sidewalk instead of the street. 3 minutes later Office Wilson had shot Michael Brown 6 times. Michael was unarmed and died soon after.
4 days before Michael was killed, John Crawford was walking through a Walmart store in Beavercreek, Ohio, just outside Dayton. He had picked up a toy gun that was on a shelf that someone else had taken out of its packaging. John was carrying around the toy in the store while he talked on his cell phone. He had the gun pointed towards the ground and was casually walking up and down the aisles. A customer saw John walking through the store with the gun and called the police. The police arrived and shortly after John was shot while still on the phone with his girlfriend and mother of his two children. The officers stated John would not obey their orders so they were forced to fire. John would die later that day.
When the Trayvon incident occurred I was hoping Zimmerman was a delusional racist. Although some will argue that he is, I’m not sure I agree. The easy answer is he is a mentally unstable racist. The scary answer is he is a product of messaging.
We are fed subtle messages through TV, movies, and the news, that tell us Black is bad. That messaging is repeated over and over and over and eventually people begin to subconsciously believe it. So when a 17 year old Black boy walks through a neighborhood with his hood up, subconsciously he is a threat and if someone feels threatened then they are justified in defending ourselves. But sadly, when the sun comes up, or the lights get turned on, or the pace slows down we see only an unarmed 17 year old boy, or a scared 19 year girl who needs help, or an 18 year old who would start college in two days, or a 22 year old father of two carrying a toy. When these subconscious beliefs are mixed with fear and adrenaline the results have been deadly and these tragic results appear to be more and more common.
I recently listened to a behavioral psychologist explain how this messaging can be so dangerous. Our minds begin to believe these messages so when some come across a Black person, someone who we have been told to fear, our mind creates what isn’t there. The messages are so ingrained that the mind’s interpretations of the incidents are screwed. For example people become convinced that a person raising their hands in surrender is raising their hands in defiance and aggression.
There’s a viral video traveling the internet that was shot from a police officer’s dash-cam in South Carolina. The officer approaches a Black man as he parked and was exiting his vehicle in a gas station parking lot. The officer noticed the man wasn’t wearing his seat belt as he rode through the parking lot. The young man was in the process of going in to the gas station when the Officer ordered him to stop and demanded the man show him some identification. The young man went back into his vehicle to get his license and the officer responded by shooting at the man who was now five to eight feet away. Later when the officer was interviewed, the officer used phrases like, “He dove back in to the car.” When I watch the video I see the man calmly and casually turn and reach in to his car. But because of this messaging, in the officer’s mind he saw something totally different and on tape you can hear him yell, “He’s got a gun,” as the Black man reaches into his vehicle. His mind has been predisposed to think that Blacks are dangerous, violent, and more likely to carry weapons. This suspected profile plays in the head of the officer as he exits his vehicle looking for any shred of evidence to support his subconscious beliefs. It is not because he’s a racist but because he is convinced he is in danger because he has been told subconsciously, “Blacks are dangerous, proceed with caution.”
Messaging is a lot like those phone calls I would get from my friend at college. He would spend hours telling my why he and is girlfriend got into a fight and she was always the one at fault. The picture he painted of her was dark and gloomy and evil. When they would make up my phone wouldn’t ring; only when they fought would I get a call. In that call he would add more and more dark paint to a picture that was full of shadows. She never had a chance with me because I couldn’t dissolve the layers and layers of dark paint he used to paint her. I was predisposed to not liking her. This is what messaging does to people of color and it scare me to death.
I fear the person who comes across my sons will believe the subtle messaging and see a shadow cast from them in the form of a thug before they see their humor or their wit or their intelligence. Instead they will respond to a thug instead of the writer my oldest son is or the math wiz my youngest son is and the response to the thug is must more aggressive. The response to the thug is much more adversarial; much more controlling, much more fear-based, much more violent.
This was the shadow that was cast over Treyvon, Ranisha, Michael and John. Through these shadows shots were fired and lives were extinguished and these kids never had a chance and I don’t know how to stop it from happening.