White Fear: The Single Greatest Killer of Black People in the US
While writing a piece yesterday about John Crawford – the 22-year-old killed in Walmart for playing with a toy gun – I became aware of another story of ‘homicide by cop’ inflicted upon an unarmed black teenager. Michael Brown, 18, was seen running in his home town of Ferguson, Mo, a suburb of St. Louis, and moments later, he was shot dead in the streets by Ferguson Police. I am just so tired of covering these stories. And I feel overcome with powerlessness as white fear claims yet another innocent life in the black community.
Explanations as to why Brown was killed abound. According to the AP, the FBI is already looking into the causes of his death. But, initially, police authorities were not releasing any information regarding the homicide to anyone including the teen’s family. Following the shooting, police sectioned off the area and left Brown’s body lying in the streets for hours as the community looked on in anger, hurt, and rage. As the crowds grew and organized into a protest, over 100 cops with assault rifles, shotguns, and dogs were called in to ‘protect the crime scene.’
While watching this horror unfold, all I could think about was the multitudinous historical events of terror inflicted on blacks since the 1790s. From the mass beheadings and maimings on the heels of Nat Turner’s Rebellion to the destruction of private property in the 1920s burning of Black Wall Street conveniently called the “Tulsa Race Riots” (although only whites were rioting), white fear has taken the form of terror for black folks attempting sanctity and mobility in their own lives.
White fear has manifested itself in outright violence post-slavery through the imposition of Jim Crow segregation. White fear has manifested itself legislatively via redlining laws and cruel lending practices barring blacks from owning property in ‘white neighborhoods.’ White fear has manifested itself in so many structural ways that it has become part and parcel with the fundamental functions of every private and governmental institution in this country. White fear is inescapable.
The fear that black people would become too wealthy or accomplished was what caused early twentieth century southern whites to strategically lynch some of the most accomplished black families, the ones who owned a horse and buggy or a nice suit jacket. The fear that black women would steal white ‘massas’ from their whites wives resulted in the intentional objectification of black women’s bodies and hair, demoralizing them, beastializing them, making them into sexual beings rather than human beings. The fear that blacks were thinking too highly of themselves and threatening white business ownership was what caused them to burn it down on June 21st, 1921. White fear has systematically and by design demolished and suppressed black wealth, mobility, and familial progress for over three centuries. What we are witnessing today is no accident.
When black families were lynched, whites would congregate, often taking pictures with the corpses of black bodies post-mortem. They would leave the bodies for days – and sometimes weeks – hanging in trees birthing the phrase “strange fruit.” This was a primary point of control for whites because seeing the swinging corpses both struck fear into other blacks, potentially dissuading them from rocking the boat, and also made clear that whites deemed blacks absolutely worthless. While we rarely see hanging nooses now, we often see dead, dying, or demoralized black bodies struggling for humanity in streets, Walmarts, apartment hallways, etc. We see them and their purpose is identical.
White fear doesn’t just exist on an individual level. Yes, it was to blame when Michael Dunn shot and killed Jordan Davis, when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, when Theodore Wafer shot and killed Renisha McBride, when Johannes Mehserle shot and killed Oscar Grant, when Officer Randall Kerrick shot and killed Jonathan Ferrell, and even now as we discuss John Crawford and Michael Brown. But it is much graver than individual animus.
You don’t have to be white to suffer from white fear. White fear causes upper-class black people to whitewash and downplay their own blackness just to achieve social ‘success.’ Perceived social benefits of ‘acting white’ cause many blacks to also fear ‘the other’ black people who might harm them or their families. But, make no mistake, it is a tool of oppression created by whites seeking unrelenting and perpetual dominance in the US.
Many (white) people believe it only exists between people because they choose to ignore its tentacle-like influences on public media, popular culture, education, immigration policy, and social welfare programs. They use their fear to justify their senseless aggression toward black and brown bodies. Then they sit as judge and jury indicting black teens for eating snacks, smoking weed one time, or running fast. Meanwhile, white teenaged boys live fruitful lives after mowing down entire groups of people while under the influence of stolen alcohol because they suffer from ‘affluenza.’ A drunk white murderer is worth more than a dead black honor student. Such is the function of white fear.
White fear is killing us. It is causing us to fear black skin. It is segregating neighborhoods. It is closing public schools. It is cutting welfare benefits to mothers and children. It is undermining a presidency. It is criminalizing black bodies. It is incarcerating black identities. It is limiting black potential. It is sexualizing black girls. And, it is shooting black boys in the streets of their own neighborhoods.
White fear is the single greatest cause of death for black people today and has been so since this country’s inception. White fear.
*Writer’s note: The post image has been changed as the Brown family has requested the social media removal of Mike Brown’s lifeless body.
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