George Floyd’s death and other such incidents represent a moment that Americans should not just walk away from
When Cephas Williams, a London-based artist, visited the House of Lords last year, he went through all the usual security procedures and was asked to take a seat. Williams, a Black man, was then approached by a white woman who asked him why he was sitting there. She asked him to move and, believing that he was sitting in a restricted area, he agreed.
“I got up to leave, and she immediately went from 0 to 100,” Williams said. “She said, ‘Why are you raising your voice?’ ” She approached the armed security guards, a white man, and a Black woman. Williams said he was calm throughout. “I wanted to report what just happened, but they said, ‘There’s no point. She’s one of the most senior people in the House.’ “
In 2018, Williams created a campaign called 56BlackMen (link), a series of stark portraits of Black men from all walks of life wearing hoodies to show, in his words, “I am Not My Stereotype.” He said it happens on the street, in the school, the workplace, in white-tablecloth restaurants and, yes, even in the venerated House of Lords. “There are people who see the Black man as angry or threatening,” he said.
A U.K. Parliament spokesperson told MarketWatch: “We are very sorry to hear of the experiences reported by Cephas Williams. Parliament is working hard to improve its processes for reporting and handling bullying and harassment. We know there is still work to be done, and we would encourage anyone who has experienced bullying or harassment in Parliament to report their experience to our Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme.”
Given such experiences, Williams was not surprised by recent events in the U.S. The country has been rocked, and also inspired, by protests over the death of George Floyd. Floyd, who was Black, died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis policeman kneeled on his neck with the full weight of his body for nearly nine minutes. This week, prosecutors added a second-degree murder charge in addition to the third-degree charge already filed against the former officer (link), Derek Chauvin.
Also see:’America just really needs to start being honest with itself’: How money and the slave trade shaped policing in the U.S (link).
Earlier that same day in New York, Amy Cooper, a white woman who was walking her dog without a leash in Central Park, called 911 on a bird watcher, Christian Cooper, who is no relation, after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. “I’m going to tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life,” she said on a video recording Cooper made on his smartphone. They both left the rambles in the park before the police arrived.
‘A perfected art of demonizing Black men’
Terence Fitzgerald, a clinical associate professor of social work at the University of Southern California and author of “Black Males and Racism: Improving the Schooling and Life Chances of African Americans (link),” said Amy Cooper’s 911 call is a prime example of the kind of leverage that white people can use any time they see fit. “She knew exactly what strings to pluck,” Fitzgerald said.
“It goes beyond just calling her a racist or saying what she did was racist,” he said. “We’re talking about systemic racism, and relying upon a story that has been morphed, honed and perfected throughout time. Politicians have used language (link) with roots in that fear. We are recycling it over and over and over. It’s become a perfected art of demonizing Black men.”
Fitzgerald said the U.S. media did not put the Central Park video in context. “I watched the reaction of newscasters. It really underestimated the situation. It really didn’t give her the credit or due diligence for what she was doing,” he said. “It’s the tactic that has been used since 1619, the tactic of playing the victim, and knowing that the system would look at her like the innocent one.”
“It goes all the way back to ‘Birth of a Nation (link)’ in 1915, the portrayal of the white woman as the victim,” he said. “She needed a knight to protect her from this dastardly devil, this Black man. It was played in the White House for Woodrow Wilson. This false narrative was passed down from generation to generation. The hypersexed Black male, known for violence against white women.”
Fitzgerald said the protests over George Floyd’s death and other such incidents, including the one between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper, represent a moment that Americans should not just walk away from. “That does a disservice to the thousands of Black men who have been lynched in the United States,” he said. “This idea of protecting the chastity of white women was the No. 1 reason for lynchings.”
In 2015, the Equal Justice Initiative documented 4,075 racially motivated lynchings of African-Americans in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia between 1877 and 1950 — at least 800 more lynchings of Black people in these states than had previously been reported.
One such murder: that of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American from Chicago, who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of offending a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in her parents’ grocery store. The all-white, all-male jury took 67 minutes to acquit the two men accused of the crime. One juror reportedly said, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink pop, it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
According to a news report at the time (link), one of the defense lawyers, J. W. Kellum, told the jury that they were “custodians of American civilization,” adding (link), “I want you to tell me where under God’s shining sun is the land of the free and the home of the brave if you don’t turn these boys loose; your forefathers will absolutely turn over in their graves.”
Last year, police in the U.S. killed 1,099 people, according to Mapping Police Violence (link), a research and advocacy group. Black people accounted for 24% of those killed, it found, despite being only 13% of the population; they are three times more likely to be killed by police than white people, and 1.3 times more likely to be unarmed than white people.
“Black women and men and American Indian and Alaska Native women and men are significantly more likely than white women and men to be killed by police,” a recent study (link) by researchers from Rutgers University, the University of Michigan, and Washington University in St. Louis found. “Latino men are also more likely to be killed by police than are white men.” They wrote, “Over the life course, about 1 in every 1,000 Black men can expect to be killed by police.”
The Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C., last year released a survey of more than 6,637 adults in English and Spanish that concluded: “Blacks are considerably more likely than whites, Hispanics or Asians to say that people have acted as if they were suspicious of them; that they have been treated unfairly by an employer; or that they have been unfairly stopped by police.”
George Floyd, meanwhile, is one of 44 people that Minneapolis police rendered unconscious with neck restraints in the last five years, according to an NBC News analysis (link) of police records, and three-fifths of them were Black. The Minneapolis police define “neck restraints (link)” as any time an officer uses an arm or a leg to press someone’s neck without directly pressuring the airway.
The narrative of ‘the other’
It is an age-old narrative, Fitzgerald said. “When someone is considered ‘the other,’ naturally we do not see them as one of us or carrying the same morals and values,” he said. “We see them as less than and below us on this imaginary apex and this hierarchy of supremacy. We treat them worse, and not as someone valuable and not a reflection of ‘me.’ “
Cases in which fictitious Black men were accused of crimes are too numerous to list, but some have caught the mainstream public’s attention more than others. In 1994, Susan Smith, a South Carolina mother of two, told police a Black man had driven off with her young children strapped into the back of the car. After her car was found in a lake, she was sentenced to 30 years in prison for the murders of her 3- and 1-year-olds.
Other fictitious allegations caught on like wildfire. In 1989 in Boston, a pregnant Carol Stuart was killed and her husband, Charles, was shot after he said they were set upon by an African-American man. During the manhunt, police were accused of harassing Black men in their search for the killer, while some politicians called for the death penalty.