Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Amadou Diallo. And more recently, Trayvon Martin. The very thread that connects these individuals of color is deeply woven in the fabric of American life: Presumption of black guilt. Their stories remind us of the brutal consequences of prejudice and stoked racialized fears.
The jury ruling handed down Saturday night evoked much outrage, and deservedly so. Rather than assess the validity of the verdict, however, the focus here is on this underlying concept of black culpability that has so dominated the American psyche. What sits at the heart of this case and countless others is the seemingly intractable notion that there is a strong association between black behavior and criminality.
If you are a person of color, you are all too familiar with this racial dynamic. If you are not a person of color, yet have the capacity to exhibit some level of introspection, you are cognizant of this element of American culture. Stories of being on the receiving end of mistrust and suspicion are part and parcel of the American experience. We can all point to a time when a car was set to auto-lock on the mere sight of our passing-by, incidents with the police, or being flagged down immediately upon leaving a restaurant due to the assumption that we did not pay our tab, only to see the restaurant manager make his way to the table, find the money, and collect it while muttering a sheepish "thank you." To be a person of color in America is to be born suspect, as comedian Chris Rock pointed out decades ago. In an excellent piece over at Gawker, Cord Jefferson relays his experience in a way that speaks to the experiences of many.
Upon reading Jefferson's commentary, I am reminded of my own experiences growing up in a culture predominantly Caucasian, a culture informed about people of color through mostly hearsay, cultural patterns both conscious and subconscious, nightly news reports, and reruns of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. I can remember being routinely chided for "acting white" as a result of my failure to fit the cultural norms reserved for me as a person of color. I can remember a specific occasion where a classmate of mine attempted to coax me into doing something that could have resulted in detention or some other form of disciplinary action. Upon giving a firm no, I can remember being told that I was acting too white, and that my "black" side needed to come out — my black side being the side of me with a penchant for rule-breaking and lawlessness.
While those cultural assumptions seemed downright silly and innocuous at the time, as I've gotten older, I've come to understand just how harmful those assumptions can be, and how they feed into the presumption of black culpability endemic within culture. I've come to understand that they function as more than negative stereotypes and caricatures — that they indeed form the underlying basis upon which perceptions are formed about people. I've learned in retrospect that even at a small private middle school in suburban Nashville, 12- and 13-year-olds understand the expectations that come with being of color, expectations of anger, violence, and rule-breaking.
And the mortifying thing is those expectations weren't very far off from the expectations of the NYPD, BART Police, and George Zimmerman either.