During a 17-minute speech in the briefing room of the White House, President Barack Obama sought to explain the reason why a large number of African-Americans have had a visceral reaction regarding the not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case. In his remarks, the president tried to contextualize that reaction by highlighting the fraught experiences of African-Americans with the justice system.
The justice system has been a perennial concern for African-Americans. This worry stems from the blatant disparities that have plagued the system. In any society, the justice system is a critical institution because of the role that it plays in keeping order. In this country, a number of white Americans and those who are tasked to maintain order tend to perceive African Americans, particularly black males, as potential lawbreakers. This perception has been used as a justification to implement many policies — widespread use of racial profiling by law enforcement and disparity in sentencing for drug offenses — that greatly harm African Americans. Despite many white Americans' fear of black violence, African-Americans have never been in a position to actually take action that would create havoc in white communities. For the African-American community, the reverse has always been true. Because of the way that they are viewed and targeted, African-Americans, especially black males, should be concerned for their safety or their well-being, not their white counterparts.
The link between blackness and criminality has deep historical roots in the country. As pointed out by Khalid Muhammad in his book The Condemnation of Blackness, the notion that blacks have a propensity for criminality was established in the 19th century. The connection, therefore, between blackness and criminality has been embedded into the consciousness of white Americans for over a century.
There has never been a shortage of violence committed against African Americans ever since the first slave ship arrived on American shores. This violence resulted in the deaths and subjugation of millions of people. In some parts of the country, many black males were lynched. Even worse, those lynchings were a social event. None of these terrifying acts of violence was perpetrated by people of color. So it's logical to ask, why are African Americans the only group that is carrying the burden of criminality in America, despite being the victims and not the perpetrators of the most atrocious acts of violence that took place in the country's history?
As Jamelle Bouie noted, most crimes tend to occur within racial groups. For instance, 94% of crimes committed against African-Americans are committed by other African-Americans — the so-called "black-on-black crimes" that have been bandied about over and over in some conservative circles. However, 86% of crimes committed against whites are perpetrated by other whites. In spite of their grave worry of being victimized by some black males, a white American has a much greater chance of being killed by another Caucasian. But most whites would not be disabused of their paralyzing fear by this fact about white-on-white crimes. The reason is simple. As David Levering, a historian who won the Pulitzer Prize, once pointed out, in America “whites committed crimes but blacks are criminals.” In order words, no matter the viciousness of the crime or violence perpetrated by a white person or by some whites, such a crime would never sully whites as a group because their crimes are regarded by many whites as individual acts. Thus, in judging these criminal acts, the judgment would fall only on the individual or individuals, not the entire racial group.
For African-Americans, on the other hand, the implication of being viewed as criminals are manifold. When a crime is committed by an African American, this act of violence reflects badly not only on the perpetrator but on the entire group. Consequently, for a large segment of white Americans, any African-American whom they cannot instantly identify tends to be regarded as a potential criminal until proven otherwise. In endorsing the way that Zimmerman racially profiled Trayvon Martin on the night that he shot the unarmed teenager, Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen spoke for many whites as he candidly shared his fear of black males. One of the major consequences of that fear of African-Americans is the way that the justice system treats them. A case in point is the disparity in drug sentencing, which helps swell the number of incarcerated African-Americans. In 1980, for instance, the number of African-Americans in jail was 143,000. In the past 30 years, however, this number has skyrocketed. Today, there are more than 2 million African-Americans in prison.
The association of black males with criminality is as old as the country itself. Despite the crime statistics showing that whites are more likely to be victimized by other whites, the oft-repeated narrative that conflates blackness with criminality creates a fear among many whites that is as real as it is irrational. As Andrew Sullivan indicated, Cohen has a 0.00015% chance of being attacked by a black assailant. But his fear of black violence still remains pronounced, which helps explain why black males receive much harsher sentences than their white counterpart for similar offenses. This irrational fear helps explain why racial profiling is so prevalent. Finally, this irrational fear helps explain why most white Americans identify with Zimmerman instead of Trayvon, the unarmed teenager whom Zimmerman fatally shot while he was headed home. The prevalence of racial profiling and the stiffer sentences meted out to black males show that the justice system tend to devalue their humanity. Equally important, those policies, which severely impact African-American communities, indicate that white Americans have always been and continue to be in a position to inflict much greater harm on African Americans despite their unreasonable fear that they could fall victims to black violence.