Guilty Until Proven Innocent – Life in Black America

Hands Up, Don't Shoot
Hands Up, Don't Shoot
Photo Credit Getty

For most Americans, the recent events in Ferguson are a failure of the — otherwise well-functioning — system. Many black Americans, however, have seen something different in the past week. This is the system. The crisis in Ferguson is merely a microcosm of the portrayal of black Americans in our society.

We’ve got a problem: self-defense laws read more like open season on black men.

The narrative that our society subconsciously maintains is simple: black people, especially men, are animalistic, violent, and dangerous. We are a threat to society. White criminals are just people who have made mistakes. They need the benefit of the doubt about their alleged crimes. If guilty, they need second chances and rehabilitation. But black men? Sometimes we just have to be put down.

The news story comes in, hot off the press: a young, unarmed black man gunned down by an officer or a vigilante who thought he looked up to no good, and so begins the witch hunt to show that he indeed was up to no good. Maybe he was an underage drinker (like more than 70% of teens). Maybe he flipped off a camera once.

I'm in a gang now, right?
I’m in a gang now, right?

All of these questions have one goal: to prove that despite appearances (that they were an unarmed youth killed by a police officer), they really “deserved” it. That in some way, their behavior was ‘asking for it’. What were they wearing to provoke the attack? Had they been drinking or doing drugs? Did they look suspicious?

This character assassination is disturbingly similar to the victim blaming that surrounds our treatment of rape. It is as though it is the victim’s character that is on trial, not their assailant. All of this is intended to distract us from the simple fact that we are talking about an unarmed youth being shot 6 times by a police officer. We’re hearing about the cigarillos he stole as if that explains why he was shot 6 times by a police officer.

Contrast this with the portrayal of white, college-aged mass killers. The media will often expound at length upon how surprising it was that they snapped and killed all these people. After all, they were funny, caring, smart guys who came from nice families. The media searches for an explanation. Did women reject them? Were they bullied? Did they suffer from mental illness?

It’s an odd double standard where we look for the good in the aggressor, yet look for the bad in the victim that shows that they “really deserved it”. This irony has been captured well by this montage of #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

The flip side to the coverage of these victims is their friends and families saying he was a good kid and he was college-bound and he was a caring son. He was black, but at least he wasn’t black black. He was one of the good ones. This isn’t limited to black victims; the same sort of logic can be seen in public figures.

Remember Biden commented that Obama was the “first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”? That might seem at first glance like a compliment to Obama, but comes across as an insult to other black Americans.

The subtext is that there are Two Americas, one populated by normal, safe, good Americans, and one populated by dangerous, violent, animals.

Until that changes, young black men will continue to die at the hands of white men who fear no repercussion, not to mention officers of the law, because in the eyes of society, being black is threat enough.

For black Americans, it’s important to always know what those signs are and emulate them. For some people, this is a consciously taught lesson. Talk right, dress right, walk right, hold yourself right and then people won’t have anything to worry about. This is such a compelling narrative that it has even been internalized by the black community.

I learned that lesson at an early age from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Be like Will and people may like you and think you’re funny. Be like Carlton and maybe, just maybe, people will respect you. But the lesson Fresh Prince was trying to teach me was different: that no matter how respectable I was, my race would be the first thing anybody saw.

This is exactly why the narrative cannot be defined around the ‘good’ black victims. Black men don’t deserve to be gunned down while unarmed and posing no threat; this is not contingent on them being well dressed, or college-bound, or “articulate”, or deferring to authority.

I learned to signal that I was safe, that I was one of the “exceptional black guys”, that I wasn’t “like other black guys”. In Carlton’s words, I learned to always carry a map. In many ways, that was easier for me than it is for many. I’m half-Swedish, which always seems to put people at ease to find out. At 5’8” and 150 pounds, I hardly cut an imposing figure, and I dress like a walking H&M catalogue at a cocktail party. I drop SAT words like I’m playing conversational scrabble, and enunciate with all the clarity of a schoolboy reading Latin line-by-line. In the words of Wanda Sykes, better to be overly dignified than to reflect poorly on black America.

Eventually, I realized that no matter how I acted, people who didn’t know me would be afraid of me. I learned to hate walking at night, not because I feared being mugged, but because I dreaded others fearing me as a potential mugger. If I happened to be walking behind them at night, I wanted to find a way to get in front of them, so I wouldn’t seem to be following them. But I couldn’t run, lest they think I was chasing them. I learned to master the art of the I’ve-got-somewhere-to-be brisk walk, to clear my throat as I got near them, to show them my hands and say excuse me as I passed. If I couldn’t get in front of them, I’d find another route and hope I didn’t run into them again.

But all of that is meaningless. American racism can’t shake its fear that deep down, that ‘nice-looking’ black guy is actually a thug. Thug, in the original sense, is a violent criminal: a robber or murderer. Yet it has become a code word for ‘misbehaving’ black America. Throwing up a gang sign? Thug. Sagging pants? Thug. Talking back? Thug. thugIf you need any evidence that “thug” is a black coded word, take to Google. About 4 million (1 in 15) articles written about President Obama directly call him a thug. For Bush, that number falls to 8 (1 in a million).

In other words, any deviation at all from the norms of white America as a black American is a sign, an indication that deep down, you really are dangerous and violent, that you are black black.

And this perception has wide-sweeping effects. Let’s take for example, the recent protests in Ferguson. What is their slogan? Hands up, don’t shoot! The fear of black men is so great that the only way not to be seen as a threat is to continually assert it. If this sounds ridiculous, that is because it is. Note this clip from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, over 10 years old:

JazzThey say comedy is tragedy plus time. In this case, the tragedies were those in pre-civil rights America, and time made them comedic in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Now, decades later, time has made comedy back into tragedy. The fear of black men never went away, it just became more subtle.

It’s important to distinguish between intentional and behavioral racism. One doesn’t have to harbor actively racist beliefs to manifest unintentional racist tendencies.  The data is there: Americans think black men are scarier and more likely to be violent.

In fact, simply seeing the face of a black man makes them more likely to have an unpleasant response, according to a common psychological test, the Affect Misattribution Procedure. What’s interesting about this is that people tend to know that they shouldn’t be more afraid of black men. They know that’s wrong. Responding more quickly (without time to think) actually increases the negative reaction people have to the faces of black men.

So in essence: a lifetime of possibly unconscious conditioning leads to violent overreaction in a heated moment. In the high-pressure situations cops are placed in every day — where most decisions are reactive, not measured — those internalized biases can have deadly consequences.

This is a sad confirmation of subconscious racism: it’s very easy to manifest racist behaviors without holding actively racist beliefs. The result is that the system ends up behaving discriminatorily towards black men without even intending to.

Black Americans are more than 6 times more likely to be incarcerated across their lifetime and receive 20 60% longer sentences for the same crimes. This has been exacerbated by to the War on Drugs, which has disproportionately targeted racial minorities, with black Americans accounting for 14% of drug users, but 37% of drug offense arrests, and much higher sentencing, despite less drug abuse.

And these effects trickle all the way up, even to the ‘good’ black guys. Obama’s candidacy and later presidency has been marred by a series of racist remarks and threats:

Yes, that is somebody suggesting that the President of the United States deserves to be lynched.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about the benefit of the doubt, about innocent until proven guilty vs guilty until proven innocent. These gut reactions about the guilt of black Americans are dangerous because they are written into the law. For example, officers are not supposed to use deadly force unless they believe that their life (or another life) is in danger, and Stand Your Ground laws and other similar statutes extend this privilege to everyday civilians in 23 states.

For a black man, it is not his actions that make him threatening, but his very existence.

This belief doesn’t have to be rooted in any fact, however. In Jordan Davis’ case, his loud music was an obvious sign that he was a gang member. For Trayvon Martin, it was his now iconic hoodie. For Christopher Beatty, the way [he] carried [his] beverage appeared suspicious. Let me repeat that. A man was arrested (and tackled to the pavement) by a police officer for carrying iced tea suspiciously. Three teenagers were arrested for waiting for their school bus. Bobby Wingate was punched in the face and tased for walking on the wrong side of the road. One man, after being incorrectly arrested, was charged with damaging police property for bleeding on their uniforms while they beat him in a prison cell.

And while white open-carry advocates openly patrolled the streets of Portland and other cities across the United States with assault rifles, John Crawford (a black man) was shot on sight for holding a toy gun he had picked up off the shelf in a store. Yes, Roy Call may have been briefly detained, and his gun confiscated, but only after he refused to show his identification. And today, he’s alive to sue the state. John Crawford was not asked for identification or his gun carry permit. He was simply executed.

For a black man, it is not his actions that make him threatening, but his very existence. Carlton failed to learn that lesson, and I too thought I could avoid it. Adulthood taught me otherwise. In our society, there is nothing black men can do to really remove the worry that they are dangerous. Blackness itself is what is being feared.

If black men are viewed as inherently threatening in the context of our society, and deadly force is authorized if you believe you are threatened, we’ve got a problem: self-defense laws read more like open season on black men. Until that changes, young black men will continue to die at the hands of white men who fear no repercussion, not to mention officers of the law, because in the eyes of society, being black is threat enough.

I’ll be writing more about race and nerd life here, although I’ll still occasionally link those posts on

2 Comments on “Guilty Until Proven Innocent – Life in Black America

  1. excellent piece. hurt my heart to read most of it. I guess I’ve been looking at it more closely as we all are since Ferguson and when you read it all one page its just sickening. I have two sons and I have my worries but it is so much worse than my overactive mothers imagination has conjured in my head. so sad


  2. Reblogged this on Fistful of Wits and commented:
    I was going to write a related post, but Mattias has already done this far better than I could (and several times over to boot). Read more like this at


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