Alone among citizens, police have the right to use deadly force to compel compliance and obedience. As a society, we give them broad discretion to do so, judging them on a standard of “objective reasonableness,” where an officer’s use of force “must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” If an officer believes someone could imminently cause serious injury or death—or if he fears for own his life—he can shoot. And when the victim is black, that fear is often all it takes to avoid official sanction.
Fear, for example, is why Officer Jeronimo Yanez was acquitted in the killing of Philando Castile. The day after the shooting, he attested to it in an interview with the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, a state investigative agency. “I thought, I was gonna die,” said Yanez, recounting the seconds after Castile had alerted him to the presence of a weapon in the vehicle.
For the jury that heard Yanez’s testimony, the officer was right to be afraid, even as his dashcam footage depicts a polite and compliant passenger. After the trial, a spokesman for the Minnesota Chiefs of Police Association affirmed Yanez’s fear. “We can’t see inside the vehicle and, most importantly, we can’t feel officer Yanez’s fear,” Andy Skoogman told the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
This same credulous acceptance of the narrative of fear is why Officer Betty Jo Shelby was acquitted in the killing of Terence Crutcher (she was “fearing for her life”); why a grand jury declined to charge Officer Timothy Loehmann in the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old (he “had a reason to fear for his life”); and why a jury deadlocked in the case of Michael Slager, a South Carolina police officer who shot and killed Walter Scott during a traffic stop (he felt “total fear”).
What makes that acceptance more striking is how circumstances don’t seem to matter. Loehmann and his partner, Frank Garmback, sped onto the scene, killing Rice within seconds of arrival. Walter Scott was running away when Slager shot him in the back. Castile, again, was polite and compliant. A video shows Crutcher with his hands raised and placed on the side of his vehicle when he was first tased and then shot. A dazed and unarmed Jonathan Ferrell had just been in an accident when he encountered Charlotte, North Carolina, police officer Randall Kerrick. In testimony, Kerrick described Ferrell as “aggressively coming towards” him. “He was going to assault me,” Kerrick said of Ferrell, who had been in a car crash, “I thought I was gonna die.” When Ferrell wouldn’t obey commands to “get on the ground,” Kerrick shot him 10 times. The jury couldn’t come to a decision, and Kerrick was acquitted.
Regardless of the situation or the facts on the ground, if a police officer says he was afraid, a jury will take that as reasonable. This raises a question: Are juries giving police the benefit of the doubt—or are they saying, in all of these cases, that it’s reasonable to be afraid of black people?
The latter would fit our history. Before the Civil War, Southern whites held a pathological fear of slave revolts, despite lauding slavery as a “positive good.” That fear led slaveholding states to create patrols, made up of white men in the community, who would enforce slave codes, with legal authority to capture runaways, interrogate enslaved people, and punish them if necessary. Scholars see these slave patrols as one forerunner to modern police departments, “the first uniquely American form of policing,” writes Katheryn Russell-Brown in The Color of Crime: Racial Hoaxes, White Fear, Black Protectionism, Police Harassment, and Other Macroaggressions.
Later, in the early 20th century, fear of black criminality would shape the laws, institutions, and even geography of America in the urban Northeast and industrial Midwest. In his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad notes that, in Chicago, both European migrants and “old-stock native-born Americans” often felt a “powerful bond of racial solidarity,” including a “shared fear of blacks as criminals.” White city dwellers “believed that African Americans were violent and deviant” and “sought various public policy measures to seal themselves off from them.” The first municipal segregation laws, passed in Baltimore to divide the city into rigid black and white sections, emerged during this period, and police in cities like Philadelphia were used more to control the presence of blacks in white areas than to attack crime and violence, leaving many black Americans in a still-common situation—overpoliced for minor crimes and underpoliced for major ones.
This is still true. Among white Americans there is a strong cognitive connection between black people and crime. “The mere presence of a black man,” note a team of researchers in a 2004 paper, “can trigger thoughts that he is violent and criminal.” The reverse is also true: The connection between blacks and crime is so tight that just thinking about crime—irrespective of environment—triggers thoughts of black people. Measures like “stop and frisk” have little utility in crime prevention but succeed as ways to maintain the social boundary around black Americans, against whom they’re most used. On the other side, police departments in places like New Orleans and Newark, New Jersey—with high rates of violent crime among black residents—solve just a small percentage of homicides in their cities.
The same goes for practices like the investigatory stop, where drivers are detained for minor violations—driving slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal—which are used as pretext to investigate the driver and vehicle (both Castile and Scott were stopped for this reason). These stops, as researchers Charles Epp, Steven Maynard-Moody, and Donald Haider-Markel describe in Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, largely target black people, particularly those driving in white neighborhoods, representing the literal enforcement of boundaries.
Generations of black writers and observers have noted the fear and anxiety that defines white America’s relationship to its black counterpart and how that manifests in those people charged with policing the borders between the two worlds. “He has never, himself, done anything for which to be hated—which of us has?—and yet he is facing, daily and nightly, people who would gladly see him dead, and he knows it,” writes James Baldwin of the “white policeman” in the essay “Fifth Avenue, Uptown.” “There is no way for him not to know it: there are few things under heaven more unnerving than the silent, accumulating contempt and hatred of a people. He moves through Harlem, therefore, like an occupying soldier in a bitterly hostile country; which is precisely what, and where, he is, and is the reason he walks in twos and threes.”
Jeronimo Yanez’s fear, like Timothy Loehmann’s fear and Randall Kerrick’s fear, reflects a tradition of fear, a custom of fear, a praxis of fear. If, in America, fear of black people is prima-facie reasonable, then the police who kill them will always find a sympathetic ear, a juror or jurors who agree that a “reasonable officer” would have been afraid.
To have accountability, you first need a violation—something to hold to account. We watch video of Philando Castile’s shooting, see the subsequent acquital of his killer, and say the “system is broken” because we assume his death was a violation. But what if it wasn’t? Perhaps our system doesn’t affirm black lives because it wasn’t designed to. Perhaps police officials and prosecutors and ordinary jurors view the unnecessary death of a black person at the hands of police like generals view collateral damage in warfare—a regrettable outcome, but one that doesn’t undermine the essential legitimacy of the system.
In his landmark work Slavery and Social Death, sociologist Orlando Patterson defines the relationship of the enslaved person to broader society. “Alienated from all ‘rights’ or claims of birth, he ceased to belong in his own right to any legitimate social order. All slaves experienced, at the very least, a secular excommunication.” “Social death” is his evocative name for this state of affairs. American slaves, like those in other societies at other times, were socially dead. But unique to American slavery was its justification in an ideology of racism and a taxonomy of race. To be black was to be a slave, to be a slave was to be black.
We have long since ended chattel slavery. It’s not clear we’ve ended the relationship between blackness and dispossession. For 100 years after emancipation, the blackness of former slaves and their descendants marked them for exploitation and expropriation. To be black in much of the country was to be outside of the law. Your property, your livelihood—even your life—depended on the whims of whites. In little more than an instant, a mob might burn your home, destroy your business, or revel in a ritualistic murder.
The worst of that is over, thankfully. But in light of police shootings and the absence of justice for victims, mass incarceration, the return (after a brief and modest abatement) of draconian sentencing strategies, the black unemployment crisis, the environmental degradation of black communities, the return of voter suppression, and the resegregation of public schools, it’s hard to escape the feeling that modern-day black life is still coterminous with the boundaries of social death, or at least represent a new frontier of social purgatory.
Together, the killing of Philando Castile and acquittal of Jeronimo Yanez—along with other, similar incidents—place the tensions and questions of American life in sharp relief, where they are joined by our other disputes over religion, ethnicity, and national identity. What does equal citizenship mean in a society still marked by racial hierarchy and skin color caste? What does it look like? How can we achieve it? And what do we do about the fear?