Written by Serie McDougal
It must be understood, as Christopher Booker (2000) explains, that Black male existence was criminalized in the early stages of the American colonial experience; starting with physical movement. Freedom of movement throughout towns during slavery was associated with the male gender role. Among the enslaved, Black males were the more likely to leave their plantations than females due to their greater likelihood of being hired out to work by their masters. To police them, slave holding states enacted laws, like South Carolina’s Act for the Better Ordering of Slaves. Such laws required that slaves who were off their plantations to carry a pass or ticket permitting their movement in public spaces. Otherwise, they would be subject to whipping, torture, and mutilation. In early colonial America, serving on policing units called slave patrols, was considered an obligation for 18—45-year-old White males. Ultimately, in most places, these units were replaced by formalized police forces (Booker, 2000). Black males continue to struggle with freedom of movement. This historical context is fundamental to understanding present day patterns of police interaction with Black males. What’s more, abuse of Black males had to be justified so that policing forces could allay their occasional concerns about the impropriety of their actions.
In the past, treatment of Black men was rationalized by stereotypes about them that emerged from the religious and scientific communities who described them, respectively, as scientifically inferior, savage, and spiritually damned. Contemporary society is not far removed from this past, given the social threats Black men continue to face. How are the abuses of Black males rationalized and sanitized today? Smiley and Fakunle’s (2016) have recently published a new and profound investigation into the evolution of language used to describe brutality enacted on Black men during slavery and the contemporary coded racist language used to describe Black men who are killed by law enforcement today. They describe the ways that media reports use language to posthumously demonize and criminalize unarmed Black men killed by police to justify their deaths. They note that during slavery, popular American literature portrayed Black males as docile and submissive. However, after the civil war, Black males represented greater economic and political competition for Whites. This threat caused a shift in White stereotypical portrayals of Black males as submissive to Black males being portrayed as brutish, merciless, savage monsters. Terms like “thug” as they are used in the media today are extensions of former terms like “savage” and “brute” (Smiley & Fakunle, 2016). In their analysis of newspaper articles published after the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Tony Robinson, and Freddie Gray, Smiley and Fakunle (2016) found that the media focus on peripheral information about these Black males to justify their deaths. This information includes their behaviors, appearances, locations, and lifestyle. For example, Eric Garner's and Michael Brown’s large physical size and past criminal behaviors were used to present them as perpetrators and non-victims and, by way of this, to justify their murders. New articles oddly emphasized Akai Gurley’s tattoos, hairstyle, and style of dress. News reports also used a disproportionate amount of words to describe the dangerous neighborhoods that Akai Gurley and Freddie Gray were from although this information had nothing to do with the actions involved in their killings. Although it had nothing to do with the officers’ decisions to open fire on a child, news reports drew attention to Tamir Rice’s mother’s criminal background. Smiley and Fakunle (2016) explain how important it is to expose such attempts to invalidate claims of illegality by using language to transform the dead into “thugs.” Moreover, their research raises the importance of Black journalism. Perhaps future academic and journalistic research will look into the political and economic functional value of these portrayals of Black males. After all, social stereotypes of Black males have always had some practical value, maintaining White power and privilege and\or the denial of power and privilege to Blacks.
Booker, C.B. (2000). “I will wear no chain!” A social history of African American males. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Smiley, C. , & Fakunle, D. (2016). From "brute" to "thug: " the demonization and criminalization of unarmed black male victims in america. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 26(3-4), 350.