Who should we fear?

There’s a scene in a particularly cringe-worthy episode of The Office where Michael Scott, the bumbling boss, tries to manipulate the audience into picturing a criminal in their mind. He describes this fictitious person, using increasingly racial language, and then ‘stuns’ us all with the big ‘reveal’: the criminal is a white woman. Steve Carell does a masterful job of portraying the sneering arch-liberalism of the Michael character as he tries to demonstrate how racist his audience is, and yet how ideologically pure he is. The bonus of course is in the fact that Michael himself commits various acts of well-intentioned racism throughout the series, especially in this particular episode.

But like most of the satirical edge of The Office, there is a truth to be mined from Michael’s nuttiness: we do have racialized ideas of criminals that exist in our public life. These are not so mysterious when you are aware of how those attitudes came to be, dragged along as part of the overt and noxious racism of the past into the ‘polite’ racism of our contemporary world. Add to these attitudes a capitalist system that foists the burdens of poverty disproportionately upon certain racial groups, and the fact that poverty and criminality are causally linked, and you end up with the repeated emergence of the image of “the black criminal”.

A particularly great example of the pernicious power of this idea comes to us from Brooklyn:

The person of interest, who was caught on surveillance video carrying bags in the vicinity of at least two crime scenes, voluntarily entered the 68th Precinct in Bay Ridge to be interviewed by police, according to New York Daily News.

He was later transferee to another police location for additional questioning. Police have yet to release his name, but law enforcement sources said he is from Staten Island and is believed to be the man whose image was captured most clearly near the latest murder scene in Flatbush.

This part of the story is not so remarkable. Someone, who police are not calling a suspect (but who nonetheless was present at two crime scenes), has been taken in for questioning about some shootings. Pretty standard police work, right? Here’s the fun part of the story – check out the picture of the suspect they were looking for:

A sketch of a young black man wearing sunglasses

Now check out who they ended up arresting for the crime:

A middle-aged, balding, Italian man in handcuffs

The resemblance is fucking uncanny, wouldn’t you say?

The sketch above should be seen as the racist caricature that it is, but it should also be understood as a sort of emergent Rorschach test for the mental state of the New York Police Department, and perhaps New Yorkers more generally. The yawning chasm between who we’re taught to be afraid of and who might actually harm us is serious, and it can be deadly.

My position is and has been for some time that when we cannot get a grip on the history of our racism, we end up doing ourselves a disservice. Not just those of us who are profiled, viewed with suspicion, stopped and ‘randomly’ searched, and who suffer the psychological, economic, and legal consequences of a society whose relationship with its own racism can be described as ‘just friends’, but also those who rely on the proper function of a justice system. It turns the focus of our fear in the wrong direction, toward someone who might psychically ‘feel’ guilty, but is, in fact, nothing more than the composite sketch of generations of our bogeyman nightmares about black men.

The ironic part of the story is that, while a story about who does the killing can be racially ambiguous, it is often the case that the racial identity of the victims is all too clear:

Hoke County deputies have charged a man with shooting a husband and wife outside their home in the Rockfish community Saturday evening. Sheriff Hubert Peterkin said it happened around 7:30 at 110 T.C. Jones Road.

Neighbors said 35-year-old Tommy Brown was playing basketball with his sons and was concerned because neighbor John Oliver Hill Jr., 48, was shooting a gun in the area. “And this nut from across the street – who had been outside shooting his gun – the gentleman asked him if he would quit because of all the kids outside playing. And so he took it upon his self to come over here and he just shot the man. Shot him in the head,” said neighbor Lois Clairmont.

Deputies said the weapon was a .30-30 hunting rifle. The three boys who witnessed the shooting ran inside to get their mother and when she came out, Hill allegedly shot her twice.

There are no racial clues about the identity of the victim (except maybe “basketball”, but white people still play basketball with their kids, right?). A picture of the murderer is provided:

A picture of a middle-aged white man

And if you’ve got the same sinking feeling in your stomach that I did when I read the story, then your gut’s not lying to you. Here’s a picture of the victims:

A picture of the (black and brown) victims

Now please don’t interpret this as a “white people are murderers” message. This is just one anecdote about a killing where the victims were people of colour, and the murderer was a white man. We can talk, and have talked, about the sense of racial entitlement that seems to accompany these kinds of murders in Jordan Davis’ case, in Trayvon Martin’s, and in Everett Gant’s (all of which, one might note, happened in Florida). The conversation about racial entitlement, right-wing gun fantasy, and who shoulders the harm of racism is a well-explored one, and I don’t really need to reiterate it.

But what I would like to note here is that our notions of who is committing crime and who is a victim of it are deeply mistaken. Until we figure out how to deprogram ourselves, or at least learn to recognize the voice of lazy racist inculcation is speaking in the place of fact, these stories will continue.

Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!


  1. maudell says

    Mmh. Tragic.

    I have a more insidious version of this. A good friend of mine (very very pale skinned) used to be a drug addict and he would rob places to pay for his habit (I’m not excusing him). Very soon after he started, he realized that when there were witnesses, the description was usually “it was a big black guy” (my friend is not big either). The police even interrogated him about this big black man. He continued his criminal life with ease. It was often a variation of a black guy being reported. We recently talked about this, because I felt that he should have confessed to avoid making an innocent man get a criminal record. I guess he had no evidence anyone got arrested, he’s been sober for many years now, but it’s still plausible. I think it indicates a basic assumption in many people. This happened in Vancouver, as you know, black men are not exactly legion here. So this was not because black men were a significant portion of the population.

    I guess systematic racism isn’t limited to Florida…

  2. Megillicuddy says

    I was recently attacked by a stranger, a black man, in one of the whitest states in the country. (I am, myself, white). It was a crime of statistical outliers: As a woman, it was not unlikely that I would be the victim of a sexual assault, but it was much more likely that I would be attacked by someone I knew. But I was assaulted by a stranger. It was, demographically, much more likely that the perpetrator would be white. But the man who attacked me was black.

    The police failed to alert the neighborhood the attack and public safety concern for three weeks (!) so I took upon myself to let people know that the crime had occurred. I noted the day, the time, and the location, but unless someone asked, I did not give a description because I could predict that a percentage of people who heard the words, “black man” would respond along the lines of “Of course,” or “It figures he was black.” The idea that this awful crime would be made more terrible by heaping racism onto the pile made sick.

    I was also concerned (and am still) that there would be the practical danger of people reporting “suspicious behavior” by any black male, regardless of any other similarities of differences. I was disappointed to note that the description only said, “black male” without any further information, whether he was light, medium, or dark complected for instance. The sketch was so washed out that there was no useful information on that count. It’s indicative of how people in this area see (or rather don’t see) people of color, and it poses very real problems in terms of tips received and the possibility of misplaced suspicion and/or false arrest.

    In an attempt to mitigate these issues, I used my platform as the victim and wrote a blog post preemptively confronting predictable racist responses and pointing out that in largely homogenous, largely white place, it was even more absurd than usual to pretend that a black assailant was somehow inevitable, but I doubt that it got through where it needed to. Like-minded people appreciated the attempt, but I’ve had to avoid the cesspool of comments on an interview I gave on the subject where the haters…well, hate.

    In all honesty, I find this hysterical, reflexive, irrational hate as upsetting as the actual attack. I’ll heal, but that pervasive poisonous thinking lingers.

  3. karellen says

    But what I would like to note here is that our notions of who is committing crime and who is a victim of it are deeply mistaken.

    While the bulk of your post is absolutely spot-on in terms of pointing out the massive problems of endemic racism, nothing in it has any bearing on that point, at all.

    For that point, you just need the actual numbers for [ethnic1]-on-[ethnic2] crime, from police reports/statistics. Those numbers might probably support you. But without them, as you point out, all you’ve got is a bunch of anecdotes, which says nothing about who is actually committing a crime and who is a victim.

  4. frog says

    It’s always peculiar to see how the various news outlets describe criminals and victims. The initial reports of the law student who was assassinated in broad daylight in NYC a few days ago focused on his social standing–being from a well-off family in California. I don’t know if they didn’t realize he was black, or if “Oh no, well-off guy is killed!” is a more sensational lede than “Black guy killed” so that’s what they used.

    I notice some news outlets and police forces will describe suspects in racial terms: black, white, Hispanic, Asian. Others will give much broader descriptions: pale/medium/dark complexion, “possibly Asian or Hispanic” etc. I don’t know if the latter method is intended to prevent leading potential witnesses in wrong directions; but if so, I think that’s not a bad idea.

  5. says

    This is a fair criticism. I don’t really substantiate that statement well. It just struck me that our profile of “criminal” lends itself heavily to the sketch, while our schema for “victim” doesn’t often seem to permit black bodies unless it’s gang-related or something similar. But again, that’s just the feeling I have, rather than a demonstrated fact.

  6. octopod says

    Ha, that’s interesting, because when I read “neighbor was outside shooting his gun”, the racial profiling of that neighbor as white in my head is INSTANT.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *