Understanding Racism and the Perpetuation of Racial Stereotypes: Why Did Ferguson Happen?

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Today, a friend shared a video of a speaker in her UU church. Although I didn’t know it before I began watching, I needed desperately to see this video. The message was so profound, I was nearly in tears when it ended.

The speaker began to highlight some recent hot topic events, including what is happening in Ferguson. His message reached beyond guilty/innocent, and into the depths of why we are even experiencing this atrocity—something I believe we should address head on until it is no more.

He spoke of the racial stereotypes embedded in our collective mind so deeply that we often act before our better judgment changes our actions. These stereotypes of which he spoke are age old. They didn’t come about by any truth, but were perpetuated during what is known as the postbellum period in the United States.

That time of reconstruction after the Civil War found many with a sour taste in their mouths. They were upset they’d lost the right to own slaves—their source of profit. So, they concocted a string of lies to scare people into discriminating against people of color in order to keep people of color in indentured servitude. Some of those lies were created out of fear—former slave owners really thought slaves would revolt and kill them if freed. What we see today in our media is an outgrowth of the web of lies these angry, fearful white southern sympathizers created.

In the documentary film Ethnic Notions by California Newsreel, we are shown several stereotypes created to defame African American people, as well as other people of color. Early filmmakers concocted images of African Americans who were “lazy,”  “shiftless,” “violent,” and African American women who are not sexually attractive. Each of these stereotypes served a purpose.

By showing African Americans to be less than the ideal human beings and perpetuating prejudices, white Americans could retain the control they so desired. Beyond that, these stereotypes also created a group of “others” who barely functioned as “true Americans,” therefore making it “acceptable” to exclude them from the “in” group. These stereotypes were the bedrock of Jim Crow laws—the dastardly laws enacted to form segregation, justify lynching, and the other atrocities that happened pre-Civil Rights Movement.  Why would we still subconsciously submit to these false stereotypes? Have you ever watched TV?

In the media, nearly every person of color fits into some stereotype. African American men are portrayed as either only successful because they are athletes, or lazy criminals with no job. Moreover, no matter which role they portray, they’re shown to be violent. We, then, are subliminally told to fear them, not to admire them, and definitely not to respect them.

African American women are often portrayed as having children they do not want—or worse, need. They are shown to be loud mouthed, disrespectful, and either sexually unattractive or promiscuous. In that way, white men would never “want” to be with them sexually, and if they are with them, it is because the women are “giving it away”—the men are led on by sexual prowess and promiscuity. Sadly, this stereotype was born of the “Mammy” figure in order to cover the sins of white men who raped African American slave women.  Male or female, these stereotypes are dangerous and damaging to the African American community. Yet the media perpetuates them over and over for us to view—although this is improving, somewhat.

Bringing this back to the issue of Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown, we can see that we cannot separate this tragedy from racism. What happened there is so deeply intertwined with racism that we cannot tear them apart. Although people want to deny that and argue only that Michael Brown was a “criminal,” a “thug” who “got we he deserved,” we must ask ourselves why Darren Wilson thought it necessary to use deadly force. For one, he was not carrying a Taser—a fact released after the grand jury decision, but why did he think he needed to shoot and kill Michael Brown, a young man who was unarmed and who had not committed a violent crime such as murder?

By his own account, Wilson was afraid. He thought Brown was a “demon”.  This man towering near 6’4” and 210 pounds, a man who was carrying a gun and had access to call in back up, feared an unarmed teen—a Black teen. But why? Was it so embedded in Wilson’s subconscious that black men are “demons,” that they want to kill all white men, that his better judgment was lost?  Is this the world we have created, and continue to perpetuate? Are we going to continue to allow groups like the KKK to feed this toxic disinformation to us?

We need to remember from where these stereotypes are born—they are born from hate filled white men, who feared loss of their patriarchal power, and sometimes even their lives, to those they had enslaved for hundreds of years. These stereotypes have no scientific basis—ethnology was disproved decades ago. We must end these lies in order to save lives and procure peace.

If you take nothing else from Ferguson, please at least recognize why this tragedy happened, and why it happens over and over again. It’s not just about one police officer, one child killed, or even one community at odds with itself. This is about an entire group of people seeking no more than the same rights we white people enjoy every day. This is about understanding our fellow human beings as actual human beings who are as capable of being moral and upright as we. We cannot let this fade away, known only as “that time some protesters set some buildings on fire”. No. We need to make this known as the time we all finally came together to change our world—both black and white—for the better. If we want to prevent more Fergusons from happening, if we don’t want more parents to feel the pain the parents of Michael Brown are experiencing, then it’s time to demolish the walls we’ve built, once and for all. Let’s put Jim Crow to rest. It’s long past time to say goodbye to him, the only real demon here today.

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