When White Fear Leads To Black Death: Is This What Happened To Renisha McBride?

As you can see from the original post date, this article was written in November 2013.  
I still think about Renisha McBride, and now my mourning heart must widen and include so many other people of color who lost their life in similar ways over the year.  I will never accept this as normal, and please do not ask me to rationalize black, brown, and yellow death, no one ever asks me to rationalize white death.  Interesting isnt it, that even in my mourning and grief I have to justify my pain and heart to some insensitive, non-empathetic others.

Since that time there have been many more black deaths at the hands of white citizens, and white police officers, namely Michael Brown and Eric Gardner.  As a psychologist who is black, gay, and spiritually minded, who studies whiteness, anti-racism, racism, oppression, and emotion, this article lays out some of my initial thoughts on how white cognitive processes as well as fear often result in black death.   I am also saddened by the number of other black women, native americans, and asian americans that have been extra-judicially and killed through the use of excessive police force.  Update: 12/8/2014. -Brian L Ragsdale, PhD.

We use our perceptions of race in a multitude of ways; who we date, where we bury our family members, which funeral home we choose, what barber shop or beauty salon we choose, where we live, and how we vote. But somehow all of this information, all of this psychological, empirical, and verified research can not be used as a factor when a white person shoots a black person.  The ways in which we apply are concepts of justifiable and reasonable are also tainted by our perceptions of race.

Racial profiling and the mentality underlying the acceptance of stand your ground laws contain aspects of the “justifiable” and “reasonableness.” concepts.  Some police, for example, often  use race as a factor when they stop and frisk Blacks who they believe fit their criminal profiles.  Store clerks can routinely harass black people while shopping because of our skin color.  University admission officers can use race in making admission and denial decisions.  American citizens will use their perceptions of race in making split decisions about life and death when feeling frightened or threatened by a black person.  Although fear is a common emotion, we do have differing levels and types of fear that courts must consider in white to black murder cases.

I see the way in which Renisha McBride was assassinated, and the response to trauma that will more than likely unfold for her family as a “racialized trauma trifecta (RTT)”.  RTT is a collision of three legal and psychological phenomena; racial profiling, hate crimes, and stand your ground laws.  RTT are not unique to Black families, and have been in existence since our enslavement and routinely have been observed across a 400 year history.  Think Trayvon Martin, middle passage, enslavement of Africans, what happened to black and white college students who tried to integrate Woolworth counters, Mississippi bus burnings, the bombing of the church that killed  4 black girls, lynchings, rapes, church burnings, and countless other traumatic events that the media would lead us to believe are ahistorical events.  The death of innocent, unarmed, African Americans are in fact benchmarks that illustrate white individual and white mob violence.  In fact, being African American means that one has to accept negotiating and coping with RTT as part of our identity development process.

The lawyer for the “homeowner” implied that once her case is presented “people” will see that his actions, the vigilante homeowner were ‘justifiable and reasonable’.

Is it reasonable to assume that a white man living alone, who lives in a 86% white city, where 51 % of the population are women, that he could not defend himself against an intruder?

Is it reasonable to assume that a person who is frightened will call 911 FIRST if he needed help, before bringing a gun to his door and engaging in vigilante tactics?

The concepts of justifiable and reasonableness seem like innocuous and perhaps benevolent terms. They conjure up images of a thriving democracy that approaches a utopian society; where all of us are treated equally and justly.  And these concepts might be more useful for all of us, if our judiciary system didn’t have a long record of treating and thinking about race so unevenly.  Black murder, particularly when a white person is the perpetrator and the victim is black has to be understood from a broad cultural framework of how black lives are devalued, historically, figuratively, and psychologically in historical and modern America.

The problem with the lawyer’s implied defense for the “vigilante homeowner” is that she will have to implore the white jury and white judge  to use their own imagination about what is  justifiable and reasonable to them in their white lives.  This defense is not occurring ahistorically and it is being presented within a contextualized back drop of poor racial relations, within and around Detroit and in our nation.  White lower class individuals are fed media images that promote  fears that blacks and other minorities are taking away something from them.  This legal framework of connecting reasoning to the lived experience of whites routinely leaves African Americans at a disadvantage because these are culturally derived concepts, that rely on consensus building efforts with people who have shared experiences.  Whites often fear blacks and this fear does not have to be verbalized in order for it to be verified as unifying whites.

Concepts of reasonableness can easily become twisted in the minds of some politely racist, sexist, and capitalist patriarchs.  Patriarchs who then offer crazy rationalizations as they stretch to substantiate their reasons for shooting and killing.  The race of the patriarch and how this might effect his thinking can not be entered into courtrooms and thus his decision making process of why he engaged in vigilante tactics then go unexplored.

Why did you own a gun?

To protect myself.

To protect yourself from what?

From someone breaking into my home and hurting me or robbing me.

Have you ever been robbed before?

No (or Yes), either way all of my neighbors have guns because we want to protect ourselves.

Why didn’t you call 911?

I was too afraid.

White Fear and Racial Anxieties

I want to know why some whites believe that they can shoot an unarmed black woman.  I want to know how this level of fear, anxiety goes unexamined and untreated in Whites.  I think that attorneys use the court’s colorblindness about whiteness, and the subsequent downplay of how racial stereotypes influence behavior will be the major challenge for our courts, particularly as the racial demographics are rapidly changing. The courts and the police will say what is always said when the question of racial stereotyping is presented as a possible explanatory factor in our deaths, “Race was not a factor.”

When we use the term race, what we really mean is black or some other ideological reference to a member of an ethnocultural group.   When we examine whites we often view their behavior and actions through an individual lens, this approach essentially disconnects white individual action from white group behaviors.  Am I advocating that all Whites be lumped into one garbage can?  No.  But to ignore what we know about group behavioral patterns based on the types of sophisticated algorithms that Google, Facebook, and Twitter employ seems counterintuitive to how we could use technology to eradicate social problems like racial profiling, hate crimes and so forth.

When we solely explore each individual white person with the strict form of adherence to individual lens, we marginalize the possibility that their actions might be influenced by being part of a white group.  Consider this: where we choose to live is influenced by wanting to associate with our racial and cultural group.  Of course there are a multitude of other factors that go into buying a home; age of house, functional systems within the house, proximity to work and schools, and how much we can afford.  What I am saying here is that part of this decision making process of buying a house is based on our perceptions of race, whether we want to admit it or not.  If this was not the case, then the white flight, that left Detroit to become an 80% black city, and that lead to the creation of white suburbs like Dearborn Heights, would not have been sustainable.

When Blacks are shot by Whites in all white neighborhoods, in order to understand individual behavior we may have to apply a psychologically oriented factorial weighting process based on a group analysis of White behavior.  Because if Renisha McBride was white, the vigilante homeowner may have not mistaken her as an intruder but instead thought of her as a white neighbor in need of help.  Am I advocating some twisted form of penalty based on housing choice?  No, not at all.  But what I am suggesting is that courts allow historical, white group behavior to be entered into legal cases where this data may reflect even remote possibilities of racial profiling, illogical fear, or even the possibility of a hate crime.  “Of the 7,624 hate crime incidents reported nationwide in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available, 34 percent (2,659) were perpetrated against African Americans, a number and percentage of incidents that has changed little over the past 10 years. According to the FBI’s HCSA report, more than twice as many hate crimes were reported against African Americans as against any other group.”

Yet, we readily accept psychological theories on the origin and nature of “black on black violence” and use perceptions of race as an explanatory factor when trying to understand and stop Black death. This over emphasis on black on black violence without a similar exploration of white to black violence needs to change.  Why is it that “white to black violence” gains so little traction and emphasis in psychological, legal, criminal justice system, and sociological studies. “[W]hen white shooters kill black victims, 34% of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable, while only 3.3% of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white.”  This is an alarming statistic about how the concepts of “justifiable and reasonableness” is a major health disparity for African Americans.

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