In last week’s post, I mentioned that race talk about defunding the police might slide into the repetition of racist beliefs that Black people tend to be more criminal and violence-prone. Students and others sometimes reluctantly confess their fears of going into “the city” or urban areas reputed to be dangerous. Because of a variety of social and economic factors in our racialized, discriminatory society, more Black people live in urban areas, but it is a myth that Black areas are more dangerous or that Black people are more prone to be violent or criminal.
Ibram Kendi, the best-selling author and professor of history and international relations at Boston University, describes how damaging to both Black and White people this racist belief is. In How To Be an Antiracist, in the chapter on “The Body,” he talks about his own acceptance, as a Black man, of the belief that “violence has a Black face” and that he was surrounded by and believed himself to be “a dangerous beast” (Kendi, 2019 p. 71). We have all, myself included, held these fears about who is really dangerous in our society, to the continued economic benefit of those in power.
A teacher or discussion leader, recognizing these beliefs as racist, needs to raise a challenging question, “Does anyone know the history of these ideas?”
The ideas that Black people are more dangerous and more criminal are actually part of a centuries-old campaign to persuade White people that Black people need to be controlled like animals, justifying first their enslavement, segregation, and then later, their imprisonment. (Kendi, 2016 pp. 22-30, 435) Further, Black men and women have long been accused of wanton, animalistic sexuality and of being oversexed and out of control, which was (is) used to justify lynching and other horrible violence against the bodies and the property of people of color as part of our basic “White racial frame.” (Feagin, 2010 p. 167)
The true link to crime and danger, Kendi continues, is not to skin color but to joblessness: “Communities with a higher share of long-term unemployed workers also tend to have higher rates of crime and violence.” Moreover, repeated studies show a direct link between reductionsin violent crime arrests of Black youth, and the growth of summer jobs programs, and Black-owned businesses in an area. (Kendi, 2016 p. 79)
In other words, unemployment, not Blackness, is the cause of higher crime concentrations in some neighborhoods. Even worse, the Black people being blamed for crime are more often the victims of crime because structural racism denies them jobs and then confines them to neighborhoods that suffer chronic unemployment. Kendi also notes, “Unarmed Black bodies—which apparently look armed to fearful officers—are about twice as likely to be killed as unarmed White bodies.” (Kendi, 2019, p. 73) We have seen the evidence in the recent rash of highly publicized police violence against Black bodies in our nation.
Questioning people’s understanding of the history of the racist link between violence, crime, and Black people is the beginning of an antiracist upheaval of White supremacy. And it’s a challenge any teacher can take on by using this simple question, “Does anyone know the history of these ideas?”
Feagin, J. R. (2010). The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York: Routledge.
Kendi, I. X. (2016). Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. New York: Nation Books.
Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to Be an Antiracist. New York: One World.
Photo thanks to Chris LeBoutillier from Pexels