Fear Of Black Men: How Society Sees Black Men And How They See Themselves

Mar 31, 2015
Originally published on April 8, 2015 3:31 pm

It's an open secret among African-American men and boys that people are often afraid of them. This week, we've brought that conversation to the airways and social media.

We spoke with Paul Butler, a Georgetown University law professor, and Doyin Richard, a blogger at a parenting blog, Daddydoinwork.com, to talk about how these experiences have affected them.


Interview Highlights

On being racially profiled

Prof. Paul Butler: [I was] walking home in my beautiful upper-middle-class neighborhood in D.C., when the cops start following me —kind of like this cat and mouse thing. They are in their car, and you know, every time I move they move. And we get up to my house and I just stop on the street and say 'what are you doing? And then they say 'what are you doing?' I say 'I live here.' They say 'prove it.' They made me go to my porch, and then when I got there I said, 'you know what, I don't have to proof nothing.' I knew this because I am a law professor. They said, 'we are not leaving until you go in the house, because we think you're a burglar.' I say 'you're doing this because I am black.' They said, 'no, we are not, were black too,' and that was true. These were African-American officers. Even they were racial profiling me, another black man.

Blogger Doyin Richards: When I was out with my oldest daughter, who's [four-years-old], we were in a shopping mall, in a garage in Los Angeles...and there was a lady, who was with her husband. And I could tell they were just really nervous around me. And then we went to an ATM — I had to get some money — and there's another couple and I heard the woman say 'Hurry up, let's go, let's go.' Like I was going to rob them, and my daughter was all like 'What happened dad? What was that all about?' And I have to go into this conversation, 'Well honey, sometimes people look at the color of my skin and they think I am a threat to them.'

On how to appear non-threatening

Blogger Doyin Richards: Sometimes if I am walking down a street or something, I am whistling Frozen songs just to prove that ... 'Hey I have kids, I am not a threat to you. I just want to go home to my family.' So often people just view this as, 'Oh gosh, you're just whining,' or 'they are just making excuses or pulling out some mythical race card that doesn't exist.' This is a real thing.

Prof. Paul Butler: When you're in an elevator or walking behind somebody and you feel like you have to perform to make them feel safe, it's like apologizing for your existence. So I am in an elevator with a white woman and I have to look down to make her feel comfortable. It's like 'excuse poor black me.' And you get angry and you get tired. But as a prosecutor, you also kind of understand where some these attitudes come from. Because while most black men don't commit any crime, of men who commit crime, a disproportionately number are African-American. And so yeah, sometimes there's a tendency to say, 'Well, gee if you other brothers weren't doing this, I wouldn't have to be in this position."

On being proud of being a black man.

Prof. Paul Butler: one problem with conversations like this, is it doesn't get across that I love being a black man. I feel connected, like when I see President Obama's swag, I get that as a black man. When I hear Jay Z's cool ... I kind absorb and relate as well. Sometime we don't talk about the joy of this identity, and how proud I am to be African-American and a man.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This morning we'll explore a challenging question about race. It's a whether an automatic fear of black men fuels racial tensions and racial disparities. Here's NPR's Michel Martin.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: On Monday on All Things Considered, we talked with two researchers about how fear may affect how black men and even boys are treated by law enforcement and potential employers. This morning, we're taking a closer look at how these fears may affect the way black men feel about themselves and each other. I spoke with Doyin Richards, founder of the parenting blog daddydoinwork.com, and with Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center and a former federal prosecutor. And I started by asking Paul Butler about whether he had ever had the experience of being seen as frightening.

PAUL BUTLER, BYLINE: All the time. I mean...

MARTIN: Even now?

BUTLER: (Laughter). Walking home in my beautiful upper-middle-class neighborhood in D.C., when the cops start following me - kind of like this cat-and-mouse thing, they're in their car, you know, every time I move, they move. And we get up to my house, and I just stop in the street and say, what are you guys doing? And they say, what are you doing? I say I live here. They say prove it. They made me go to my porch. And then, when I got there, I said you know what? I don't have to prove nothing. I knew this because I'm a law professor. And they said, we're not leaving until you go in the house because we think you're a burglar. I said you're doing this because I'm black. They said, no, we're not. We're black, too, and that was true. These were African-American officers; even they were racially profiling me, another black man.

MARTIN: This is very interesting, and I'm going to raise another issue about that. But first I want to hear from Doyin Richards. You're the father of two young daughters, and you were telling us that your daughters notice that people seem to be afraid of you. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

DOYIN RICHARDS: Oh, yeah. I mean, in - my personal story is when I was out with my oldest daughter, who's 4. We were in a shopping mall in a garage in Los Angeles, and we're walking. And there's a lady who was with her husband, and I could tell that they just got really nervous around me. Then when we went to an ATM, I had to get some money, and there's another couple. I heard the woman say, hurry up, let's go, let's go, like I was going to rob them. And my daughter was like what happened, Daddy? What's that all about? And do I have to go into this conversation of yeah, well, honey, sometimes people look at the color of my skin and they think that I'm a threat to them?

MARTIN: You know, to that end, we put out a call on social media asking people either whether they either felt fear of black men or whether they were black men themselves who saw other people reacting to them. And we heard from a number of people, one of them was a man named William Underwood of Chicago, Ill. He talked about how often he feels like he needs to prove that he's not dangerous. This is what he told us.

WILLIAM UNDERWOOD: Every day, every day I get tired of it. It's very difficult because you just are constantly thinking about what you have to do next - how you move and how you perceive yourself that could be dangerous. When you're in public areas, particularly like transportation, I don't pull my phone out really quickly because people think, like, it's a gun or something, and I wish that wasn't the case. I wish people would see me as the person that I am. People don't see that, and that's heartbreaking sometimes.

MARTIN: I hear a lot of emotion there, Doyin.

RICHARDS: Wow, yeah. And I completely hear what he says. And every day for me as well, you know, sometimes if I'm walking down a street or something I'm whistling "Frozen" songs just to prove that, like, hey, I have kids. I'm not a threat to you. I just want to go home to my family. So often people just view this as like, oh, gosh, you're just whining, or they're just making excuses or pulling out some mythical race card that doesn't exist. This is a real thing.

MARTIN: Well, put to that end though, Paul, I mean, let me play another clip from a man named Leo Cunningham. He's an ordained minister in Columbus, Ohio. We actually heard from him in an earlier conversation on All Things Considered, but let's just hear something that he had to say about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LEO CUNNINGHAM: I have been in situations where I'll maybe assess another black man. It's a question of his age, how is he dressed, the environment that we're in. And sometimes it's as simple as the proverbial head nod to make sure that we see each other. We respect each other, and neither one of us is not only a threat to each other, but we agree we're all in kind of the same common journey as black men in America.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. What about that, Paul? I mean, some people would hear that and say, OK, you've internalized this. But then other people might say that's just common sense. I mean, I think a lot of people might remember Rev. Jesse Jackson where he talked about it hurts him to - if it's a young black kid walking behind him and to be leery about that, but what about it?

BUTLER: So statistically, the young black man walking behind Rev. Jackson has worked a long day at a low-wage job and just can't wait to get home to his girl or to his children. And this is exactly why it's tiring because when you're in an elevator or walking behind somebody and you feel like you have to perform to make them feel safe, it's like apologizing for your existence. So I'm in an elevator with a white woman and I look down just to make her feel comfortable, it's like excuse poor black me. And you get angry, and you get tired.

But as a prosecutor, you also kind of understand where some of these attitudes come from because while most black men don't commit any crime, of men who commit crime, a disproportionate number are African-American. And so, yeah, sometimes there's a tendency to say, well, gee, if you other brothers weren't doing this, then I wouldn't have to, you know, be in this position.

MARTIN: Finally, I am interested in why you think people should care about this who aren't black men. Paul?

BUTLER: Well, I don't know. Maybe 'cause we're American, maybe because we're part of this society, and so for moral reasons, I think people should care and also because we're here. We're not going anywhere. Can I just add that, you know, one problem with conversations like this is it doesn't get across that I love being a black man. I mean, I just feel connected. Like, when I see President Obama's swag, I get that as a black man. You know, when I hear Jay-Z's "Cool" I get a - LeBron James, all that I kind of absorb and relate to as well. Sometimes we don't talk about the joy of this identity and how proud I am to be African-American and a man.

MARTIN: Paul Butler is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Doyin Richards blogs at daddydoinwork.com. It's a parenting blog. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

BUTLER: It's great to be here.

RICHARDS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.