Saturday, October 25, 2014

Racism as a story of fear

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the power of story in our lives. I'll likely be writing more about all that soon. But today I'd like to focus on the idea that much of the racism we see these days is rooted in a story of fear.

By now a pattern has emerged in the stories we've heard about the shooting of unarmed black men/boys. Whether its George Zimmerman, Michael Dunn or Officer Darren Wilson - all have claimed that they fired shots in self-defense because they feared for their lives. If we give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that this was their motivation, the question remains whether or not that fear was justified by the actions of their victims.

That's what makes the shooting of Levar Jones by state trooper Sean Groubert an important piece in this puzzle, even though Jones survived. Groubert is also basing his defense on the idea that he feared for his life. But we have videotape evidence of the events provided by the officer's dash cam.

Here is the story Groubert tells his supervisor about what happened.
I pulled him over for a seat belt violation. Before I could even get out of my car he jumped out, stared at me, and as I jumped out of my car and identified myself, as I approached him, he jumped headfirst into his car. I started retracting back towards the rear of his vehicle, telling him, 'Look, get out of the car, let me see your hands.' He jumped out of the car. I saw something black in his hands. I ran to the other side of the car, yelling at him, and he kept coming towards me. Apparently it was his wallet.
And here's the video of what actually happened.

As Leonard Pitts writes, if we give Groubert every benefit of the doubt, we are left with a racism embedded in a story of fear.
But what he [Groubert] is, is a citizen of a country where the fear of black men is downright viral. That doesn’t mean he burns crosses on the weekend. It means he’s watched television, seen a movie, used a computer, read a newspaper or magazine. It means he is alive and aware in a nation where one is taught from birth that thug equals black, suspect equals black, danger equals black...

The Groubert video offers an unusually stark image of that fear in action. Viewing it, it seems clear the trooper is not reacting to anything Jones does. In a very real sense, he doesn’t even see him. No, he is reacting to a primal fear of what Jones is, to outsized expectations of what Jones might do, to terrors buried so deep in his breast, he probably doesn’t even know they’re there.
It is in this way that the stories we tell ourselves take precedence over the actual circumstances of our lives. Unless and until we recognize that fact of human existence and begin to examine the stories we tell ourselves (especially the ones that are based in fear), we'll never understand the ways we have embraced the "isms" we've been fed all our lives. As we've seen lately, our certainty that these stories we tell ourselves are a true reflection of reality is dangerous.


  1. (shrug) the fear story is an exculpatory story - just like the "oh i didn't know" story

    the point of exculpatory stories is to be allowed to do it AGAIN

    it's not a fear issue, it's not an "education" issue. it's a WE WANT TO KEEP DOING IT AND THESE STORIES ALLOW IT issue

  2. Another point...this fear is promoted and reinforced institutionally....if it wasn't it would have died a death by now...this fear keeps those with power in power...

    actually I have grown weary of always having to explain white privilege to white folks and how it is maintained by institutional racism...sigh...

    until we are able to dismantle those pillars of institutional racism...we will continue to fight this battle...


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