At a National Black Peace Officer conference held last week in Los Angeles, officers spoke on the recent series of shootings involving African American men. Officers were polled and felt, in most cases, incidents like these are based on fear—the fear of the African American male.
An officer who preferred to remain anonymous, believed the Feguson shooting was a result of fear and anger because of the number of shots fired at Michael Brown. The anger, more than likely, came from percieved disrespect the White policeman may have encountered from Brown. The African American lawman goes on to say that many non-Black officers understand that fear is the best excuse/reason for firing your weapon. When African Americans are shot by police (or civilians) in a region that uses Stand Your Ground laws it is easier to win a verdict of justifiable homicide.
During the Trayvon Martin case, Patricia A. Wallace, a noted Michigan-based clinical psychologist said fear is generally described as a basic emotion occurring in response to an arousal or sensation that invokes a unique response within each individual. Fear of certain people or situations can be learned and is easily explained by theories of conditioning. The level or degree of fear an individual perceives is dependent on his or her personal history and the circuitry of the brain. Personal fear ranges in degrees from mild caution to extreme phobias and cause a detachment from reality. Wallace wants to quantify fear because the array of ways that a claim of “reasonable fear” could be interpreted provide opportunities for misinterpretation when incidents like Ferguson and Trayvon Martin occur. “How can we determine the level of fear without coming to some type of agreement that doesn’t allow for open season on African American males?” said Wallace.
Wallace believes that advocates of the Stand Your Ground laws would likely view standardization of the concept of reasonable fear favorably. They would realize that by employing a standard delineation, the possibilities of misuse of the genuine intent of the law are lessened tremendously.
President Barack Obama once said he has encountered White females avoiding him in his younger years, choosing to cross the street while clutching their purses and these are incidents that many Black men have learned to accept as commonplace, according to Dr. Sandra E. Cox, executive director of the Coalition of Mental Health Professionals. “Society has taught us to feel threatened by the Black male and as a result [they] are gunned down. There are alternatives to shooting to kill. How about non-lethal weapons, like tasers?”
In “Black Child” a book by Phyllis Harrison-Ross M.D., she describes an interview with a pregnant White female, who one day while riding an elevator encountered an African American male. Being on the elevator with just the two of them she became so scared that her uterus started to contract. Dr. Harrison-Ross stated the tension from the fear the woman experienced would likely impact the unborn fetus who may later develop a fear for African Americans.
However, that was only a personal theory until recently when research conducted by Jacek Debiec, a Polish-born psychiatrist-neuroscientist, proved that there is clinical evidence that fear is transmitted across generations, though scientists know little about how the transmission occurs.
What is known is that it involves the lateral amygdala—an area that detects and plans response to threats. The amygdala is a small nugget of the brain nestled in the medial temporal lobe. “A fetus is capable of detecting smell and taste and when a pregnant woman is scared the fetus will smell their mother’s fear. Mothers teach babies their own fears by producing ‘alarm’ odors. If the pregnant female described by Harrison-Ross fears continue into infancy, there is a strong possibility that the infant will fear African American males. Infants can learn from their mothers about potential environmental threats before their sensory and motor development allows them a comprehensive exploration of their surrounding environment,” reported the study.
Debiec recalls working with the grown children of Holocaust survivors who experienced nightmares, avoidance instincts and flashbacks related to traumatic experiences they never had themselves. While they would have learned about the Holocaust from their parents, this deeply ingrained fear suggests something more at work, he says.
Referencing the Ferguson shooting, Jens David Ohlin, a criminal law professor at Cornell University Law School, believes if there was a physical confrontation and if Brown charged at the officer—considering his size—that would definitely leave an impression of fear on anyone in the courtroom and reinforce the police officer’s self defense claim. “He was scared and feared for his safety. Under these conditions you could easily convince a jury that this was a justifiable homicide.” Additionally, there is the accusation that Brown attempted to take the police officers gun.
Ohlin is referring to recent reports that originated from a woman known only as Josie. She claims to be a personal friend of the shooter, Officer Darren Wilson, and stated that Wilson told her that he fired shots as a result of Brown running away from him, then turning around and charging toward him. He fired shots allegedly saying that the teen seemed ‘like he was on something’ and that he was in fear for his life.
Based on justifiable homicides reported to the FBI, on average there were 96 cases of White police officers killing African Americans each year between 2006 and 2012.
The unfortunate reality is that as long as the fear of African American men—warranted or otherwise—remains prevalent in global society, incidences such as the Ferguson shooting will continue to occur.