Race and Death: Breathing While Black

By Tom Rudd, Director of Education and Emerging Research,

Also published on Race-Talk

Death is inevitable. In an ideal world, we would all die in our sleep in a peaceful state of bliss without pain or regret.  In the real world, death comes at its own pace and in myriad ways.  Most of us, especially the young, want to avoid the topic of death altogether; it’s too finite. Many philosophers and social scientists believe that the avoidance of death and the fear of death are deeply ingrained in our psyche.

But, if we are paying attention, we know that many of the choices we make in our everyday lives have the potential to expose us to sudden unnatural mortality.  Illegal drug use, reckless driving, smoking, even unprotected sex can all have lethal consequences; and while every death diminishes the human family in some way, we tend to temper our sympathy when people make free conscious choices that place them in harm’s way.

But what about seemingly natural and neutral conditions that do not involve choice —like race ? When we examine the history of race in America we see an inexorable connection between blackness and unnatural death beginning with slavery, moving through Jim Crow and on to Trayvon Martin.

The historic record shows that the institution of slavery was punctuated with unnatural death at every corner. It is estimated that between one and two million African men, women and children died of starvation and disease in the holes of slave ships in the Middle Passage to the Americas or were chained together and cast into the sea when supplies of food and water ran low or to quell an insurrection or to avoid detection by the naval authorities.

On plantations, enslaved people were classified as sub-human to justify their brutalization and murder. In the Jim Crow South, entire communities of whites often gathered in a festive family atmosphere to murder a black man by hanging for a crime no more serious than gazing directly into the eyes of a white woman. Black people were systematically murdered for demanding the opportunity to live as fully engaged citizens. The historic legacy of “death by blackness” is clear, but why does this legacy continue today? An examination of Trayvon Martin’s tragic death provides some answers.

Research on implicit racial bias and stereotyping strongly suggest that African Americans, and especially African American men and boys, have been demonized into a caricature that depicts them as criminals and thugs; a group that signals danger for many whites.  For example, research on “shooter bias” (also called the “shooter effect”) suggests that, in simulation tests, a white person requires less decision time to shoot an unarmed black man than to shoot an armed white man and that whites will shoot African Americans more frequently (Correll, Park, Judd, and Wittenbrink, 2002;  Greenwald, Oakes, and Hoffman, 2002, Payne, 2006).

Police shootings of unarmed black men give salience to this dynamic in the real world. The implication here is that endemic biased reporting on black crime and distorted depictions of black people—especially black men—in the popular media have created a racialized landscape in which all black people represent some level of danger to most people who are not black. While following Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman told police that the teenager was “real suspicious; looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.”  This racialized biased perception of danger compelled Zimmerman to follow Martin even when the police told him that they did not need him to do that. The unavoidable assumption here is that if Trayvon Martin had been white, he would be alive today.

The shooting death of a 17 year old unarmed African American teenager in Florida seems to have stimulated the white public consciousness to at least consider that blackness is central to this tragic event.  It appears that many whites who would not ordinarily be engaged around issues of blackness and racial inequality are outraged by this killing and seem to have contextualized some connection, albeit fuzzy, between Trayvon Martin’s blackness and his death. This tragic event creates an opportunity to energize this dialogue, to expand on it and to illuminate the countless ways in which implicit racial bias, racial resentment and structural barriers have deprived African Americans of opportunity and life.