Kellie Carter Jackson: Perceptions of black men as “threatening” seem to be hardwired into the white American psyche. Clockwise, from top left: Jordan Davis, Richard Sherman, Trayvon Martin and Crispus Attucks. (flickr, AP, Wikimedia Commons)

The word “thug” has come to define societal views of black men. Piggybacking on fears of imminent racial violence, it’s become a kind of pejorative shorthand. Most recently, the case of Michael Dunn has outraged many people over the killing of yet another unarmed young black teenager over perceptions of “thug” behavior. Taken into context with two other incidents — the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, along with the January post-game NFL interview of Richard Sherman — use of the word has exploded. On one day last month, “thug” was used 625 times on television alone.

From a historical perspective, this phenomenon of using racially charged language to discuss black behavior begins much earlier.

On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks was killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre. Most Americans know this story because Attucks is one of only a handful of black individuals from the colonial period that the public can readily recall. But what few people know is that the lawyer tasked with defending the British soldiers was none other than our beloved founding father, John Adams.

It is clear that in over 250 years of history, the racially charged perceptions of black men as bearers of a physique so innately menacing that their ‘looks’ alone are ‘enough to terrify any person’ has not changed.

When presenting his case, Adams described the men killed as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs.” To put this in contemporary language, he was basically describing the men as nothing more than a group of “thugs.” He centered his defense of the British soldiers on the charge that Attucks struck the first blow and led the “dreadful carnage.” Adams concluded the “mad behavior” of Attucks provoked the soldiers’ response, claiming that the group was “under the command of a stout molatto fellow, whose very looks, was enough to terrify any person.”

This defense sounds eerily familiar.

So, what about Attucks’s looks seemed terrifying? Attucks, an escaped slave from Framingham, Mass., was 47-years-old when the massacre occurred. He was reportedly 6 feet 2 inches tall, with curly hair. He was described as a “molatto,” or mulatto, allegedly having an African father and a Native American mother. Adams emphasizes Attucks’ race several times within his summation. Why would this emphasis be important? Moreover, why is Attucks’s behavior alone singled out? Why, of the several men killed, is Attucks the only one we know? Furthermore, why is Attucks physical description the primary focus of the threat?

My theory: Adams is playing the race card. He concludes his statements by exploiting the racial stereotypes generally associated with rebellious slaves and attaching the soldiers’ reasonable fear directly to Attucks’s racial status.

Adams uses Attucks’s race to arouse sympathy for the terrified British soldiers and invokes what is commonly known as “Blackstone’s Ratio,” the notion that “it is better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Protection of innocent whites from a terrifying black person had to be the ultimate goal, for without which collective security has no meaning for white citizens. He rests on the rationale that these soldiers were rightfully (and racially) afraid.

When the case concludes, six of the eight soldiers involved were acquitted after two and a half hours of jury deliberation. The remaining two soldiers were found guilty of manslaughter for firing into the crowd. But both were eventually given reduced sentences from death to the branding of their thumb in court, a proverbial slap on the wrist, if there ever was one.

It is clear that in over 250 years of history, the racially charged perceptions of black men as bearers of a physique so innately menacing that their “looks” alone are “enough to terrify any person” has not changed. The Attucks case provides an implied precedent that powerfully explains the lack of justice present when whites cite self-defense in criminal cases against black people.

In the case of Trayvon Martin, the fear of blackness as dangerous weighed heavily in the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who on his 911 call declared, “This guy’s looks like he’s up to no good…”

When will the ‘innocence’ John Adams speaks of ever be accorded to black men and women?

Pan-African studies professor, Shirletta Kinchen, offered a most sobering thought recently when she summed up the tragedy of Jordan Davis this way on her Facebook page: Had [Jordan] Davis been alone in the car, Michael Dunn would have walked away a free man as well.

Or on the (now defunct) justicefordunn website, an author who claims to be Dunn writes, “I blame ‘Gangsta Rap’ music and the thug culture that goes along with it for influencing violence.” Some could call it coded language, but I call it racism, which somehow makes black men responsible for their own deaths.  TWEET

When will the “innocence” John Adams speaks of ever be accorded to black men and women?Indeed, past is prologue. But for black Americans, few can afford to live in the present or in the past, there is only the present past. From Oscar Grant to Trayvon Martin, to Renisha McBride, to Jonathan Ferrell, to Jordan Davis, the times, it seems, will always be a reincarnation of black suffering. As William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Tags: Crime, History, Law, Race

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  • Elizabeth Buckley

    The line posted on wbur’s main page to have you click through to this article mentions fear of black men being “hardwired into our psyche”. This seems to go against the article, and the reality that this fear is a careful creation of dominant culture.

    • rc2132

      We do know from testimony that Martin was a racist. Maybe we should look into the racist attitudes of blacks. I think this article is probably just the latest attempt at racebaiting

  • X-Ray

    Including the Martin/Zimmerman case as an example of a “thug” illustrates the
    point of the article. The jury found Zimmerman not guilty based on the evidence
    of Martin bashing Zimmerman’s head on the concrete sidewalk; i.e., in fact
    acting like a thug.

  • danablue

    X-Ray, that begs the question: why did Zimmerman follow Martin in the first place? Because he had decided that Martin looked dangerous. Zimmerman was allowed to stalk this kid, decide he was dangerous, provoke an altercation, and then use the defense that he was in fear for his life. What this piece illustrates is that Martin isn’t seen as the victim, but Zimmerman is — even though had Zimmerman just let the kid walk home, none of this would have happened. In other words, if Martin did bash Zimmerman’s head on the sidewalk, why wasn’t THAT seen as him acting in self defense against a strange man stalking him? Because the narrative of this country is that the black man is always the aggressor, never the victim, and the other person is always the threatened, never the threat.

    • X-Ray

      I don’t want to reargue the facts. But the facts found by the jury are that nothing that Zimmerman did was illegal and that Martin attacked Zimmerman and put Z’s life in danger because Z was following him in Z’s home neighborhood.

  • FerialDay

    I’m old enough to remember when “thug” meant an Italian man (or possibly a Pole). Let’s get past this, people. We can do it!

    • X-Ray

      So what, we can’t have thugs anymore? Or that just that they can’t be Italian, Poles, or Blacks, so that we can all just be PC?

  • LeftShooter

    Hmmm, I see John Adams as being precisely the kind of defense attorney I’d want defending me. I think I also saw the Adams/Attucks precedent at play in the defense offered by Johnnie Cochran in the OJ Simpson trial

    Second, I disagree with the Facebook “analysis” (Pan-African studies
    professor, Shirletta Kinchen, offered a most sobering thought recently
    when she summed up the tragedy of Jordan Davis this way on her Facebook page: Had [Jordan] Davis been alone in the car, Michael Dunn would have walked away a free man as well.” ) since if Davis had been alone in the car, it would have been a simple matter afterwards to determine whether a shotgun—which Dunn thought he saw—was indeed in the car and available to Davis. If you believe that there was no shotgun or other weapon available to Davis with which to threaten Dunn—and none were discovered, Dunn would probably have faced and been convicted of an unambiguous murder charge.

    Last, at bottom we are talking about stereotypes. I wish that the author had researched whether this “black as dangerous person” stereotype has any basis in fact. If she had, she might have seen that, according to FBI data, blacks, which are about 13% of US population, constituted about 41% of
    the perpetrators of US homicides over the 2000-2010 period. For me, I wish the “Cognoscenti” would present/acknowledge the facts first and then present possible solutions or other analysis–instead of just jumping on the bandwagon of some narrative or another.