WASHINGTON, April 24, 2013 – For years, psychologists have administered a test quickly flashing images on a screen in front of subjects and asking them to click a button that shoots the man on screen if he’s holding a weapon and not shoot if he’s holding a harmless object. Think fast. Go on gut instinct.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have taken this test and overwhelmingly white, black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans shoot men of color faster than they shoot others, even when they’re not holding a weapon.
If this were not true, then John King’s faux pas on CNN reporting the Boston bombers as “dark-skinned males” might have been un-noteworthy. Yet TMZ likewise played to our implicit associations between men of color and violence by claiming one of the bombers was “heavy into hip-hop.” To wit, even when the culprits turn out to be Russian, people of color are still implicated.
Not only should we not be ashamed to hold this association between men of color and violence, it shouldn’t even be implicit, Pat Buchanan argues. For Buchanan, we should shoot “dark-skinned males” faster because to do otherwise is very likely suicidal, all the more so for a nation, he argues in his book released last year: Suicide of a Superpower.
Ralph Nader put the following question to Buchanan: acknowledging that urban street crime is disproportionately committed by young men of color, Nader asked, isn’t most “corporate” crime committing by whites men? Buchanan had to agree. But Nader was too handicapped by his consumer advocate one-trick-pony-ism to press the further issue with Buchanan: what color are most American serial killers, mass murders, domestic terrorists, and the men on the other end of “Amber Alerts”?
The “rational” basis for implicitly associating men of color with violence is only rational if we extend that logic to white young male loners, which from Oklahoma City to Newtown has been the profile of mass murders. But of course we don’t do that. We don’t do it for precisely the same reason TMZ linked the Boston bombers with hip-hop.
It’s the same reason two years ago FOX’s Bill O’Reilly took issue with rapper Common performing at the White House, because the Chicagoan defended “cop killers” in his lyrics. Yet, as Jon Stewart pointed out to O’Reilly in an interview, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Bono have all praised “cop killers” in past lyrics, which did not spark the same outrage when they performed at the White House.
Simply put: black anger and brown anger are different than white anger. A 2009 Northwestern University study showed pictures of male executives to other executives and found those judged “baby-faced” to be highly predictive of which of the black male executives held higher positions in their companies, but for white male executives being judged a “teddy bears” is negatively correlated with success.
Success as a person of color, the study noted, depends in no small part on “posses[ing] disarming mechanisms—physical, psychological, or behavioral traits that attenuate perceptions of threat…” They called their study: The Teddy Bear Effect.
Some groups are defined by their worst elements. Other groups, despite Columbines and Auroras, are not. That is to say, some groups are understood in their full humanity, while others groups are reduced to impossible caricatures like either killers or teddy bears.