The most vicious, pervasive and enduring stereotypes of African Americans are attributed to African American men. They are feared as the “Brute,” vicious criminal, violent, more animal-like than human. How did Americans, principally white Americans, come to view African American males in this way, and how does this impact the lives of African American males?
The image of the African American male was not always one of the violent Brute. During the enslavement period, the image of the African American male was used to present a benign portrait of slavery. The Sambo caricature was portrayed as the silly, stupid clown who was afraid of the dark, he was happy despite his condition, ever grateful for the paternalism of the enslaver; he even defended slavery. During enslavement, the African American male was Sambo; natural slave-servant, nonviolent, humble, most often playing the role of buffoon, displaying outlandish gestures and physical gyrations. The Sambo image portrayed the African American male as docile, irresponsible, unmanly, servile, grinning, happy-go-lucky, dependent, slow-witted, humorous, childlike, singing spirituals and of course watermelon-eating and chicken-stealing. This African American male image provided a measure of psychological safety and security. If African American males were identified with this image, they were considered nonthreatening.
After Emancipation and Reconstruction, the African American male became a psychological threat to white supremacy, one that had to be eliminated through social control measures or violence if necessary. During this period of southern white males fear and anxiety, a new more threatening image of the African American male had to be created. The “Brute” was born.
The African American male as Brute was and is still portrayed as being a primitive, animal-like creature noted for his sexual prowess but unable to control his sexual impulses. He is represented as sexual predator and violent criminal. The media and politicians have long given credence to this mythical black male Brute. During the 1880s through the mid-1940s, this image made it possible to use extra-legal measures to murder black men through lynching, brutalization and torture. In the 50 years between 1889 and 1941, 3,811 African American men were lynched in the United States. What is the impact of stereotypical images of the violent African American male today?
First, the image of the violent African American man, the Brute is the most pervasive, enduring and influential stereotype of all racial and ethnic groups in the United States. This image is embedded in the collective white American mind.
Second, the sight of the African American male arouses fear, anger and anxiety among whites. Whites feel threatened and in fear of their lives and safety when they encounter African American men on the street, in the elevator or wherever.
Third, African American males are most often the victims of racial hoaxes, crimes committed by members of one race and blamed on a member of another. African American males are the “usual suspects” or scapegoats for white criminals. African American males are routinely used of crimes that they did not commit. For instance, in 1994, Susan Smith drowned her own children and reported that she had been hijacked by a black male. In 1989, black males in Boston were harassed and intimidated when Charles Stuart who killed his own wife reported that it had been done by a black male.
Fourth, African American males are racially profiled. They are stopped and harassed for no reason other than the color of their skin. Of them it is said that they “look suspicious,” “look like they are up to no good,” are “large and dangerous” and even one observed from the air can apparently be seen as “a bad dude.”
Fifth, an African American male who commits a crime is a representative of the black race as opposed to white crime viewed as individual failing. Black men who commit criminal acts are paraded on news channels as representatives of all black men.
Sixth, there is in the collective white American mind that most blacks are criminals.
Seventh, African American males are three times as likely to die from police use of force than males of any other racial or ethnic group.
Eighth, white supremacy ideology links black crime to black inferiority.
It is time to stop the hysteria about the violent criminality of African American men. When have African American men been involved in such heinous crimes as mob violence in which whites were beaten, their homes burned and driven from town? When have African American men engaged in “spectacle violence” in which individuals were lynched, their genitals mutilated and taken home for souvenirs? When have African American men invited their wives and children to lynch parties? How many serial killers, i.e., Charles Manson and Ted Bundy, have been African American?
In the United States, violent crime is “intra-racial”; blacks kill other blacks more than whites, and whites kill other whites more than blacks. Looking at the facts, it reasonable to assume that white Americans should fear violent white men rather than black men? Is it not also reasonable that considering the history of racial violence in America that blacks should also fear violent white men.