• Otto Blac

A Brief History of How White America Created Black Criminality

U.S. events that lead to a national acceptance of discrimination and brutality against Black bodies.

Photo from The Charles Chronicle

A permeating framework of media discrimination shifts with time but results in the abuse, imprisonment, or worse for Black bodies. After the American Civil War, white slave owners lost economic power. In order to regain status they enact laws and form vigilante groups under false pretentions of Black Criminality.

Hop on the Magic School Bus; we are going back in time.

Leap to the 17th century (1601–1700), colonial times. England uses American colonies as a wasteland for their underclass. European convicted criminals fill the colonial labor force, along with indentured servants seeking a new life. Back then, slavery would be considered less about color and more about resources. By the time penal transport ceases during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), nearly 50,000 Irish, Scots, and other Europeans arrived at colonies.

Historians trace the first usage of the word “white” to refer to people in a political document. The Naturalization act of 1790 allows citizenship to “free whites” of “good character.” Without citizenship, Blacks and poor whites are denied voting rights, filing lawsuits, testifying in court, and owning property.

After the Naturalization act of 1790, many people of European descent can pass under the “white” umbrella. There were as many as 52 lawsuits between 1878 and 1952 from individuals attempting to gain naturalization by identifying as white. The Naturalization Act of 1790 draws a “white” line between who would receive rights and who could not.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850places bounties on runaway slaves and entice rewards for return. And because Blacks didn’t have the right to testify in a court of law, they were not permitted to dispute their freedom. Slave owners could sign a document claiming ownership, and free blacks would face conscription back into slavery. Confederates Defeated — Racism Evolves After the Civil War (1861–1865), the South was in ruins. Some 4 million former slaves are free with the signing of the 13th Amendment. Almost a quarter of free slaves would die of disease or starvation. During Reconstruction, the 14th Amendment in 1868, was supposed to secure the right to citizenship. Slave owners who depended on Blacks to sustain the economy are left with much work to do themselves.

Fortunately for slavers, a loophole in the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery unless as punishment for crime. Vigilante mobs, known today as Law Enforcement, arrest Blacks for petty offenses and false accusations. Notions of the “Dangerous Negro” build the ideology of Black Criminality while sweeps of arrests rebuild the South.

Media and political speech began to target Blacks as beasts, wild, sexually deviant animals who have no self-control. White men craft fear of black hypersexuality by maintaining a belief that white women’s purity is at risk. Tuskegee University reports around 4743 lynchings that took place between 1881 and 1968. At least 3557 of those lost are Black lives.

According to Wikipedia and resources cited from the US Library of Congress, derogatory language toward black men appears in newspapers across America over 200,000 times in the 43 years after the Civil War. Hate speech trending with as many as 13 mentions per day.

In newspapers, words like “menace,” “beast,” and “rapist” are attributed to black men. Angry white mobs incite violence by destroying black neighborhoods and businesses.White terrorism eludes history books as tortured appendages of Black men are brandished souvenirs. At the same time, American history refuses to assert that Black men never held concubines in mass as slave owners did. Nor have Black men ever held power to separate entire families for financial gain.

I see a black, err— African American male.

Looks suspicious. I am going to follow him.

Black Criminality is an ideology reinforced in subtle and blatant ways in American society and still has it’s effects today. The result is an implicit and visceral discomfort around people of color that very few whites care to condemn, acknowledge, or examine. Black Criminality is why anxious whites deem it reasonable to weaponize police against Black bodies for frivolous errands or mundane tasks such as: visiting a friend, waiting at a Starbucks, using a coupon, cutting grass, cashing a check, staying at a lovely Airbnb, taking a nap in their dorm, swimming in a public pool, picking up trash in their yard, attempting to enter their own business, political canvassing, moving into a new apartment building, not switching seats in class, and for reporting workplace discrimination.

The Black Lives Matter movement works to address the harsh and imbalanced punishment of people of color. Voices of disenfranchised people who are tired of being misrepresented across media and the disproportionate over-reporting of black crime.

The “War on Drugs” is a war on poor People of Color that is far from over. Through the 1970s and ’80s, prison populations sky-rocketed with Black and brown bodies. Studies have shown that mass incarceration did not have the intended effect on crime statistics. Sorry, Hillary. Today the billion-dollar marijuana industry is predominantly white men. Meanwhile, Black and Brown people still suffer the consequences of laws set up to snare and entrap minor offenses.

Without Black Criminality, without fear, many white politicians risk losing constituents. Like when Jerry Goldwater attempted to play on white fears of Black Criminality in 1964 with the Southern Strategy. Luckily, Goldwater was defeated by President Lyndon B Johnson, who went on to sign the Voting Rights Act in 1965.


Hollywood Shuffle directed by Robert Townsend (center) 1987

Hollywood made it especially tricky for Black actors to change the perceptions of Black Criminality in America. Black actors cast as slanged up thugs, drug offenders, muggers, or servants wanted more than to be typecast. Robert Townsend parodies the difficulties of Black actors in his 1987 film, Hollywood Shuffle. In the documentary They’ve Gotta Have Us, Robert Townsend reveals that white casting directors would tell him he wasn’t acting black enough and insisted they knew how black people behaved.

Townsend isn’t the first or last filmmaker to speak up about Black misrepresentation in Hollywood. Late director John Singleton also accused Hollywood of refusing to yield power to Black creatives.

The power struggle between American media and indignifying Black experiences could go on for years when you consider these numbers taken from White race scholar, Robin DiAngelo and New York Times:

People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white People who decide which books we read: 90% white People who decide which news is covered: 85% white People who decide which music is produced: 95% white People who directed the one hundred top-grossing films of all time, worldwide: 95% white Teachers: 82% white Full-time college professors: 84% white

Without the power to consistently create representations of the beauty and truth within Black culture, we are subject to marginalized identities that taper into a monolith of criminal behavior, aggression, and disobedience.

Images used by media for Melvin Harris III and Christoper Watts

Images used by media for Melvin Harris III and Christoper WattsLet’s peek at the media portrayals of two fathers: a Black father who killed his daughter’s rapist, and a white father who murdered his two children and pregnant wife. A google image search of Melvin Harris III and Christoper Watts, reveals a mugshot of a Blackman who defended his family. In another search, we see happy, loving family photos of a white man with his pregnant wife and two small girls. We’re going to remember Melvin’s mugshot in an entirely different way than Christopher Watts because even at the expense of murder, media has spared him from the criminal image.

Today, While the US only accounts for 5% of the world’s population, our prisons account for 25% of prisoners worldwide. In other words, 1 out of 4 people in the world is imprisoned in the United States. While incarceration rates for people of color are down in the last decade, Blacks and Hispanics still make up the majority of incarcerated people. Pundits and basement dwellers will try to argue that Blacks commit more crimes than other races but Blacks are six times more likely to be incarcerated than whites for the same offenses. If Blacks and Hispanics were to be detained at the same rate as whites, prison populations could decline as much as 40%. But that would be an economic loss considering places where American prisoners have been used to make merch and clothing for capitalism.

Black Criminality exists as a way to maintain power over Black identities and to reestablish Black men as commercial property. Whites advanced criminalization of Black men to fill a labor force lost after the Civil War and it has evolved into National Emergency. Today our American system of Racism has never come close to toppling, thus the ideology behind Black Criminality denies the possibility of innocence on sight. Negative imagery of People of Color sustains through poor media representation, biased news coverage, and reigning political malfeasance.

Wesly Michel, who had the police called on him while going to visit a friend, sums up the frustration many People of Color experience when surrounded by (white) people who fail to greet their implicit biases:

“My responsibility is not to make everyone around me feel comfortable. And it’s very important that people understand that. I should be able to walk around freely and not feel that I should constantly prove that I’m not a threat to people around me.”
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