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Unpacking Racial Fear

“Blacks must understand and acknowledge the roots of white fear in America. It isn’t racist for a parent to pull his or her child close when walking through a high-crime neighborhood,” according to then President Bill Clinton in 1995. He was juxtaposing white fear with his contention that “White America must understand and acknowledge the roots of black pain. African-Americans indeed have lived too long with a justice system that in too many cases has been — and continues to be — less than just.”

But what about that legitimate fear that white folks have? I tried to address it in 2012 when some of my white friends were identifying with George Zimmerman’s fear when he saw Trayvon Martin, the Black teen who was leisurely walking down the street wearing a hoodie. At this moment in 2020, I think it’s time to think again about the legitimacy of white fear. With minimal clarifying edits, here are my words from 2012:

It was July 4, 1996. I was with my white wife, our four white children and our dear white friends in the Kroger grocery store parking lot in “Suburban Town,” outside Nashville, Tennessee. Lots of other patriots had gathered with us anticipating sundown so that we could enjoy the Independence Day fireworks celebration. While the sun still shone, we were all just killing time. Cars were lined up in their parking places while the erstwhile occupants lounged on truck beds or wandered the aisles laughing and taking in the last moments of sun.

Our younger kids were getting restless, so to occupy them, I volunteered to accompany them to get drinks and candy in the store. We walked toward the store—this slightly built Black man and a gaggle of young white children. All the people we passed were also white, and as we walked I could feel the eyes on me. The kids were innocently oblivious. Not one to shy away, I looked up to greet or at least make eye contact with anyone who dared to keep up the stare. Several young men obliged with scowls that showed me they weren’t in a greeting mood. They wore a standard uniform each punctuated by a baseball cap with a brim curled just a certain way. No one said anything to me. They didn’t have to. They seemed to know innately that the stare communicated their message. On Independence Day.

I felt the message deep in my bones; it was visceral. And not unfamiliar. In earlier months only blocks from that parking lot, young white men sent more explicit messages. On one occasion a carload of baseball-capped white young men cruised by hanging out of a car and yelling racial insults at my white wife and me. And on another occasion similarly dressed young white men drove by pointing gun-shooting gestures at me.

The intimidation is real, although its effectiveness on me varies according to my mood. Most times it is unsettling but not enough to alter any actions I already had in mind. These guys INTEND to be threatening. And I identify them ahead of time by that baseball cap they wear and by the area of town I happen to be in. For me, they are trouble-makers, marked by a number of factors topped off with the baseball cap.

Deconstructing baseball caps

Actually I bear no animosity toward the humble baseball cap. My white son sports a baseball cap with a Dr. Pepper logo. And some of my best friends wear baseball caps; some of those people are white young men from “Suburban Town,” Tennessee. People wear baseball caps for various reasons: Some as a fashion statement, some to show team or brand loyalty, some to keep the sun out of their eyes, some to cover up an embarrassing head or hair situation, and some because they play baseball. Folks wear their caps in various ways: Close to the head, sitting atop, backwards, sideways, or slightly askance. Baseball cap wearers come in varied sizes, shapes, ages, colors, and genders. It would be wrong for me to assume that every baseball cap wearing person of a particular race and gender is somehow dangerous to me.

Despite my history, it would be ridiculous for me to believe that their baseball caps MAKE people trouble-makers or that those caps are symbolic of trouble or even that I should somehow be confused about whether their baseball cap makes them dangerous. A focus on the skin color of the cap-wearer or on a particular area of town does nothing to change the picture. Objectively these guys are no more dangerous to me because they are young white guys wearing baseball caps in this area of “Suburban Town.” But as an isolated Black man on this turf while groups of baseball-capped guys stare me down, I have reason to feel threatened.

Now what if one of those guys was walking in my multicultural neighborhood with a curled rim baseball cap? I’d feel no twinge of threat. My bones don’t recognize a generic baseball-capped young white guy as someone to fear, someone to pursue. If I did feel threatened by a random baseball-capped young white man in my neighborhood, and if I were a neighborhood watch captain, I would call the police. I would follow their advice (knowing that if the perceived threat becomes real danger, at least I have my semi-automatic weapon). As an update, I must speak on a few issues. First I continue to be disturbed by the number of my friends who immediately identified with the living adult man who hunted down a teen rather than the dead teen who was simply walking down the street. They didn’t say, “It could have been me (or my son) being stalked by a car and then by the grown man with a gun and eventually being killed by that gun.” They said, “It could have been me seeing a Black teenager walking leisurely down the street in my neighborhood. Would I have stalked him in the car, gotten my gun, and run after him against police instructions? Would I have assumed that the Black boy must be dangerous? Would I have felt the obligation to chase him down? Would I have followed that ‘obligation,’ or would I consider it too dangerous an option?”

And many still cannot bring themselves to identify with the dead teen. They continue to try to excuse the hunter, the killer. I have said this before. I will say it again.

Two different realities

Now back to President Clinton: in his efforts to be the consummate politician, he conflated two different realities. If white people are afraid in high-crime neighborhoods, they should be excused. But that says nothing about white people’s fear of Black people. The Democratic President, who some dubbed the first Black President (that didn’t last long) actually insinuated that high crime neighborhoods are naturally Black neighborhoods, so white folks should legitimately be afraid of Black people. This is not a small point. We know from research, like the 2014 study from Dr. Eleonora Bartoli and Dr. Ali Michael, in which they interviewed white parents and their white adolescent children, that in addition to passively teaching their children that Black neighborhoods are necessarily dangerous, they teach them that Black people are physically stronger than white people. That’s some built-in racial fear. I don’t know if President Clinton was creating or reflecting the culture or both.

So how legitimate is white fear of Black people? I’m looking at it this way: The vast majority of white Americans have never been actively victimized by a Black person. By “victimized” I include crude, insulting or intimidating comments. They fear Black people because they have been TAUGHT to fear Black people, not because of their own personal experience. But the majority of Black Americans have been so victimized by white folks…repeatedly. Who is legitimately fearful?

So am I unnecessarily parsing the races here? Am I causing division? My aim is not to inflame. It is to inform, to provoke thought, to begin to change narratives. How legitimate is the fear that white people have of Black people with or without a hoodie? And what damage to race relations does the fear promote?