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The Most Dangerous Place in America for Black People Is the Imagination of Our Neighbors

We protest because we are not safe. White America turns us into a threatening presence inside their heads — and we die because of what they imagine

For the last few nights, those protesting the wrongful death of George Floyd have spread across the country and turned destructive. They’re setting institutions ablaze for one simple, self-evident reason: Black men and women know that when we wake up every day there is no guarantee that we will be able to keep our life, our liberty, let alone pursue happiness because some racist may get scared of their imagination and decide to kill us. 

Every Black person in America — Black men and Black women, Black boys and Black girls, even our elderly — must deal daily with the fact that our neighbors might turn us into a threatening presence inside their heads.

It turns out that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin knew George Floyd. The two men worked together as security guards at a nightclub restaurant. When off-duty, Chauvin was paid to provide security outside the building. Floyd worked security inside. Yet, when Chauvin saw Floyd on the street, he treated him as a violent threat and used maximum force to extinguish the threat he imagined. He killed George Floyd not because of anything Floyd did, but because of what Chauvin imagined he might do.  

The reason the cops were called is that Floyd allegedly passed a counterfeit $20 bill to a shopkeeper. He used the funny money to buy a pack of cigarettes. It’s similar to how Michael Brown bought a pack of cigarillos, and Eric Garner was accused of selling loosie cigarettes. A small amount of tobacco can become enough of a crime for a Black man to die.

After Floyd left with the cigarettes, the shopkeeper grew worried the $20 bill was fake, so they called the police. This wasn’t their choice; they were following company protocol. When the cops arrived, Floyd’s former co-worker was the one to eventually wrestle him to the ground. Then, two other officers restrained his legs and waist as Chauvin crushed Floyd’s throat with his knee, choking him to death in broad daylight. Floyd begged his former co-worker for air, like Eric Garner he said he couldn’t breathe. Also similarly, a crowd of onlookers filmed his slow execution. At one point, hands in pockets, Chauvin smirked. There was no dire threat to his safety. Chauvin just imagined one. 

In Central Park, Amy Cooper was walking her dog off its leash in an area clearly marked as off-limits for dogs. Christian Cooper, a birdwatcher also out enjoying the park that day, stopped to tell Ms. Cooper that her dog needed to be on a leash because the area they were in is a bird sanctuary. He was clearly a cautious man; he was even wearing a bike helmet at the time. He was also exactly the sort of good citizen we all hope our neighbors to be: A man who follows the rules and was trying to encourage others to follow the rules. He believed that the rule of law was the best way for everyone to get to enjoy the park together. 

What, though, did Ms. Cooper do when this good neighbor asked her to leash her dog, so that way the dog wouldn’t do any damage to the wildlife sanctuary? She pulled out her cell phone and warned the birdwatcher, “I’m calling the cops. I’m gonna tell them there’s an African-American man threatening my life.”

And that’s exactly what she did. She told a 911 operator, voice deliberately quavering, that an “African-American” man was threatening her. After all, she knew what that particular descriptor would mean for the police response. She knew that one fact would stick in the imagination of the cops. She was so painfully familiar with how she and other people like her are afraid of the Black people in their imaginations that she used it against an actual Black person — a birdwatcher wearing a bike helmet in a public park. 

Ms. Cooper is, ostensibly, a liberal New Yorker, a person who “would’ve voted for Obama a third time.” She would likely never call herself a racist. In fact, she said exactly that in her apology: “I am not a racist.” (The four fastest words you’ll ever hear spoken in the English language are I’m. not. a. racist!) But even for white so-called liberals, the presence of a Black-sounding name or a Black person they don’t know is more than enough to imagine a threat.

“I’ve never been so disgusted by my own data,” University of California, Merced professor Colin Holbrook told Science Daily in 2015 about a study he conducted that was designed to study imaginary Black people. “The amount that our study participants assumed based only on a name was remarkable. A character with a black-sounding name was assumed to be physically larger, more prone to aggression and lower in status than a character with a white-sounding name.”

The study’s participants were predominantly white people from 18 to their mid-70s who skewed “slightly left-of-center politically.” They were asked to read two vignettes, worded identically, except for the names, which were racially coded (either as Connor, Wyatt or Garrett, or Jamal, Darnell or DeShawn). When the stories featured Jamal, Darnell or DeShawn, “not only did participants envision the characters [to be] larger, even though the actual average height of black and white men in the U.S. is the same, but the researchers also found that size and status were linked in opposite ways depending on the assumed race of the characters,” Science Daily reported. “The larger the participants imagined the characters with ‘black’-sounding names, the lower they envisioned their financial success, social influence and respect in their community. Conversely, the larger they pictured those with ‘white’-sounding names, the greater they envisioned their status.”

Or as UCLA anthropology professor Daniel Fessler put it at the time, “In essence, the brain’s representational system has a toggle switch, such that size can be used to represent either threat or status. However, apparently because stereotypes of black men as dangerous are deeply entrenched, it was very difficult for our participants to flip this switch when thinking about black men. For study participants evaluating black protagonists, dangerous equals big, and big equals dangerous, period.”

“This study shows that, even among people who understand that racism is still very real, it’s important for them to acknowledge the possibility that they have not only prejudicial but really inaccurate stereotypes in their heads,” Holbrook added. 

In the last few years, we’ve seen a seemingly endless stream of horrific videos recorded on cell phones that offer indisputable evidence of the lived experiences of Black people in America. They show that we can’t leave our homes without facing the very real risk of a fatal racist encounter. They show how we can be turned into a monster by the imaginations of anyone we might meet. I mean, Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson even testified that Michael Brown looked like “a demon.” I much prefer, though, poet Claudia Rankine’s line: “Because white men can’t / police their imagination / black men are dying.”

Black people know we can’t just step outside to go jogging. If we make the same choice Ahmaud Arbery did to live a healthier lifestyle, someone else might get scared and kill us. We can’t be a young woman like Renisha McBride who crashed her car and then walked up to someone’s house, knocked on the front door, looking for help from a neighbor, only to be shot to death through the screen door. We certainly can’t drive around as a lawful gun owner, like Philando Castile did, and tell an officer that we’re carrying a gun to feel safe — because we have no guarantee a cop won’t become terrified of the imaginary Black people in his mind and shoot a real one. (We can’t safely be a boy like Tamir Rice playing with a toy gun in a park either.) 

We can’t even sit on our couch like Botham Jean after a long day of working as an accountant without the possible threat that an overworked police officer might break into our apartment, get confused, get scared, and motivated by what they imagine, decide to open fire

That’s why Minneapolis is burning. And that’s why there will be more police violence to come. Because the most dangerous place for Black people is in the imagination of our neighbors. And what the hell are we supposed to do about that?