American black men have historically been depicted as violent, and the racist fear that has resulted means theyre actually constantly at risk and deeply fragile
In the fall of 2013, very shortly after moving to Detroit, I covered the aftermath of the fatal shooting of Renisha McBride. It was a disturbingly grim story. McBride, a 19-year-old black woman from Detroit, had crashed her car in the middle of the night in the white suburb of Dearborn Heights. Seeking help, she ventured to nearby homes and banged on the door of a white middle-aged man, Theodore Wafer. He responded by shooting her dead through his unopened screen door.
The day I got my brief from editors in New York, I was due to meet with my family friend Justin, a Detroit native who, at the time, was working in the lines at Ford. Feeling a responsibility for me, and knowing me to be so far from home, Justin had quickly taken on a brotherly role with me. I liked to refer to him as my fairy godmother.
We made for an eclectic pair. Justin is 6ft 5in, weighs 300lbs and looks like he could be a former American football player. He is black. I am a medium sized white woman, with peroxide hair and a very British accent. He offered to drive me around as I spoke to neighbors of the shooter, community members, the police and activists.
But as we entered Dearborn Heights, a white suburb, I noticed Justin would let me out of the car but never come with me. When we got to the police station, he shrunk in his car. We had lunch together, and the white waitress scowled when we declared we would share the soup.
What you dont see, Rose, he said to me, is that I am in danger here.
It turns out, despite working down the road, Dearborn Heights was a place Justin made sure to never come through. Driving through carried the threat of being pulled over, at the very least. Citing a history of housing discrimination, Justin said he knew he wasnt welcome there. Detroit activists later referred to Dearborn Heights as a sundown town a place black people would historically know they shouldnt get caught after dark. Little had changed, they said.
At the police station, white officers welcomed me with open arms. They laughed and made jokes when I told then I lived in the heart of Detroit, a city as overwhelmingly black as their suburb was overwhelmingly white. Was I safe there? they asked me.
There I was, a single young white woman, and everyone near and far was concerned for my safety. But it was the 300lb man next to me, Justin, who was constantly shrinking, silently modifying his behavior to remain safe. To protect his life. He was the body that was unsafe. Constructs and prejudice meant that black and male was a dangerous combination for him.
The killings last week of two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, at the hands of police, reminded me of the lessons from that day.
In America, black men have historically been depicted as aggressive, hyper sexual and violent to be controlled, to be exploited, to be tamed. The result of that construct and the accompanying racist fear and forced subjugation it justifies has been counterintuitive: black men in America are in actual fact deeply fragile and constantly at risk.
The emotional connection I have [to the news] is that it could be me at any time, any day it could be me, says William Jones, a 22-year-old New Yorker who works in high-end retail.
Every single black man I spoke to for the purpose of this article echoed Jones feelings.
Every day, I live and operate with that feeling of fragility, that feeling that I could be taken out at any time. I am a chokehold away from being Eric Garner, says Ben Saunders, a 37 year-old professor of psychology at Long Island University.
Up until now, Saunders says that he has been vigilant with himself in public. He makes sure to avoid causing a fuss, even if a fuss is warranted. He suppresses any strong feelings of anger. He doesnt speak up. His white wife sometimes wonders why not. Black people have been killed for saying less than that, he says he responds to her.
The consequence of having to modify his behavior in such a way? A loss of dignity, he says.