REPOST: The Impact of Racial Labeling

Originally published on April 20, 2015. 

My Dear Readers,

Labeling is a necessity in life.  It is through labeling that we identify differences among ourselves.  However, it comes with a price that we pay when this labeling impacts the way we view our relationships.

Recently while looking at Facebook, I came across an interesting video of a young black man following an encounter with a police officer. Prior to reading the post, I took a deep breath to prepare myself for what I assumed was going to be another traumatic experience concerning a black man and the police.

In viewing the video, I was surprised as the young man spoke eloquently about the traffic stop in Lexington County, SC and how he and the police officer handled themselves.  The young black man stated that as he was being pulled over, he followed his protocol of safety—he kept his hands on the steering wheel, and remained polite and calm.  He added that the police officer was professional and most importantly, both the police officer and the black man left the encounter alive and without incident.

What I find interesting about the video is the young man’s comment that “we should all stop the labeling.”  He added that not all police officers are bad and not all black men are good. Needless to say, the post went viral; such comments were not expected from a black man.

The young man is correct.  Not every police officer is bad, and not all black men are good.  However, the fact remains that society grants the police officer the power to take a life when justified to do so.  In doing so, the society turns a blind eye, a silent tongue, and a deaf ear to the screams and pain of the black community when it comes to police misconduct.

Labeling is indeed destructive.  In identifying differences, there is real possibility that labeling will also reinforce stereotypes, prejudices and bias we hold towards each other.  In doing so, the ultimate outcome is that we are living in fear of each other.

The question is: can we really stop the labeling?  The young black man doesn’t realize that he, by following his safety protocol, he acknowledges the label he bears—one of being viewed as a threat to the police officer—and, by using the safety protocol, is consciously sending a message to the police officer differentiating himself from “those people.”  He is essentially saying, “I am not a threat to you.”

However, what about the others who did not follow similar behaviors, but also do not pose threats?  Are they not worthy of being shown the same professionalism?  Can I assume that the police officer in the next encounter will treat me in the same professional manner that the young black man was treated?

We will not stop the labeling because it is not in the interests of the dominant group to do so.  Why?  Fear.  The dominant group has historically lived in fear and from the way life is looking, they will continue to do so. Labeling allows society to rationalize and makes sense and justification of its actions and behaviors.

There is an old saying: “If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, looks like a duck, flies like a duck, it must be a duck.”

Not necessarily.  Using that analogy, black people must walk and talk like white people because their very skin carries the label of “criminal,” which is incorrect in most cases. Through this reasoning, we must act like white people, but we are not guaranteed to be treated like whites, regardless of how well we behave.

Labeling of black people continues to this very day.  On 4.12.15, the media reported that two African-American men, both students at Troy University, were arrested and charged with raping a woman during Spring Break on a Florida beach in broad daylight.  The sexual assault, carried out by four individuals, was witnessed by hundreds of others who did nothing to intervene.

The entire assault was videotaped on a cell phone.  Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen in his press conference, stated:

“This is happening in broad daylight with hundreds of people seeing and hearing what is happening and they are more concerned about spilling their beer than anyone getting raped. It was the most disgusting, sickening thing and likened the scene to wild animals preying on a carcass laying in the woods.

This is such a traumatizing event for this girl.  No one should have to fear this would happen in Panama City Beach, but it does.”

There have been six recent incidents involving law enforcement and alleged abuses:

  • Columbia, SC: A state trooper shot a black man at a gas station after ordering him to get his driver license.
  • North Charleston, SC: A police officer shoots a black man five times in the back as he runs away. The police officer plants a weapon next to the victim’s body.
  • North Augusta, SC: A police officer fatally shoots an unarmed black man in his driveway.
  • Tulsa, OK: A reserve sheriff’s deputy fatally shoots a black man while he is subdued on the ground.
  • Los Angeles, CA: Ten sheriff’s deputies are placed on administrative leave for the beating of a white man who had been subdued following a long distance chase on a stolen horse.
  • Sacramento, CA: A sheriff’s deputy is placed on administrative leave following the beating of a white man and stomping on his head after being asked by the victim in a polite manner to stop blocking traffic.

Most of the incidents share the following common thread:

  • The six incidents were all caught on video,
  • All the individuals involved were either suspended, placed on administrative leave, or fired from their respective law enforcement organizations.
  • All of the individuals have been immediately identified, formally charged for criminal actions, and/or may be charged pending the outcome of an independent investigation.
  • The local law enforcement authority and city leaders have immediately issued statements of condemnation of the actions and have been transparent regarding releasing information regarding these incidents.

However, due to racial labeling, the incidents are being portrayed differently.

  • The actions of the law enforcement officers are being portrayed as either rogue cops, traumatized due to a prior shooting (the SC state trooper) or being poorly trained.
  • The actions are of the law enforcement officers are being cast as “isolated incidents.”
  • We are asked to view the law enforcement officers as individuals and not be reflected on the law enforcement or policing institution as “group behavior.”

In incidents regarding the actions of the law enforcement, there is now the clear intention of transparency to prevent the “labeling of the police as a group’.  Why? Because neither the police nor the greater society want law enforcement at large to be viewed as out of control and untrustworthy.

This does not apply to the two black men involved in the sexual assault at the beach in Panama City, FL.  The two men have been suspended from school, immediately charged and awaiting trial.  Unlike with the police officers, who are being identified as individuals involved in criminal or alleged criminal behaviors, the media and the police are going to great lengths to label these young men not as individuals, but rather as members of a group engaging in “animal type behavior.”  To restate the comments of Sheriff McKeithen,

“It was the most disgusting, sickening thing and likened the scene to wild animals preying on a carcass laying in the woods. This is such a traumatizing event for this girl.”

Earlier I stated that that the dominant group will not stop labeling, especially when it comes to the identification of black men.  Fear sells.  It sells guns and ammunition.  It impacts the voting and legislation in federal, state and local government.

Racial labeling and fear go together like two favorite deserts that we can’t seem to do without.  It is as American as apple pie and vanilla ice cream.  There is much more to come.  Fear sells… and the dominant group is buying it.

Until the next crossroads…. the journey continues.

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