The State Sanctioned Production and Killing of Black Masculinity

by Victor Rios

“He was shot six times because the giant wouldn’t stop or die…”

-Donor for police officer that killed Michael Brown on Go Fund Me website August 20, 2014

“I thank all police, you are the ‘thin blue line’ protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages.”

-Donor for police officer that killed Michael Brown on Go Fund Me website August 20, 2014

The murder of Michael Brown by police has to be understood within the context of policing and violence against Black men and Black masculinities.

Black men in the United States continue to be defined, treated and policed as criminal savages and brutes in need of taming or captivity. This is apparent in the many recent high profile, videotaped, cases of police and vigilante violence on Black men including the killing of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, and Michael Brown, among others. In order to understand why the law, the media, and the public belittle the lives of these and other unjustly killed Black men, we have to understand how the criminalization and policing of black men and black masculinity operates in our society.

Rios_image_September 2014From young ages, Black boys encounter a system of punishment that follows them on the streets, at school, in stores and malls, community centers, and even among family members. In my book (here), I call this the “youth control complex”: a system of ubiquitous punitive social control that systematically strips marginalized Black and Latino men of their dignity and humanity and creates the conditions for their transition through the school-to-prison pipeline. School teachers tell black boys that they have prison cells waiting for them when they turn 18; police pull Black boys out of classrooms for throwing spitballs at teachers; community centers ban those Black boys that have been labeled as bad from activities and programs; and some parents denounce these boys as good for nothing irredeemable criminals because they have been inculcated with the logic and practice of hypercriminalization. It is this ubiquitous and multi-institutional policing of Black men and Black masculinity that fuels the disproportionate police and vigilante real and symbolic killings of marginalized African American men. If everyone else in society has rendered these young men as irreparable, disposable criminals, then what compels police and vigilantes to respect the human and civil rights of young Black men?

In my studies I have found that white women teachers show fear of Black boys and that these young men pick up on this fear and either disengage from the classroom or play into that fear by pretending to be more aggressive then they really are. The boys understand white women’s fear of black boys as unfair and judgmental, as if the fact that they are black and men makes them a threat to innocent white women. This behavior of showing and describing fear of Black boys in the classroom may be a result of the stereotyped expectations of Black men as criminals and sexual aggressors, which is deeply rooted in American culture. The history of lynching and hate crimes against Black men in the United States has often been the result of attacks or accusations of attacks by Black men on White women, a fact well documented by historians (here).

On the streets I have found police officers harassing, brutalizing, or arresting young Black men in order to “teach them a lesson.” I came to this conclusion from my two major field studies where I shadowed a group of delinquent boys in the streets of Oakland, California for three years, observing their interactions with police and other authority figures and later conducted ride alongs with police in Southern California for another four year study with gang associated youths. This process of policing manhood is often a patronizing, patriarchal lesson of being a “real man.” For some of the officers I have observed, their idea of being a man is about having a steady job, not loitering on the street, not wearing baggy pants, and talking to authority with respect. If being a poor, black man means that the statistical odds are stacked against you when applying for work, then does this mean that you are less of a man for not being able to find a job? Police tend to think so. The attitude: if you are not at work, you are not a man. I found that police attempted to beat a working class masculinity into boys who were not able to find jobs despite working hard to do so.   The boys then resorted to creating an alternative masculinity that corresponded with the daily needs of living in poverty.

These two examples of how black masculinity and black men are criminalized and policed in contemporary U.S. society illuminate how the law, the media, and the public are able to justify police and vigilante violence on Black men. The logic seems to be that Black men just don’t get it; they don’t know how to be real men and instead create their own definition of manhood that defies the law and puts “our” communities in threat. Therefore, police and vigilantes have the right and impunity to harass, beat, and murder them.

Patricia Hill Collins reminds us that white masculinity exists only in relation to black masculinity (here). When a white officer or vigilante wants to assert his manhood what better way than by taking on the quintessential hypercriminalized “primitive savage”–the Black man–and teach him a lesson or two?

Black men in the United States continue to be feared for their perceived pathological, brutal, criminal nature. This assumption perpetuated by schools, the media, researchers and others, and played out in the minds of the American public, creates the conditions for the law to justify so many egregious acts of state sanctioned violence against young Black men.

If we want to eradicate state sanctioned violence against Black men like police and vigilante killings, we have to create a new system of justice that trains police officers to reflect on how masculinity plays a role in the perpetuation of violence, and hold them accountable when they violate the civil and human rights of people. We also have to eliminate perceptions of Black men as criminal threats by training teachers in schools, news reporters, law enforcement, and even researchers on the deep historical and contemporary criminalization and policing of Black men and Black masculinity.

Victor Rios is associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  








3 thoughts on “The State Sanctioned Production and Killing of Black Masculinity

  1. Reblogged this on The Shoops Roost and commented:
    The policing and criminalization of black men and black masculinity in the United States is part of the institutionalized racism that endemic to the US. I think this blog post is a great place to steer people who don’t quite understand how and why.

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