September 28, 2016

 

“That looks like a bad dude” was a police officer’s assumption in regard to Terence Crutcher, a black male whose car stalled out in the middle of a road in Tulsa, Oklahoma. What made this black male appear “bad” to an officer who was flying above in a helicopter? Was Mr. Crutcher wielding a gun at cops or shouting obscenities? Was it the way he was dressed? Or was it the color of his skin?
I recently posed this question to a relative who is an attorney. She expressed that the officer may have considered that Mr. Crutcher was “bad” because he was walking away, albeit with his hands up, and not following instructions. She added that individuals should not give police officers any excuse to shoot them. This could help remove the “excuse to shoot” and force police departments to address inherent biases. While her scenario sounds plausible, it misses the totality of how we cognitively determine whether someone is “bad”.

 

So what do you see first when you examine the different faces of Mr. Ross Smith? Do you see an award winning journalist, a visual artist, an intelligent son, a loving sibling or a multimedia artist? Mr Bayeté Ross Smith, through the use of his expertise in photojournalism, creatively illustrates how the single face can conjure up many beliefs about who he is. Some of the above images might have him falsely tagged as bad, mischievous or even dangerous. When you associate any of the above images of Mr. Ross Smith with the word “bad”, you are demonstrating the power of narratives that dwell in the subconscious and prompt you to form biased assumptions.

 

Should visual clues alone corroborate the assumption that one is “bad” or justify the killing of a 40 year old unarmed black male? Of course not. In fact, if you search for tangible evidence in isolation from the story you may find yourself duped. That’s because what makes us believe that someone is bad is not always or solely based on what we can visualize with the naked eye. It could include the silent narrative, or the culturally biased story that resides deep inside our mind.

 

Did the description of Mr. Crutcher originate from a subconscious space that is fortified by a false historical narrative of the black male? Big and Black male does not equate to harmful and dangerous. However, so many of us have unknowingly walked into and joined an unrelenting and perilous narrative about the Black male. A story that influences our behavior and could take over our actions. And so, although tired of and frustrated at what appears to be similar events stuck on rewind, we secretly know it’s not over. Another black male will, yet again, be unknowingly placed in the role of “bad” again and again… and again, unless we change the narrative.

 

Is the achievement of a socially just America truly possible? We all have prejudices for or against individuals or groups. So how do we create a safe space for a discourse about the reality of our prejudices and how it influences our behaviors? And then, how do we limit the influence that our prejudicial thoughts and actions have on employment rates, the academic achievement gap, patient outcomes, judicial hearings and so much more?

 

Silencing the narratives that harbor prejudices could weaken the fight for social justice. While the U.S. Justice Department begins to examine the tangible evidence to determine if Mr. Crutcher’s civil rights were violated, Mr. Bayeté Ross Smith will join me on HealthCetera to expose the silent narrative that kills and discuss ways to move forward. Join us on September 29, 2016, at 1:00 on WBAI, 99.5 FM in New York City or streaming at www.wbai.org; and be a part of the discourse that saves lives.

You can listen to the interview on iTunes here: