Stop Expecting Black People to Be Superhuman in the Face of Fear
It’s always there. An undercurrent whenever an unarmed black person is assassinated by the police. People ask and wring their hands, “why did they behave that way?” If only they had been more compliant, more respectful, more subservient, remained calm. If only.
So much has been said about how much better black people under duress should have behaved if only they could have controlled themselves. Except, science has proven that people under acute stress can’t always control themselves.
The thing is, stress has significant, documented, and psychologically accepted impact on how human beings act and respond to external stimuli. Everyone is taught the flight or fight response that many animals, including humans, employ when placed in stressful situations. The mechanisms that start in the amygdala and result in the release of cortisol, energize the human body in predictable ways.
I myself have felt the impulse. Its compulsive, subconscious, and primal. We know and accept that the response to acute stress is to fight or fly and that this does not necessarily reflect some malicious intent or criminality on the part of the person subjected to such stress, but results from clearly articulated chemical pathways that remain outside of human control. An in depth understanding of this and other basic human psychological pathways should be a critical and mandatory part of police training above and beyond the extent to which it may be already.
If you have seen an animal, even without having any past experience of being hunted, be hunted, you’ve witnessed the flight or fight instinct in play. We easily recognize and name it when we see it in animals. Even animated creatures as figments of the human imagination anthropomorphically employ these responses. Large portions of classic Looney Tunes episodes featuring Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner glorify violence, chase, and escape — the flight response as art. If art reflects our deepest impulses, then it seems that we understand the fight or flight response enough to render it artistically, but not enough to recognize it when it is employed by human black bodies in real life. Why is that?
I never hear anyone acknowledge that when black people are faced with stressful situations, especially police action, and bring to those situations all the history of policing of black bodies in the United States from the subtle demands of respect for authority that evoke the hierarchies of slavery to the most recent name of the most recent person who has died at the hands of the police on their lips and in their thoughts, that they might respond in the most human way possible to that fear. Black people live with that fear. So I wonder if during those infamous 8 minutes and 46 seconds if a consciousness of that collective fear crossed George Floyd’s mind, may his soul rest in peace. I wonder more than I should have to if the world is as just as some people make it out to be if when he couldn’t breathe, fight, or fly, George Floyd remembered Eric Garner.
Why are black people expected to somehow overcome these natural chemical pathways that are defining characteristics of our and every other human being’s personhood and happily embrace our own potential demise? What does it say about the perceived humanity or perceived lack thereof of black people that this a commonly circulated expectation that we do? If only.
The irony is that the the idea that if black people did this, if we exhibited superhuman self control, that we would have better outcomes with police, is a myth. Compliant black people have been murdered and abused by the police. Rayshard Brooks is now among them. If you accept that black people are people, and that people respond to stress in scientifically accepted ways, this expectation isn’t only unrealistic, it is unfair and dangerous in a world that assigns criminality to and perceives threat in innocuous behavior if the actor is black. Couple that perceived criminality with a failure to understand human behavior and/or a refusal to acknowledge that black people respond the same way to threats as everyone else, and you have a recipe for consciously and subconsciously racially motivated police brutality. It requires black people to exhibit superhuman self control over natural biological impulses or face sometimes fatal consequences.
Black people are asked in most social commentary and the collective social imagination to be exceptional — to comply, respect, exhibit deference, even when we are terrified, even when we fear for our lives, even when the fear is concretely and realistically based in very modern history.
I could not bring myself to finish watching the video of a compliant, deferential, tired, and clearly inebriated, Rayshard Brooks try to explain himself for nearly 30 minutes before the most human response kicked in as the officers attempted to handcuff him and he fled, then scuffled with the two officers and appeared to aim a nonlethal weapon at one. When he did, a police officer, who has since been fired, shot him in the back, and he died. And when he died, make no mistake, Rayshard Brooks died, for being human.
How afraid must he have been given the state of the world? Who would have behaved differently given the potential for a life ending interaction?
And then, the twisted irony remains that his stress reaction was validated by the outcome. The video ends with the loss of his life at the hands of the police after he had fought, even getting his hands on a non-lethal weapon, and while he was in flight. Another on a roster of countless black people before him who died for not being more than human.
I know some might argue that police officers are under stress too and that we shouldn’t discount their fight or flight reactions either, but, we don’t. That’s why we give police officers qualified immunity isn’t it? There is a protection built in to our laws that anticipates their potential misconduct, and shields them from answering for it. Further, that a police officer, or even a civilian, may have been what some classify as justifiably afraid as determined by a jury of their peers protects and excludes them from a range of the most serious charges, and it has many times throughout American history. Given the outcome of countless trials, that is when theses cases even go to a grand jury or trial, the accepted American stance seems to be that shooting a human being, especially a black human being, regardless of the basis of the fear, is justifiable if an officer (or even a civilian) felt afraid (see. Goetz). No allowance is made for whether that fear has been stocked by centuries of prejudice.
Instead of trying to educate ourselves, regardless of our race, to challenge anti-blackness and to not to unnecessarily fear black people or perceive their actions as criminal, and instead of training our police officers to act counter to their own preconceived notions and in accordance with science, we expect black people in every instance not to act on their realistic fears. Yet no one asks police to react differently than anyone else to their fears, even when their fear is baseless or racist. No one asks police officers to be superhuman. And, worse, no seems to question why the police we’ve got on camera seem to be trained to always fight and never fly.