Our Culture of Fear

Our Culture of Fear July 6, 2017

No group can ever enjoy a semblance of true civil rights when its members are the object of civil fear. And one of the least talked about but most important functions of our culture is to teach us civil  fear. 

Recently a policeman was acquitted of a murder charge related to his shooting of an African American man as the man sat in his car. (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/16/us/police-shooting-trial-philando-castile.html) The policeman’s defense was that he feared for his life. And the jury found that claim reasonable. Why? Why is it reasonable for an armed policeman, outside a car and mobile, to fear a man sitting in his car with no gun in hand?

I believe it is because both policeman and jury are participants in the deeply seated fear of African Americans that is endemic in American culture. So deeply seated that irrational fear actually seems a defense in a murder trial.

That fear has many transmitters within and between generations, but more important is that its “reasonableness” has been reiterated in the thousands of ways that African Americans have been portrayed in popular culture for over such a long period that fear seems both natural and rational. Contemporary news accounts consistently associating African Americans with violence and criminality don’t have to be a conscious effort at propaganda. They simply reflect the unconscious assumptions of both writers and readers.

This fear of African Americans has been reinforced and justified by American Christianity, which itself is a powerful shaper of cultural attitudes. In the United States theories of racial inferiority and violence by persons of African descent were supported by Christian preaching right up into the 20th century and in some places to the present day. And even where these theories were abandoned the fear-based religion helps create a more general culture of fear.

Even in the mid-20th century in the otherwise liberal (and vocally anti-racist) churches which I attended  one might hear a Sunday School lesson on the baleful influence of African music and rhythms (sensuous, sexualized, and violent) on American popular music. And the pious (and generally well meaning) Christian literature shared in youth groups, Young Life, and FCA repeated the same tropes. In such lessons it was the “primitive” character of the influence that was highlighted rather than racial origins, but the lesson was clear enough in a context of pervasive fear of African Americans. Even their music was corrupting society.

In social settings where it wasn’t okay to teach fear of black people you could still teach fear of black culture – something that it appears to me that some Fox Cable News commentators continue to perpetuate on a regular basis. What are the attacks on hoodies, black men’s clothing, and supposed “attitude” if not reinforcements of the original American fear?

In the heady days of integration (and my own Jr. High and High School was integrated when I was in 9th grade) those of us with a liberal upbringing might well believe that the days of race-based fear would quickly draw to a close. As Konrad Lorenz seemed to have demonstrated, habitual contact with those we fear begins to free us from our unconscious bigotry. We begin to see not a feared “other” but individual human who like ourselves have different characters and characteristic ways of behaving.

Such hopes have proven naive. Wars in the Balkans, Rwanda, Nigeria, Congo, the Central African Republic, Kashmir, Burma, Iraq, Syria and on many American streets have demonstrated that merely being neighbors engaged in constant interaction doesn’t necessarily overcome culturally inculcated fear of other tribes, sects, nations, and cultures. And in any case within the US the social forces for segregation in neighborhoods, schools, and churches have been so powerful that only in a few places achieved genuine, longterm, integration achieved. And so conservative are cultural influences that fear of African Americans in the United States persists even where diversity and integration advance.

And this is why police killings of African Americans and the almost inevitable injustice that follows can’t be stopped by an appeal to civil rights, providing better training, identifying white supremacist groups, or even by calling out white privilege. Because fear is far deeper and wide spread than white privilege. 

And no group can ever enjoy a semblance of true civil rights when its members are the object of civil fear. No mere theoretical equal protection under the law can possibly provide protection from civil violence when fear is brought into the equation.

The policeman in Minnesota, and the many others who have used this defense, don’t appear to have been consciously acting out of a desire to reinforce white supremacy, protect white privilege, or violate anyone’s civil rights. Not all were even white. What we do see is an irrational gut reaction in which fear is translated into violence.

I would love to end this blog with some wisdom about how to get rid of the pervasive fear found in American culture. And certainly Lorenz wasn’t wrong about the value of children growing up together, or adults experiencing one another as fellow humans. But we need to go deeper, and far wider than diversity training or better procedures for the police.

Culture critics need to be vigilant in identifying and calling out those tropes that reinforce fear. Think, for example, of the images of the orcs and the “fighting Urukai” in the Lord of the Rings. Orcs are black. Urukai are half-breeds. And JRR Tolkien’s South African roots (“his memories were slight but vivid” says his official biography) are suddenly visual in their fear-producing power. It wasn’t just fear of spiders he wrote into his novels.

And so another nightmare image is ground into our culture at the subconscious level. How many “Hamilton’s” (still a play for the thinnest crust of the rich elite) can overcome the influence of those blockbusters?

As importantly each of us, and in particular those who carry badges and guns, (or for that matter stand in front of classrooms and grade papers) need to forthrightly confront our fear and the places it is reinforced. In the stories told at bars, in the locker rooms, at the dock, the faculty lounge, on the golf course, or in the informal advice given our friends and colleagues that often overrides all official teaching. It is police culture, not police training, that is almost certainly the problem.

And none of us, at least none of us raised in the American culture, should think we are immune. Go to https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/, read the documentation, and take the test if you want to become uncomfortably aware.

We can, of course, change our rational behavior. And we can be trained and train ourselves to act more rationally in situations that resurrect our deep cultural fears. Yet in the end we either admit,  confront and overcome our fears or they will destroy us and our nation as they have so many innocent lives.


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