“Brutes” and “Thugs”: History and the Language of Criminalization

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The recent killing of black men at the hands of police, as well as the response to the lone wolf gunmen who have killed police officers, has drawn attention to the history of policing in the black community as well as the criminalization of black men.

From a historical perspective, however, what is striking is that while the language used to describe black men has changed, the narrative of black male criminality has remained consistent. That’s because our country long ago concluded that black men are innately violent and a threat to the status quo. To this day, descriptions of black men continue to make them seem more animal than human.

Language is important, and while it has evolved, it has not improved public perceptions of black men.

Take, for example, a man named George Pearls.

A native of Natchez, Mississippi, just up river from Baton Rouge, Pearls was traveling home to Chicago when a Pine Bluff, Arkansas, police deputy named Robert Henslee stopped him on the edge of town. It was 1932, and in the Jim Crow South, law enforcement could question black men for any reason or no reason. When Pearls refused to answer questions, the deputy attempted to arrest him. Henslee later claimed that he had resisted arrest and reached into his knapsack for a gun. In response, the deputy shot Pearls six times, killing him.

Recently, Baton Rouge police made a similar claim about Alton Sterling. That in resisting arrest, he had allegedly reached for a gun. So they responded by shooting Sterling several times, killing him.

Nearly 85 years separates the death of these two black men, and yet the reaction by police was nearly identical.

The presumption of guilt, the assumption that black men—and women—are inherently violent and a threat to the community has been with us since our country’s founding. All that seems to have changed is the language used to describe black suspects, although it has always been racially charged.

In the Jim Crow South, the word “brute” was regularly used to describe black men who were, whites believed, always capable of violence. There were also terms for black men not well known to the white community. When criminal cases allegedly involved an unidentified black man, local law enforcement would make reference to a “strange Negro” to explain he was not from the community. Black men visiting family in the South from northern cities where they had migrated were seen as especially dangerous because they had rejected “the southern way of life.”

George Pearls was called a “brute” and a “strange Negro.” Locals in Natchez were unsure whether he came from Chicago or Detroit, so newspapers referred to him as a “Chicago Negro” and also a “Chicago-Detroit Negro,” even after it was learned that he had been born in Mississippi. To suggest that Pearls was a "northern Negro" was coded language meant to insinuate that he represented a threat to southern society if only because he had rejected the dictates of the Jim Crow South.

Whites have also used racially charged language to describe what they regard as outside influences on black behavior. This was evident following the ambush of policemen in Dallas, Texas.

On the heels of Alton Sterling’s death at the hands of Baton Rouge police, a lone wolf gunman attacked and killed several Dallas policemen during a Black Lives Matter protest march. Rather than focus on the actions of one individual, however, many in the media and the larger public blamed the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement for the death of those policemen. Critics have asserted that BLM constitutes a terrorist organization and that, like ISIS, it has radicalized individuals to attack police.

This thinking, too, has a history.

Southern whites once thought the same about the influence of the North. The culture of northern cities, they reasoned, radically changed southern blacks who had migrated there. They became “uppity” and “insolent” and no longer behaved with deference toward whites when they returned South. It made them even more of a threat to white women, too, since they had not been kept in check by white authority. The bad influence of the North also became a justification for lynching. This was most certainly the logic used by the white men who brutally murdered fourteen year-old Emmitt Till in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

Today, “terrorist” has replaced “northern Negro,” while “thug” is now used instead of “brute.” Either way, the words used assume black men’s criminality, irrespective of their education or professional status. This public perception, that black men are inherently criminal, also informs the double standard that exists with proponents of open carry. White men are encouraged to own and carry guns, but a black man who does the same poses a threat. And the National Rifle Association goes mute.

History shows us that words matter. It is not simply about name-calling. It influences our perceptions of those who are not like us and causes long-term damage to entire communities.

De-criminalizing black men and women requires that white Americans open their eyes to the humanity of black people. To see them as citizens. To acknowledge that they have families. To recognize they are someone’s son or daughter, wife or husband, child or grandchild.

We must change our internal monologue about race and engage in open dialogue, rather than sequestering ourselves from the hard work it takes to improve race relations. If “all lives matter,” then we must agree that we mean black lives, too.

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