I was born in a land littered with Confederate flags. Each flag you drive past holds generations worth of harmful stereotypes about Black Americans. Even if you aren’t from South Carolina, like me, stereotypes are constantly around us. They are found through our thoughts, conversations with others, information from the media, etc. Once we understand that a stereotype exists, what do we do with them? Do we let them control our thoughts and interactions? And if that previously happened, what are ways that we can prevent this from happening again? Education is the way.
Within Patricia G. Devine’s social psychology study titled Stereotypes and Prejudice: Their Automatic and Controlled Components, white participants have associated Black individuals with stereotypical traits such as hostility, aggression, etc. The assigning of these stereotypical traits to Black Americans is deeply intertwined with the history of white supremacy in the United States. White supremacy encourages the combination of traits such as hostility, aggression, etc. to create the “criminal” stereotype and the actual criminalization of Black Americans.
Historically, the criminalization of Black Americans began during slavery. Bryan Stevenson, author of Why American Prisons Owe their Cruelty to Slavery, mentions that enslaved Africans were regarded as “capable of committing crimes” even though in any other situation they were considered as “things, not persons.” Keep in mind, the Three-Fifths Compromise existed and stated that an enslaved person counted for Three-Fifths of a white person. In other words, before Black Americans were legally considered to be fully human, they were considered to be criminals. White people’s ability to believe that enslaved Africans were “criminals” helped their delusional justification for why white people should have power and excuse their acts of violence toward enslaved Africans. These beliefs and acts of violence didn’t go away after the Civil War.
After emancipation, laws like the Black Codes were created to limit the choices and abilities allowed to free Black people. Black Codes, as described by Stevenson, were laws that penalized free Black people for “vagrancy, loitering, being in a group of Black people after dark, seeking employment without a note from a former enslaver, etc.” Any Black person who was caught not complying with the Black Codes were imprisoned and “leased” out to farms (Stevenson). The criminalization of free Black people was used as a way to recreate the structure of slavery. White people were so threatened by Black populations gaining rights and freedoms that white people created and enforced a system of criminalization to reinstate white power and economic gains. Without the forced labor of enslaved Africans, the United States and the American South would not have had economic power to begin with. White people, white southerners in particular, were desperate to not lose their power.
White people created the “criminal” stereotype for Black Americans to maintain their white supremacist power, economic gain, and to excuse how white people have historically treated Black people in the United States. These reasons for the “criminal” stereotype still influence how Black people are treated and stereotyped to this day. Think about how often innocent Black individuals are pulled over for speed checks, followed around stores, stopped and frisked by police officers, etc. This list could go on and on. Too many Black people have been killed over this incorrect and white supremacist stereotype.
For my white people out there, the next time someone comments about “aggression” or “crime” in regards to the Black community, think about how white populations created that “criminal” stereotype to benefit the power of white supremacy. Then, the next step is to educate that person on the origins and harms of this stereotype. The more we educate ourselves and others, there is a greater possibility for changing the future for the better.
What are other stereotypes we see today? Where did those stereotypes originate from, and how do they affect the lives of the people they generalize?