Two emotions, love and rage, seem to be commonly used to frame historical Black political and social public actions. On the one hand, narratives of Black resistance and radical action are often popularly framed in terms of us having endured too much or simply being fed up with a society that refuses to offer racial equality. Within these narratives, Black rage drives the masses to take to the streets. On the other hand, Black spirituality and love has also framed Black public action. This narrative contextualizes Black public action less as radical resistance and more as a demonstration of a willingness to take the high road. In these instances, Black folks are willing to teach an ignorant society by treating others the way in which we want, and gently demand, to be treated. The underlying sentiment here is that we Black people are willing and able to adhere to the ideals, if not the norms, of a broader civilized society. But, I wonder how we might talk about another human emotion? How might we talk about a deep fear that Black people have of non-Black society? Let’s call it Black Fear. A fear so pervasive that it limits us from engaging in public spaces? The fear of being turned away from public pools. The fear, or at least apprehension, of participating in community block parties on cool spring days? The fear of being stopped or harassed for simply enjoying public parks? The fear of sending Black children out to play in non-Black neighborhoods? The fear of becoming a victim of state sanctioned violence, whether at the hands of the police or the hands of the average non-Black citizen? When might we talk about a legitimate Black fear as an outcome of a pervasive and historical anti-Black terror that is so productive for non-Black society that it keeps many Black people from simply engaging in public space altogether? This fear has been productive on both an administrative and economic level, as this fear has historically been used as a tool to ensure our own self-regulation and to limit our demands for adequate social and public services.
It has been common for Black people to hit the streets in times of racial turmoil. And, our ability to politically organize and socially mobilize our masses has been well documented by any number of official institutions, as well as local history makers and narrative keepers. Often times, the public conversation and media coverage of Black political mobilization focus on the development, or lack thereof, of racial relations in the United States. And, more often than not, these narratives keep record of the numbers of people arrested, those who have perished, and the number of police and military called upon to combat protestors or to simply keep the peace during social and political protests. These numbers are usually accompanied by the economics around property damage; i.e., numbers of buildings damaged and the costs associated with the local, and sometimes federal, governments’ actions to restore order. The awesome record keeping ability of the modern, and now ubiquitous, bureaucratic state has become accustomed to documenting and tracking the costs associated with the threat of blackness.
Rarely, however, does this official documentation mention the actual number of protestors (at times referred to as rioters/looters) who come together in order to collectively resist the US racial order. Perhaps this is because in the eyes of the broader nation, 10 Black people might as well be 100, which feels like 1000, which then, in the context of public space and the public eye, appears to be 1 million. And, while Black people come together peacefully more often than not, the presentations of massive congregations of Black people in the streets, or in public spaces in general, seem to be seized upon as a way to legitimize and naturalize the fear that non-Black society has of Black people. This threat, the Black Threat, has been neutralized throughout our history by both law and custom. Jim crow era Black codes, for example, have given way to subtler modern anti-loitering laws. And, when these laws are ineffective or undone, local custom continues where the law leaves off. For example, just recently, as my family of four made our way to downtown Riverside for a scheduled protest against the police murder of George Floyd, we were met by the stares and shaking heads of our non-Black neighbors. And, even before leaving the actual community of the Riverside Wood Streets (more a figment of the minds of developers and real-estate agents than an actual community) a passerby decided to remind us of our limited access to public space, as they yelled out in a disciplinary tone from the window of their passing car- “GO BACK HOME!”. Evidently, the county enforced curfew of 6pm for that evening was seen by some of our neighbors to be an insufficient measure for protecting the broader public from the threat of blackness. It appears that even when our presence in public is supported by state and federal law, local custom continues to support a climate of public terror directed at Black people. That evening, the fear began before the protest. And, that fear remains as I continue to walk my dogs, ride my bike, work in my yard, and from time to time remove the “cute” miniature American flags that my patriotic neighbors continue to place at the base of my mailbox.
The mathematics around blackness and the Black population in the United States are well known. According to the US census, the total Black population in the United States is about 13.4%. And, in the majority of US states, the population is significantly lower. California, for example, has a Black population of anywhere from 6.5-8% depending upon the sources cited. According to some estimates, this makes California’s Black population the 5th largest in the country. While the percentage itself may seem rather low, 8% of California’s population is roughly 3.1 million individuals. But I wonder, if there are 3.1 million Black people in California, why does a group of more than 5 Black people seem so out of place in public? I cannot remember the last time that I went to the mall, a restaurant, the grocery store, a coffee shop, a public park, a movie theatre, or any other place of leisure outside of a recognized “Black community” (and let’s face it, many of these spaces of leisure are located far beyond the access of Black communities), and saw more than 5 Black people at one time. And, on the rare occasions that I have seen a large group of Black people at one of these public places, I have had to try and make sense of the general discomfort that is part of non-Black society’s response to Black bodies in public. At these moments, the discomfort has been so palpable that I have found myself questioning my own public presence in these spaces.
It is no surprise to me then, that 34,000 Black individuals in public streets (the supposed number of participants in the Watts Rebellion in 1965 for example) would appear to be a horrific sight to any non-Black person. But I wonder how we might interpret the mobilization of thousands of Black people if we were to imagine the amount of fear that has to be overcome in order to move us to organize in public? We know that not only might we be arrested, but many of us will be beaten, maimed, and perhaps even killed for daring to bring this fear into the view of the public eye. We know what the consequences are for being too many in public. We also know that the fact of a global pandemic means that these consequences will surely be the outcome of a more sinister addition to the anti-Black arsenal – biological warfare. Ironically, then, the same fear that has pushed us to monitor our own daily presence in public space also pushes us to take to the streets in order to protest racial and civil injustices, not to mention out right murder, against Black people. So, I wonder, what might it look like if non-Black society recognized Black protest not as an outcome of Black rage or Black spirituality, but simply as a rational response to fear; a fear that continues to be a hallmark of the Black experience in the US?
Part of the issue here is that we, as a society, have simply been unwilling to accept antiblackness as a foundational component of US (not to mention the modern state) ideology. For example, the general public has long accepted the existence of antisemitism and its impact on Jewish communities. And, a general anti-immigrant sentiment is regularly recognized as part of the immigration debate in our society, as well as a threat to the material livelihoods of immigrants to the US. The fact that these sentiments have been legitimized through larger public conversations actually works to legitimize the fear that Jewish communities and many non-Black immigrant communities feel when attempting to make a home in the US. One might even go so far as to suggest that the broader legitimation of the fear that these communities experience has been a key factor for the development and success of these communities. By publicly recognizing and legitimizing the broader sentiments of antisemitism or anti-immigration, fear (Jewish and Immigrant fear in this example) is also legitimized as a rational response to these “anti” sentiments. Sadly, this does not seem to be the case for Black people in the United States. On the contrary, it appears that non-Black people have been allowed to maintain a monopoly on this basic human emotion. To suggest that Black people fear the police, or to claim that Black people fear wearing a mask in public to protect themselves from the impacts of a global pandemic sounds completely irrational without the recognition and broader public acceptance of antiblackness. Without the acceptance that Black bodies continue to be under attack, both directly and indirectly, fear as a legitimate human emotion continues to be withheld from Black people. Fear then, as any internet search will show, appears to remain the property of non-Blacks in the US.
The recent Covid19 outbreak has given us (Black people) another reason to question the acceptance of our physical presence in public space. One would think that the potential to contract a life-threatening virus would level the playing field with respect to the application of individual measures to protect one’s self and others in our society. However, this has not been the case. Beyond the data around higher instances of death for Black people due to “underlying conditions”, and the US economy’s higher reliance on Black people as “frontline” and “essential” workers, a lack of acceptance in public space continues to make Black people more vulnerable. For example, state mandated requirements to wear a face covering in public seem to have increased the dangers that Black people were already subject to when entering public space. As late as April 2020, the NAACP was calling for states to suspend the mandates for citizens to wear face coverings in public. The call from the NAACP was not, like many calls and protest from the far right, about individual and personal freedoms. Rather, the NAACP was responding to the real danger for Black lives brought about by our society’s general fear of Black people in public. During the current pandemic, this fear has been heightened by the inability of non-Blacks to see the actual faces of the Black threat under the mask. The feeling for some seems to be that blackness continues to be more of a public menace than the invisible threat that is the Covid19 virus.
The general fear of Black bodies seems to put us doubly at risk during the pandemic. Not only are we at risk from state sanctioned violence from local police forces and those citizens who see themselves as protectors against a Black threat, but a general fear of public blackness has meant that we are limited in the measures that we can take to protect ourselves, and others, by adhering to the broader guidance of the state and the CDC. Public fear continues to put us at risk. And, a non-Black monopoly over the basic human emotion of fear continues to leave us powerless to formulate a legitimate response of our own. Black death, then, continues to be the status quo. So, when will we as a society be willing to talk about Black fear?
Anthony R. Jerry is an Assistant Professor in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Riverside.