Jonathan Ferrell: When Stereotypes Kill
Tressie McMillan Cottom has a great piece in Slate (thanks to miserlyoldman for sending it in) about stereotype threat and the murder of Jonathan Ferrell, the unarmed young black man who was shot to death by a police officer after surviving a car crash and knocking on a stranger’s door to ask for help.
I’ve spoken about stereotype threat a lot in talks about how women are pushed away from the sciences, and it also came up in this year’s SkepchickCon panel on evolutionary psychology. To put it simply, stereotype threat refers to the anxiety that people feel when they’re made aware of certain stereotypes about their groups, like women performing worse on math tests when reminded they’re women.
In Cottom’s article, she talks about the impact of the stereotype that black people are criminals, forcing them to often go out of their way to reassure those around them that they’re safe. She mentions the psychological toll this takes, and how Ferrell probably didn’t have that energy to spend as he limped away from the wreckage of his car.
I made a slight (huge) mistake in scrolling down and reading the comments on the article, which included several white people defending both the homeowner, who called 911 and reported a black man trying to kick her door down, and the cop who responded and filled Ferrell with ten bullets. For instance, “AtheistGorilla” wrote:
The caller was not in the wrong. The cop involved was not necessarily in the wrong either. He was responding to a 911 call saying that a large black man is trying to kick down someone’s door. We don’t know if Farrell motioned in a way that caused the officer to fear that he was going for weapon, which would be a reasonable explanation for what occured. Yes of course being black made Farrell more suspicious – according to FBI stats from just a few years ago blacks are 12.6% of the population but commit 49.7% of the murders, 32.9% of the rapes, 55.6% of the robberies, and so on. The public has good reason to fear black people, but noone wants to publicly admit that. You cannot go into a black neighborhood almost anywhere in the United States without being harassed by them or having to lock your doors for safety. I’m not some bigoted white guy saying this either, my family includes Whites, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, Arabs, Indians, and Blacks.
First of all, if bigotry couldn’t exist in any family with a person of color in it, then bigotry wouldn’t exist, period. Sorry, “AtheistGorilla,” pull the other one.
Many years ago, I was living alone in a studio apartment in Boston. At around 2 AM, I was shocked awake by my front door (about three feet from my bed) rattling on its hinges as someone slammed into it. It took me a moment to fully wake up and determine whether or not I had been dreaming. As I laid in the dark, my heart racing, straining to listen for anything that might be happening outside my door, it happened again. A heavy bang, the door shuddering, and a male voice softly cursing. It was not a knock. It was not a pounding. It was, unmistakably, a kick. Someone was trying to kick my door down and I had nowhere to hide in my small one-room apartment.
I grabbed my cell phone and dialed 911 as I quietly moved past the door into the kitchen, where I grabbed the largest chef’s knife I owned. I debated whether to shout out or stay quiet, trying to figure out whether this unknown person would be discouraged or encouraged by the realization that there was a solitary woman on the other side of the door. I decided to stay quiet, and so I whispered to the 911 operator that there was a strange man violently kicking down my door and I wasn’t optimistic that the cheap door was going to hold much longer. (The apartment wasn’t the nicest. There was a drip coming down from the bathroom ceiling, which I reported to the landlady. A month or so later, I would move out when the bathroom ceiling collapsed and my landlady refused to clean it up, saying she wasn’t my cleaning lady.)
The 911 operator offered to stay on the line with me, but I put the phone down so I could focus on stabbing whoever came through the door. As the kicks continued and the door started to crack I heard shouting in the stairwell as the cops arrived. I heard the man outside my door shout back, though I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I heard the cops stomp up the stairs, and a few minutes later the voices all sounded calm. I went over to the door and slowly cracked it open.
There were several cops standing around a man who was sitting on the stairs outside my apartment, handcuffed.
“Miss, do you know this man?”
I looked at him. He looked like a drunk frat boy. White, for the record.
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“He says he lives here.”
“Um, he definitely doesn’t live here,” I said.
The frat boy looked confused, and then looked at the apartment door next to mine (the only other apartment on that floor).
“Oh,” he slurred. “Maybe I live there.”
The cops looked at me. “Does he live there?”
“Maybe?” I was apologetic. “I know two guys live there. I can’t remember faces.”
It turned out he did live there. Apparently, the frat boy came home while tripping on something (one of the cops said she suspected meth) and when his key didn’t work in the lock, he decided to just break the door down, not realizing that his key didn’t work because he was at the wrong apartment.
I thanked the cops and closed the door. I was never asked to make a statement or testify about anything so I’m guessing nothing much happened to the guy, though I don’t think I ever saw him again in the building. I was just happy to put my knife back in the block and crawl back into bed.
It’s obvious why the comments on the Ferrell case reminded me of this story. I was a woman who made a 911 call about someone who really was kicking my door down. First of all, let me be very clear: when someone is kicking your door down, you’ll know it. It does not sound anything like a fist pounding on the door.
Second of all, the cops in my case got a very, very similar call as the cop in Ferrell’s case, but the end result was very, very different. Not only was my guy not gunned down, but he was sat down and reasoned with right there at my door.
I can say without a doubt in my mind that both the homeowner and the cop in Ferrell’s case were very, very, tragically wrong.
These are only two data points: black man gunned down by a cop for knocking on a door in the middle of the night; white man handcuffed and talked to by cops for kicking a door in the middle of the night. They’re different cities, different people, slightly different circumstances. But I do think we need to recognize that there are clearly ways to solve these problems without guns.
If, as “AtheistGorilla” and others suggest, it’s understandable that a cop would shoot a black man for being suspicious, then cops shouldn’t have guns. End of story. Remember that this isn’t a ridiculous idea: cops in Great Britain don’t (by and large) carry firearms, and surveys show that they like it that way.
The research at this point is very clear: stereotypes are intensely powerful ideas that directly impact our behavior. We clearly need to take some drastic steps to be sure that the people most affected by stereotype threat are protected from the authority figures who we allow to carry lethal weapons.
Featured image of Ferrell via University of Miami.