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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.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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16 Comments

  1. September 22, 2013 at 12:52 pm —

    This reminds me of that posting about the ABC News experiment with two actors, young men, one white and one black and dressed similarly, “stealing” a chained bike in broad daylight. The apologetics in some of the comments insisting that the young black kid looked somehow more of a “thug”, and that such an assessment wasn’t racially motivated, made me sick to my stomach.

    • September 22, 2013 at 8:13 pm —

      Was that the “What Would You Do?” where they also had a cute white girl do it and people started helping her steal it? I honestly don’t understand people sometimes.

      I remember another one that involved a group of youth messing with a car (I think) with a group of white youth and a group of black youth. The black actors also tried sleeping -inside- the car at one point and someone still called the police on them. Everyone expects there to be more hostility to black people doing something threatening because the stereotypes are well known, but it is hard to understand someone finding something like sleeping threatening when it is just so obviously totally innocuous

      • September 22, 2013 at 9:28 pm —

        Yeah, exactly. Some folks insisted on describing the black kid’s clothes as thuggish, but when pressed on the details what made them so, it pretty much was because they perceived the clothing to be more “black” in a stereotypical sense (ie bagginess of pants, the way the baseball cap was worn). It was a freaking game of Prejudice Twister.

  2. September 22, 2013 at 1:09 pm —

    I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe the notions in my head about … everything about this, and I’m just flabbergasted. I’m flabbergasted that this is still a country which pressures entire classes and genders and phenotypes to prove that they aren’t scary or worthless. I’m flabbergasted that those who don’t or can’t are seen as scary or worthless because they can’t or won’t play rigged game that calms people dominating the privilege pile. I’m flabbergasted that a cop chose shooting a guy instead of arresting him. I’m flabbergasted that Jonathan Ferrell’s parents felt the need to mention their son’s good works and GPA to speak to his character. I’m flabbergasted that they’re not wrong about that even though it’s reprehensible that that’s required to defend a shooting victim. I’m flabbergasted by damn near everything that pertains to this.

    • September 22, 2013 at 1:11 pm —

      To clarify, Ferrell absolutely should not have been arrested, but if the cop had chosen that, he would have found out what was actually happening and hopefully gotten him to a damn hospital.

  3. September 22, 2013 at 2:50 pm —

    I don’t blame the mother alone with her child for calling the police when a strange man is on her doorstep in the middle of the night, necessarily, but there is no excuse for the police reaction.

    I only say this because of my own experiences. Several years ago a strange beatup truck pulled into my driveway and someone knocked on the door. The previous owner of the house had a well known reputation in the neighborhood of being a huge druggie, and using the house as a flophouse for other druggies. It had even been hit by SWAT once, and some of these people were found still squatting in the house after it went up for sale. Two windows show damage from possibly forced entry. So, I had suspects a day like this might come, where one of the former friends or tenants would come a’knocking. If I didn’t answer the door I was afraid of him breaking in or returning at some other time when I wasn’t home and breaking in, but I figured the chances of being attacked were smaller. So I answered the door. The guy was obviously messed up on something, and he seemed really confused. I had to repeat that the person he was looking for didn’t live there any more (the previous owner) and he kept asking if I was sure. I told him all I knew about where to find the person he was looking for and eventually my repetition sunk in and he left.

    Fast forward a couple years after I have my son. .. and now I’m hysterical about danger. Suddenly driving is dangerous, relatives are dangerous, I’m a bajillion times more scared of something happening to me or a break in (I used to love leaving the windows open at night). A walk in the dark to my car in the city became my last. I used to be pretty darn fearless and suddenly, I’m a gibbering wreck. Only now that about three years has passed am I getting my confidence back. But I don’t think I would do anything but call the police if some stranger was at my door. Not saying everyone reacts that way but explaining my feelings.

    • September 22, 2013 at 8:52 pm —

      I don’t think anyone would suggest it’s wrong for anyone to call the police when a strange person is banging on your door at 2 AM. What the homeowner did wrong is to apparently classify the problem as a person trying to kick her door down, which was patently untrue.

      • September 23, 2013 at 1:53 am —

        I do agree that she may have overreacted to the banging on the door. But at 2am, adrenaline going nuts and maybe not having previous experience with such a situation, is it that unlikely she may have thought the banging was louder or more violent than it really was? Multiple studies have shown that one can become hypersensitive to stimuli given the correct situation. Maybe she really DID experience as someone trying to kick her door down. It’s a very subjective situation. I’ve had two homes broken into; one while I was there, the other at work. I am much more suspicious of any noises around my home, especially now that I have a daughter. My wife has woken me up on numerous occasions to make a trip around the house with the gun just to find a stray dog or something messing with the garbage.

        That said, the cops have no real excuse. Profiling, plain and simple.

      • September 23, 2013 at 9:53 am —

        It’s cool that you can tell the difference, but obviously for whatever reason she did not. Either because she was terrified and not thinking straight or her door was of different construction, who can say. She opened the door, got scared, closed it and interpreted the continued knocking on the door and raised voice of the guy behind the door as an attack. I mean, I just think the whole “I can tell if its a kick or a banging” is a distraction.

  4. September 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm —

    “Kerrick, 27, and in his third year with Charlotte-Mecklenburg police, was charged with voluntary manslaughter after the early Saturday shooting”

    “Sometimes we have to put up our hands and use our nightstick and other things and sometimes just retreat to handle the situation,” Monroe told the editorial board. “It can’t automatically result in use of deadly force.”

    Yes. This is how it should be done. Apparently, the guy squeezed off 12 rounds before any of the officers even shouted verbal warnings. People like him shouldn’t even be allowed to own a gun, let alone a badge.

  5. September 22, 2013 at 8:07 pm —

    “… The public has good reason to fear black people…”

    Ack. I know this post is not about what’s wrong with one comment on the internet, but you did manage to find a truly awful one that’s even by someone who apparently priortizes atheism. I shouldn’t have to say this, but I fear violence in high crime areas, from men in general, etc. I don’t fear it based on the person’s apparent ethnic group

    When I notice people going through the “coping mechanisms” talked about in the slate article I honestly find people -less- threatening. I’m having trouble articulating why, but at root I know I’m seeing someone who can’t afford to see herself/himeslf as entitled to space. The people who expend a lot of energy being aware of that generally aren’t the people I need to be worried about.

    “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.”

    Of course not everyone even has the same level of ability to do this in the first place. Jonathan Ferrell was in an extraordinarily difficult situation, but people who have chronic pain, communication problems, physical problems that make it harder to “look nice,” etc are not going to be able extend all their energy pacifying people on a day to day basis. Then you are also dealing with a public that does not even recognize that they are expecting something and some terrible things are bound happen.

    Jonathan Ferrell’s death is awful all around. It makes me angry that this is being done to people who the police are supposed to protect.

    (I also appreciate the frat boy story. That sounds pretty scary but it’s also a situation that everyone else ultimately handled reasonably.)

  6. September 23, 2013 at 12:26 am —

    As a black woman with 2 grown sons, this is my worst nightmare. It doesn’t matter that they are both college educated and have never been in trouble. It just mattered that they are black. One of my cousins is fighting for his freedom after being threatened by a police officer. He became frightened and grabbed the barrel. The police officer shot himself and admitted as much and my cousin ran away. He is now wanted for attempted murder..

    • September 25, 2013 at 3:48 am —

      That guy is probably going to have to turn himself in and be imprisoned for that bullshit just to avoid being killed. Why do police suck so much?

  7. September 23, 2013 at 2:10 am —

    Damn, this is so bad. I am glad the cop was charged with manslaughrter, that should happen to anybody using a gun on an unarmed man.
    I am sad to say similar stuff happens in Australia, not so much shootouts as such, but the statistics on Aboriginal deaths in custody are a national disgrace.
    Only realtively recently our State police moved away from the British model and adopted handguns. Not so many local shootouts but on a regular basis there are stories of the cops in the East shooting unarmed psychiatric patients. It’s only a matter of time. Dreadful stuff.

  8. September 23, 2013 at 4:48 am —

    Yep, that this young man lost his life in search of help is truly infuriating. America’s police forces need extensive anti-bias training and obviously some culling from the ranks. I remember an online test from a university a few years ago that tested impulsive racist associations. How about refining and using something like that to reveal racial (and gender and creed and …) biases that could be used to screen out and eliminate people from all security related jobs (not to mention gun permits)? Of course, it might be impossible to make a test like that truly reveals biases, and even if we could, the Angry White Men would never let this be implemented. But I can dream. Come to think of it, I’m an angry white man. Just wish more of Them were angry about the same things that I am.

  9. October 6, 2013 at 9:47 pm —

    All the comments about this story have an element of “Well at least the cop is being charge” somewhere. Which is tragic and disgusting. We entrust cops with the power to take away freedom, to take away a life. We should hold them to a higher, not a lower standard. Maybe, when a killer cop gets double instead of getting off, we’ll have a chance at a police force that’s a genuine public servant rather than a fascist tool.

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