Since it’s original sin of slavery, America has been obsessed with the fear of black men. Rather than atone for its own sins when it worried about what would happen when slavery ended, white supremacy projected its fears onto black America. It was this irrational, dangerous fear that led to the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
Consider the results of a recent study, which found that merely hearing that someone had a “black-sounding” name made subjects assume a person was bigger than they actually were, revealing through science again how black men are unfairly presumed to be threats. An officer who arrived on the scene after 12-year-old Tamir had been shot thought “the male looked to be 19 or 20-years-old”.
In American fiction from To Kill A Mockingbird to Birth of a Nation, this fear permeates why black males regularly faced lynching. And this fear has birthed a fiction that it was “reasonable” (again and again and again and again) for Cleveland police officer Tim Loehmann to shoot Tamir dead in less than two seconds (as the child “gave me no choice”).
Across the past six decades, indeed over centuries of US history, little has happened to dissuade white people of such fears. The acquittal of the officers who performed this latest racialized killing upholds its validity in the American moral code.
It doesn’t matter that Cleveland had previously paid out $100,000 for an excessive force complaint against Loehmann’s partner on the scene, Frank Garmback.
It doesn’t matter that the dispatcher, Beth Mandl, failed to tell the cops arriving that the person who’d called in Tamir’s toy gun thought it was “probably fake” – nor that she reportedly was “fired from her first police dispatcher job in September 2008, the same month she was arrested and charged with bringing a gun to a bar”.
It doesn’t matter that Tamir was playing with a toy version of a legal object. The prosecutor’s statement says that “Tamir’s replica firearm was functionally identical to a real firearm”, and that “the evidence does not show that his decision to shoot was unreasonable, or that it was feasible to give more commands than he did”. This should matter, because (as the NRA proudly notes) Ohio is an open carry state where guns can be toted around out in the open – so there was no crime in progress to possibly report.
Yet, because of these irrational fears, the prosecutor seems to think the officer was justified because he “was facing a suspect pulling an object from his waist that Loehmann thought was a real gun”, so nothing else matters.
In our American imagination, the feared objects which might come out of the waistband of unarmed black male children like Mike Brown or Tamir Rice so frightened armed white men, they’re allowed to kill them.
Nevermind that the Cleveland Police Department was under investigation for the “unnecessary and excessive use of deadly force, including shootings” by the Department of Justice when Tamir was killed, and that its “officers too often use unnecessary and unreasonable force in violation of the Constitution”.
While darker-skinned men are routinely killed out of a fear that they may have legal or toy guns, and while they’re beaten and killed out of fear they could be killers or rapists, white Americans remain free to terrorize their fellow citizens and even law enforcement with impunity.
Armed white militiamen roamed Ferguson without police intervention this year. Ellen Rothenberg, a white woman in North Carolina who pointed a BB gun at a police officer and told them to shoot her, survived. Dylan Roof, a white man who shot up a church full of black people, got taken to Burger King after he was caught. Robert Dear, a white man accused of shooting and killing three people (including a police officer) at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado was taken in alive. And so on.
But an unarmed black male burdened with the incorrect assumption that he’s armed with a legal weapon in your pants? Not only can it kill you, no one will be punished.
With this lack of indictment in his death, the only person who will pay any material price for Tamir’s death is the dead child himself. Like Mike Brown last fall and Sandra Bland last week, little Tamir joins the pantheon of dead black souls whose deaths go without accountability.
If white Americans need black villains to feel superior in their decline as 2015 closes – and as the leading demagogue Republican candidate for president can confirm, they do – then innocent victims like Tamir will continue to be killed, and those who do so will be rewarded with acquittal, fame or even promotion. It’s the American way.