Expert explains psychology behind South Carolina shooting

White police officer Michael Slager, 33, was caught on video fatally shooting a 50-year-old black man, Walter Scott, eight bullets into his back as he ran away following a traffic stop. The victim was a father of four who worked with a trucking supply company and had just proposed to his girlfriend. We talked to Joe Feagin, sociologist and social theorist at Texas AM University who has conducted extensive research on racial and gender issues, especially in regard to the United States.

Are police too quick to use force, particularly in cases involving black men?

Yes, this have been true for white police officers now for more than a century in the U.S. About 83 percent of U.S. history had slavery (246 years) and Jim Crow legal segregation (90 years) as the racial foundation of the country. In those eras, policing groups (including early slave patrols) assaulted or killed many black men to keep them oppressed and [stop them] from revolting. Today, the policing systems still often target black men out of what I call a white racial frame, a perspective that often sees black men as dangerous and threatening just because they are black men. 

Should any police policies be changed?

Yes, there are police policies that have to be changed. We need to give all police aggressive re-education to undo the racist framing of black men, and other black people. Worldwide, black men are often unfairly targeted. The problem is not just a racial stereotypes, the white racial framing of the US society includes stories white people tell themselves about black men. It includes racist images of them as monkeys, apes. So, there are visual things and emotions in case of which police officers fear them. For example, a black man pulls out something from his pocket, a white police officer is going to quickly think that he’s got a gun and is dangerous. But it is just a wallet. 

It’s taught to whites over their entire life from friends, parents, media that whites are the most civilized, the least dangerous, the most intelligent, the hardest working. So, the racist framing of black men has to be challenged and not just among police. This education has to go on in public schools.

Could you name some examples of similar incidents?

There are many, for example, the discussion of Michael Brown (Ferguson, Missouri), who was an 18-year-old teenager shot by a white police officer 8 months ago. Policemen saw him as dangerous black man and actually said he was fearful. The investigation said he had a legitimate reason. But Brown was even unarmed. Another example is a death of Eric Garner last year, who was selling cigarettes one by one on the street of Staten Island, New York. Several policemen saw him as dangerous and he was [put in a] chokehold to death. If he had been white, it seems reasonable to suggest it would not have happened.

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