The Psychology of Killing Black People:
White supremacy is inherent in American society. It informs our daily lives and our psyche. From the founding of our republic to the civil war to the White House today, ‘white is right’ is driving the politics of injustice.
David Duke, former leader of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist organization responsible for an estimated 95 percent of all terrorism against African Americans, openly thanked President Trump for his support after the Charlotte demonstrations. The President has failed to condemn any acts of violence by white supremacists against progressive political groups. They are, after all, ‘his people’.
What are the roots of white supremacy today? How does it relate to politics and police tactics? And, importantly, how do we relegate it to the dustbin of history?
A white supremacist is an individual who believes in racial superiority, worship of white power, and the politics of white privilege. Privilege means the assumption of superior status over minorities who are invariably categorized as inferior. The presumption of superiority is biologically based; white skin makes a person more valuable than a person with dark, brown, or yellow skin. Racial superiority is claimed as part of our genetic makeup.
White supremacists are characterized by psychological factors highlighted below. Elaborate mental acrobatics—rationalizations— attempt to buttress their beliefs:
1. Ignorance: Ideology is expressed at the expense of facts. Their worldview is narrow, pre-formed from childhood, and limited educational experiences that reinforce prejudice. Critical faculties of reflection are limited. These individuals regulate their social relationships via fixed stereotypes, viewing the world in terms of projections. All black people are inferior and that’s the beginning and end of it.
2. Feelings of inferiority: Below the bravado, righteousness, and attacking of other people white supremacists feel inferior. They perceive themselves as less intelligent than educated individuals, especially if those individuals are African American. This sense of inferiority is expressed, as “I don’t use big words”; “I don’t have an elite education”, “I just know that the white race is superior”. White supremacists hate weakness; and any sign of vulnerability readily translates into weakness and anger. Anger is a countervailing emotion to weakness.
3. Declining class position: White supremacists occupy the lower-middle or working class, with some exceptions for individuals in positions of power. They are experiencing downward mobility. Whatever hope they’ve had for economic security—-a trade, manufacturing or skilled labor job ——–individuals with additional education and technology skills are undercutting their labor market, even a career in the civil service. Individuals in this situation feel a strong sense of declining value as a male breadwinner. They fabricate their superiority in the face of difficult economic times.
Often, however, individuals make class alliances with wealthier people who share their views but are more educated and secure in their class position. They are used as pawns to gain votes or local economic power—-whites against blacks, for example.
4. Historical identification: Many white supremacists emanate from the South. They invoke the image and politics of the Confederacy, displaying the confederate flag at marches. They long for the days and politics of slavery; longing to return to a time when the South had agricultural wealth, and African Americans were treated as property. Blacks, at that time, knew their place in a tightly controlled social structure.
5. Social solidarity through violence: Individuals feel better, more righteous when they identify with others that express rage at ‘liberals’, ‘blacks’, ‘intellectuals,’ and all others who add to their sense of inferiority.
Psychological defenses against ignorance, inferiority, and declining social class, coalesce to provide a strong sense of boastful superiority, and justification for violence. They often select a leader who makes them feel powerful, a leader who often serves as a father figure, a patriarch.
The White House & Republican Party:
A white police officer recently killed George Floyd, an unarmed African American, by suffocating him to death on the street in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Several officers stood by and watched. It was filmed on camera.
The white officer who killed him had previously worked with him in security at a local nightclub. Their relationship on the street was defined by a police badge and superiority of force, which resulted in death. This has triggered protests throughout the U.S. and globally. Protests have brought people together across racial and class lines.
President Trump, as head of the nation and the Republican Party, called a phone conference with governors from all U.S. states. He first accused governors of being “weak”; then, he informed them how to deal with protestors: “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time; they’ll run you over; you have to dominate”.
This is the same President who tweeted, “If they loot, we’ll shoot”; and also, the same President who stated earlier in the Charlottesville march, that there are ‘good people on both sides’, meaning in the ranks of white supremacists.
President Trump is a White Supremacist: evidenced from verbal support of white supremacist groups to framing of the problem and language and attempts to engage others—including police departments— to dominate and shoot uppity protestors, many of whom are African Americans.
The President also railed against protestors standing in front of a church holding a bible. This photo-op was meant to telegraph a symbolic message associated with the past: a white man of power holding the bible as a rationalization, a cover-up, to warn, control and beat slaves, economic slaves that supply cheap labor.
Not one mention was made of the constant violence perpetrated against black men every day of their lives: police targeting and killing of African Americans occur at three times the rate of whites. African Americans are stopped more frequently for traffic violations, for drug possession, for petty crimes, and for suspected violations of property. They are given longer jail and prison terms than whites.
An African American male who wears a hoodie can, for example, lose his life as police officers readily perceive him as a criminal and elect to shoot first and ask questions later. Police don’t knock on your door if you’re black – they become impatient they break it down.
The conditions of their lives—their communities— are starved for basic needs like school funding, which on average is 30-50 percent below white districts. They also lack affordable health care and well-paying job opportunities. The government and businesses, which fail to pay their fair share of taxes, create marginal conditions then blame and persecute the victims.
What to Do Next:
Over the decades, police kill people of color, with impunity. If the victim’s family takes police perpetrators to court, the jury invariably decides in favor of the police. The specter of authority lies with the police. After all, it’s difficult to believe that a respected authority would gun down an unarmed adult or teenager without just cause, especially if they testify that they thought that the person was armed.
As a psychologist, who many years ago received referrals from the Oakland Police department, I have listened to police who say, “We don’t beat prisoners, we spank them”; “I had a late call last night and chased a burglar out of a yard; I shot and killed him as he tried to climb the fence; you don’t want them testifying against you in court”.
To effect real change, four things must be accomplished:
1. Citizens must work together across class and race lines. Violence against minorities is everyone’s problem and must be stopped. Leadership must come from multiple organizations joining together with a broad base, for example, Black Lives Matter and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense. Citizens would do well to create a psychology program for youth of color, including white kids, teaching youth defensive tactics delivered through schools, especially, so they don’t get killed on the streets; and many are suffering from a post-traumatic-stress syndrome that needs to be addressed.
2. Citizens must push politicians at every level to seek civil oversight and control of police unions. This is an absolute must, a given without which there will be no change—as attested to by riots in Ferguson, Missouri over the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, August 10, 2014. The officer was never charged. This was the founding event of Black Lives Matter. Speeches and condolences even by the likes of former President Obama feel good but are useless. The man who killed George Floyd had 18 citations against him yet was not dismissed by the police chief. Police unions are powerful and operate with impunity. This must be addressed and changed.
3. Progressives must lead the charge for justice. While it’s great to organize and work across the aisle, conservatives and liberals are likely to talk this reality to death. First, push for civil control over police unions, then support more non-violent training of community police, and drive local elections of progressive candidates as quickly as possible.
4. Make sure to organize and vote to throw Donald Trump out
of the White House, a no vote on white supremacy. Also,
make sure that the other Republicans in the Senate are not
far behind, and work to ensure that progressives get into the office at