On Friday, September 16th, Betty Shelby, a white female police officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot and killed Terence Crutcher. According to her attorney and the Tulsa police department, she shot him because she was scared of him. As she told her lawyer, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment.” That moment was the one before she fired her gun and ended his life.
American history is full of stories of black men whose death – either at the hands of angry mobs or a rigged justice system – was the result of an accepted truth: black men posed a risk to white women, who ought to be afraid of them.
The need to protect white women from black men has been invoked throughout our country’s history to legitimize deadly violence on the part of white men from the lynch mobs in the post-Reconstruction south to the massacre of nine black people in a church in 2015. But white women have used it, too. From those hoping to avoid their own criminal charges to those hoping to avoid social ruin, white women used the specter of rape by black men to protect themselves at the grave expense of those they accused – many of whom died because of it.
This assumption that black men are inherently dangerous isn’t limited to the trope of the black male sexual assailant. In a study published in 2014, researchers found that both white male police officers and white female university students’ perceptions of black boys were warped by racism. While white cops were less likely to see them as children and, therefore, more likely to use force, the white women assumed that black boys were older than their white counterparts, and that they were more likely to be guilty of serious crimes. Even when they are children, black boys look like a dangerous threat to white women. And it is costing these boys their lives.
For the fundamental questions of how we end state sanctioned police brutality against communities of color, I defer to the leadership and expertise of activists of color who have long been working to bring an end to this violence. But when a white female cop uses her fear of an unarmed black man as the excuse for her choice to kill him, I know that people like me and our unexamined prejudices must also be a part of this conversation. After all, white American feminists like me are the inheritors of a legacy of white women’s willingness to throw black people under the bus to achieve their goals.
Some of our most storied heroes of the movement for women’s suffrage were quick to use racism against black men to further their argument that white women ought to be allowed to vote. Many feminists today are quick to distance themselves from these less than rosy beginnings, for obvious reasons. But if we really mean it, that we want this awful violence to stop, that we believe that white supremacy is toxic and needs to end, and that systemic racism is unacceptable in all of its forms, then we have to be willing to do the work to dismantle the prejudices we carry as products of this society.
We have to look inside ourselves at the ugly, uncomfortable truth of our own racism. As white women in America, we could not possibly have escaped our racist society without a scratch. It is a part of our history, and a part of our present, but it is possible to make sure it isn’t a part of our future – to make sure that no more black men die because of white women’s fear.
Betty Shelby has been charged with manslaughter. After turning herself in, she was released on a $50,000 bond before her trial. Her first hearing is this Friday.