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The terrifying racial stereotypes laced through Darren Wilson's testimony

A scene from Michael Brown's funeral on August 25, 2014.
A scene from Michael Brown's funeral on August 25, 2014.
Getty Images

For more than three months after police officer Darren Wilson killed 18-year-old Michael Brown in the middle of a Ferguson, Missouri, street on August 9, it was difficult to get a full idea of what happened.

Wilson's grand jury testimony was secret. But there were leaks, along with a few publicly available details about his life. He is 28 years old. Six months before the shooting, he won a commendation for "extraordinary effort in the line of duty." He lived with his girlfriend (whom he married in secret in October). He had previously worked for a nearby police department that was so dysfunctional it was disbanded. Anonymous sources "close" to him told various news outlets that Brown had tried to grab Wilson's gun and that Brown was charging at him before Wilson fired the fatal shots. A fuzzy picture of Wilson and his account emerged.

Of course, it's impossible to ever know Brown's side, because he isn't here to tell it. But we have learned quite a bit about him, as well. He was "no angel." He had marijuana in his system when he died. He was college bound. He stole cigarillos from a convenience store and "strong-armed" a clerk in the process. He, at 6'5" and almost 300 pounds, was remembered by loved ones as a gentle giant.

But now that a grand jury has declined to indict Wilson in Brown's death, and St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch has made publicly available all of the evidence presented to jurors, the picture has become clear. We have Wilson's version of the truth, and it's the version that will doubtless be codified as the account of record: Brown was no gentle giant. He was a "giant negro."

The Ferguson story is entirely about race

It's imprecise to call race the subtext of this story or an underlying complication. It defines it. Race has woven its way through every aspect of the drama, from the shooting of a black teen by a white officer, to the glaring racial disparities in the St. Louis suburb at the center of the incident, to the protesters' demands that the criminal justice system recognize that "black lives matter."

Although the demonstrators have been explicit, this theme of racism doesn't have to be spelled out to be understood clearly and painfully. Reading Wilson's characterization of Brown in transcripts from his interview with detectives and his grand jury testimony is like taking a master class in the gross racial fear-mongering that has pervaded our country for centuries.

Darren Wilson's Michael Brown

Throughout his testimony and post-shooting interview with detectives, Wilson emphasized the size disparity between him and Brown. He tells detectives, "never at any point did I have control of him. I mean … he manipulated me, while I was in the vehicle, completely."

Wilson, who testified that he is 6'4 and around 210 lbs, told the grand jury that when he tried to grab Brown, "the only way to describe it is that I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan." At one point, he said Brown looked like a "demon." He also expressed concern that Brown could have possibly killed him with a punch to the face.

In the last moments before Wilson fired the fatal shot, he said, Brown made "a grunting, like aggravated sound" and charged toward him, through Wilson's gunfire. He didn't even slow down, Wilson said, after one of the bullets apparently hit him.

"I’ve never seen anybody look that, for lack of a better word, crazy," he told detectives. "I’ve never seen that. I mean, it was very aggravated, … aggressive, hostile… You could tell he was looking through you. There was nothing he was seeing."

When giant negroes attack

A story from the New York Times, published May 15, 1916.

Wilson's account of his encounter with Michael Brown seems, as Vox's Ezra Klein writes, almost unbelievable. As incredible as Wilson's story is, though, it's also quite familiar.

In 2007, a fascinating post from blogger Undercover Black Man spread through what was then quaintly known as "the blogosphere." The post highlighted newspapers' — particularly the New York Times' — obsession with "giant negroes," superhuman in strength and impervious to normal law enforcement methods, who terrorized police and civilians. From the turn of the 20th century until the 1930s, terrifying tales of "giant negroes" popped up regularly.

Here's a sample of how this played out in the Times:

  • The September 24, 1900, edition included a double whammy: back-to-back stories about criminally insane negroes of "gigantic build," headlined "Giant Negro Attacks Police" and "Big Negro Spreads Terror."
  • In 1897, the paper exclaimed, "Giant negro disables 4 policemen in fight." He was eventually felled by a baton blow to the head.
  • A 1922 story, "Seize giant negro, hide him for safety," told of a typically huge black man who was terrorizing motorists in Atlantic City (the last straw before his capture was apparently an assault on an 18-year-old white woman).
  • A "ghost-haunted darkey" went nuts at sea in 1916, according to a story titled "Armed giant negro giant goes mad on liner." He was rather tall, the reporter makes sure to note.

And so on.

These stories have stuck in my mind because they are sort of funny in their retro-racist sensationalism, but also because they are sad and illuminating. The way that these stereotypes persist and endanger black males is no laughing matter.

That insidious "magical negro" stereotype

The Journal of Social Psychology and Personality Science recently released a study that suggested white people hold a "superhumanization bias" against black people. As Jesse Singal of the Science of Us explained, "the researchers showed that whites are quicker to associate blacks than whites with superhuman words like ghostparanormal, and spirit; are more likely to think a black person as opposed to a white person has certain superhuman abilities; and that the more they think blacks are superhuman, the less they view black people as having a capacity to feel pain."

This study inspired some jokes as it made the rounds, because it's exactly this belief that we can blame for the sort of shitty movie that stars Will Smith as a mystical golf caddie. The magical negro trope has become a punchline.

But it's this sort of belief that also leads people to think that, say, a black man is impervious to bullets. That a black man has superhuman strength and can crush someone with a single blow. That the only way to deal with someone like this is to put him down. The law says that if a police officer — or, in some states, a civilian — is "reasonably" afraid, he's within his rights to do just that. And what could be more reasonable than fearing a brute who can feel no pain?

I don't know if Wilson's testimony was all cynical strategy, used to amplify his innocence and play upon jurors' innate biases to exploit the loosey-goosey law that governs police use of force. I don't know if it's what he truly believed happened, or even if it happened exactly as he described. In this magical, mystical world, anything is possible.

I do know this, though: the "giant negro" trope isn't just a relic buried in the New York Times' dusty archives. It's alive and well, and Michael Brown is not.

Related: The racism of the US criminal justice system in 10 charts.

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