#KnowYourFacts (Black Male Criminal)

A Brief History of the Idea of the Black Male Criminal

by Christopher Petrella, Ph.D. & Ameer Hasan Loggins


Despite routinely being victims of anti-Black racist violence at the hands of U.S. law enforcement officials and white citizen vigilantes, Black men are often reflexively cast as dangerous criminals by mainstream white America.

Recall that Officer Darren Wilson of the Ferguson, Missouri Police Department described Mike Brown as a “demon” in his court testimony shortly after the fatal shooting. Further recall when one member of the Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Department on the scene of Terence Crutcher’s murder described him as looking like a “bad dude.” Though Mike Brown and Terence Crutcher—and countless other unarmed Black men and boys—posed no immediate danger to public safety, they were shot and killed.

How did we—as a country—get here? Why are Black men, for instance, often thought to be dangerous criminals by mainstream white America despite evidence to the contrary?

To begin, Black men are not “naturally” more or less dangerous than non-Black men. The fact that Black men are criminalized at higher rates than non-Black men does not reflect differences in “innate criminality” but rather slanted applications of justice. The U.S. Department of Justice proves this claim when it finds that whereas Black drivers are three times more likely than white drivers to have their cars searched, white drivers are considerably more likely in the same scenario to turn up with guns or drugs. Often, the reflex to criminalize certain bodies over others hinges on perceived—not actual— danger. And perceptions of danger are inherited through historical narratives aimed at producing and sustaining a white-dominant racial order.

So where and how did the manufactured linkage of Blackness, maleness, and criminality emerge? And further, how is it sustained?

Black people—and especially Black men— have been cast as the preeminent outlaws of the American imagination. Even before the U.S. Constitution’s Fugitive Slave Clause was ratified in 1788 (Article IV, Section II, Clause III), Virginia already had 73 laws on the books that would result in the death penalty for enslaved Black men, women, and children —and only one for white people. In fact, in 1657—fifty years after Africans were enslaved and transported to the territory that would become the United States—Virginia became the first colony to pass a fugitive slave law, a statute which effectively criminalized runaway slaves in pursuit of freedom from bondage.

Two decades after the enactment of the U.S. Constitution, Samuel Cartwright, a New Orleans physician and Confederate loyalist, argued that high rates of physical and mental illnesses afflicting enslaved Black persons were the products of the alleged cognitive inferiority of the “Black race.” In his 1815 “Report on the Disease and the Physical Peculiarities of the Negro Race,” Cartwright introduced what he called “Drapetomania,” known as the “Disease Causing Slaves to Run Away.” Unconvinced that enslaved Blackchildren, women, and men might naturally seek freedom, Cartwright instead claimed that Drapetomania could be cured by “kindness.” Cartwright’s new diagnostic category, in effect, pathologized the pursuit of Black emancipation.

In the immediate aftermath of slavery, mainstream white America strategically began to link ideas of violence and danger with Black maleness. As slaves, Black men were narrated as docile and generally subservient. As free people, however, the ideology of docility was replaced with the mystique of danger. During Reconstruction, white mainstream voices argued that Black men, whose predatory proclivities had allegedly been benevolently suppressed under slavery, would revert to their natural state of violence and criminality. Thus, the ideology of the Black brute was birthed.

From the 1890s-1940s, writes Khalil Gibran Muhammad in The Condemnation of Blackness, “black criminality would become one of the most commonly cited and longest-lasting justifications for black inequality and mortality in the modern urban world.” Moreover, according to one physician cited in the New York Medical Journal in 1886, Black people were “naturally intemperate” and prone to indulging “every appetite too freely, whether for food, drink, tobacco, or sensual pleasures, and sometimes to such an extent as to appear more of a brute than human.”

In conjunction with the ubiquity of scientific racism, the Black brute was depicted in popular culture and in politics as a congenital rapist of white women bent on undermining white racial purity through Black contamination. This interpretation quickly ascended as the prominent public rationalization for lynching Black men. At the turn of the 20th century popular Mississippi Representative Percy Quin claimed that there is “an element of barbarism in the black man.” In conjunction, Representative Thomas Sisson, also of Mississippi, argued that he and his white compatriots must “protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of women of the South then the lynching will stop.” White politicians of the era constructed the image of the Black brute as an inherently violent super predator with an insatiable lust for white women and a conjoint wish to kill white men. The brute served as a two-pronged receptacle of white fear.

Despite these claims, however, there is no evidence to suggest that Black men in the postbellum south systematically enacted sexual violence upon white women or tried to murder white men en masse. In fact, such narrations say less about Black men and more about white men who created them. It was white men, not Black men, who engaged in the widespread rape of Black women during the eras of slavery and Reconstruction.

Historical efforts to make this history plain and to decenter the myth of the Black brute have themselves been met with visceral instances of violence and brutality. When Blackanti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett argued in the 1890s that most associations between white women and Black men were, in fact, consensual, a white mob destroyed the offices where her newspaper company was located.

The myth of the Black brute gained even further popularity in 1915 with the release of the (first) Hollywood Blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation. The three-hour film centers on the Ku Klux Klan’s Reconstruction-era “protection” of white women from the uncontrolled sexual aggressions of free Black men through the preferred intervention of the lynch mob. After the movie was screened at the White House President Woodrow Wilson reportedly said the film was “like writing history with lightning” and that his only regret was that its depictions were “all so terribly true.” The historical record, however, has long since shown its plot to be both unapologetically white supremacist and grossly unrepresentative of Reconstruction.

The myth of the Black brute is alive still today. According to the Justice Department, a whopping 45 percent of rape exoneration cases involve the misidentification of Black men by white women despite the fact that less than 10 percent of reported rapes of white women are committed by black men.  In fact, according to a 2004 meta-analysis in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology the concepts of “black” and “crime” were generally interchangeable with one another in terms of how subjects in the study visually perceived black people.

Mainstream white America continues to embrace the manufactured linkage of Blackness, maleness, and brutality. Many of these ideas have been taken up and repackaged in the more recent past under the policies of the so-called “War on Drugs,” “Stop and Frisk,” and the conservative dog-whistle politics of “law and order.”

These ideologies need not persist.

Just as myths are constructed in the past, they can be deconstructed in the present. Tracing the history of the ideology of Blackness, maleness, and criminality demonstrates that it is not a truth based in fact or nature but rather a tool of history aimed at policing—both literally and figuratively—the freedom, flourishing, and movement of Black male bodies against their perceived threat to the endurance of white supremacy.