I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands,
organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same
food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases,
heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter
and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If
you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the
rest, we will resemble you in that.
The Merchant Of Venice Act 3, scene 1, 58–68
In order to be dehumanized, we have to be seen as human.
Like so many things in America, the routine dehumanization of Blacks can be traced to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. The entire southern economy was built on and depended on the free labor of those captured or sold into slavery in Africa , then transported to these shores for sale. In order to justify the highly profitable, but morally reprehensible, practice of chattel slavery, as practiced in the U.S., the argument had to be made and emphasized that these were not people, but things. No more than animals to be worked until they died, then you could either by more, or worse, breed them. Even in the Census, slaves were only counted as 3/5 of a person. That this point of view existed for at least 200 years prior to the end of slavery, is very telling about how attitudes towards all minorities, not just Blacks, developed over time as the nation grew.
After the slaves were freed, when most Blacks were just trying to live peacefully and support their families, the Ku Klux Klan formed. Although, if you look carefully enough, their services weren't really needed. After 200 years of being conditioned to believe that an entire race of people were all mostly lazy, ignorant, or animalistic, those in positions of power: the bankers, landowners and politicians, had no interest in creating a fair and just society were all men could propel themselves up the socioeconomic ladder by their own hard work. There is no profit in that, for them anyway, so we have the invention of the system of sharecropping, a system meant to keep Blacks as close to a condition of slavery as possible, while also managing to sweep in the rural poor as well. It was during this era that we also saw the beginnings of the "Us vs Them" style of politics, which used the by now widely believed stereotypes of Blacks to scare poor Whites into believing that the Blacks were out to take away their livelihoods (rather than just trying to live independently), and/or commit some heinous crime against them. American has always had a need for a "villain" (in order for someone to be declared a "hero"), and due to the fact that Blacks are highly visible, all that is needed to keep the population in fear of a certain group is to find someone who fits the definition of what they are afraid of, and parade that person out front, as often and as loudly as possible, drowning out the fact that the vast majority of the population is not only nothing like this person, but probably has more in common with the person being fed fear then they realize. The purpose of the KKK was two-fold: to keep Blacks "in their place", which meant not doing well enough for themselves that they saw themselves as equal to the whites of the time (the phrase "Uppity Nigger" was coined during this time); and to control the remainder of the population through feeding into their fear of the "Other", thus allowing those in power to stay in power.
All races of people have people within that race that are criminals, fools and ne'er do wells. The multi-award winning TV show Breaking Bad, and the much discussed show Sons of Anarchy, show that the drug trade and gang violence are not limited to urban minorities, concentrated in inner cities. Rural America has it's fair share of issues, but those that live there are largely given the benefit of the doubt (or they used to be) in interaction with law enforcement and subsequent treatment by the media. For Blacks and other minorities, the lowest common denominator is the default by which they are measured. Always. Minorities often have to go far above and beyond in order for the world to know that our loved ones and friends were not the "Thugs" (code word for all minorities) that they are being portrayed as. The ultimate scenario of Guilty Until Proven Innocent, is what they have all come to expect. Which, 149 years after the end of slavery, is a shame.
When William Shakespeare gave that speech to Shylock during the court trial in The Merchant of Venice, he was making a comment about the view of Jews in Elizabethan society during the late 1500's. What does it say about us as a technologically advanced, presumably First-World country when we still have to ask those same questions in 2014 in a mid-western suburb? If all you know about an entire group of people is what you've been fed in the media, and maybe had one or two interactions with a few representatives, how much do you really know, especially if you are going to continue spreading the lies, fear and hate?
My son is 21. He is already a veteran of being stopped for no other reason than "because", and was taught early on to be polite and respectful to law enforcement, no matter how they may be treating him. He is funny and charming, but he can also be temperamental and easily upset if he feels that he is being treated unfairly. He is by no means a perfect person, but neither is he some sort of always to be feared "Other", and like most parents of imperfect Black males, this is what I worry about most. Having to defend my son should one day, propelled by fear, paranoia, and 350 years of being repeatedly told that my son is not a real person, some law enforcement officer will misread a harmless word or gesture, then completely overreact, thereby turning my son into another heartbreaking statistic. Which they would then try to justify by bringing up the fact that he wasn't a great student, and whatever else they can think of, dig up or make up. Which would leave those of us that loved him in the position of trying to remind the world that this wasn't some animal; this was a son, brother, nephew and friend, that was wonderfully human, flaws and all.
We all are. Now if we could only realize that and treat each other accordingly.