Is Masculinity the Real Killer? A New Look at Ferguson

Is Masculinity the Real Killer? A New Look at Ferguson

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Editor's Note: This article was submitted before a Ferguson grand jury declined to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown.  By Ben Gee

The Mudd Center’s object of ethical investigation this year, Race and Justice in America, has taken place under the shadow of one of America’s largest racial controversies of the 21st century: the shooting of Michael Brown Jr. and the subsequent protests in Ferguson.  It is only fitting that its lecture series address this event. This November 6th, W&L welcomed Professor Phillip Atiba Goff to examine Ferguson’s disconcerting aura as it relates to bias in policing. Professor Goff’s research focuses on some of the root psychological causes of law enforcement confrontations that lead to situations like Michael Brown’s death.

Goff began his remarks by explaining that American concepts of race have improved significantly in the last half-century. Ostensible bigotry and its subversive companion, subconscious discrimination, have both decreased, with studies showing that percentages of Americans who agree with common racial stereotypes have dropped precipitously in the last few decades. However, even if someone is not a racist, they can still become racially charged in a high-stress situation, Goff argued. Goff’s goal is to find alternate reasons for racial conflicts between citizens and police, through the application of psychology and sociology.

Professor Goff related an experiment to the audience in which police officers were shown a video in order to examine their reactions. This video placed the officer in a dark city street, with an aggressive black man holding a metal pipe menacingly advancing on the camera. Goff shared two central examples to identify the trend he saw from the experiment. The first officer, an older man who identified himself as an unabashed racist, reacted calmly and reasoned with the aggressor. Because he was older and therefore less likely to view the young, pipe-wielding man as a threat to his masculinity, the racist officer acted in the interest of preventing an escalation of conflict. Another officer, a young man with African-American siblings and girlfriend, got in a shouting match with the aggressor and finally pressed the trigger several times on his dummy firearm - hypothetically ending the pipe-wielding man’s life. How could it be that these two officers acted so differently to the same situation - and with the non-racist, cosmopolitan, “modern” officer committing the fatal action?

Goff posited that this difference in reaction stems from the psychological notion of a masculinity threat. Masculinity threat occurs when a male feels his manhood is threatened by another individual, which then leads to uncharacteristically aggressive behavior. Goff argued that the common factor in shootings like the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown cases is the insidious workings of masculinity threat, which leads to unnecessary escalation and eventual tragedy. Black men are perceived as “hyper-macho,” he said, and this often triggers masculinity threat and irrational aggression from both the officer and noncompliant individual. In this way, an entirely non-racist, tolerant officer can be very vulnerable to participating in a shooting as things begin to spiral out of control, Goff argued.

Masculinity threat may have contributed to the tragic deaths of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, as Goff postulates, but both situations involve more than just macho insecurity. Though at the time of this article, nothing has been decided in court, Darren Wilson’s bruises suggest that Michael Brown attacked him and provoked him to act in self-defense. It was proven in court that George Zimmerman suffered serious trauma from his head being repeatedly smashed into the pavement by an enraged Martin – surely the immediate cause of the fatal gunshot that took the young man’s life. In both of these cases, Zimmerman and Wilson were spurred to rash action by threats to their life. Could not a fear for one’s safety, rather than subconscious feelings of masculine insecurity, play a greater role in life-or-death decisions by embattled cops? Professor Goff’s research sheds important new light on this issue, but it remains clear that attributing a single cause to any event in isolation does not paint the full picture. There is still more work to be done, but Goff’s work represents a step in the right direction.

Photo Credit: Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons

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