In the 1991 video of Rodney King being beaten by at least four police officers, King is on the ground writhing in pain as he tries to defend himself from the clubs of the officers, three of whom are White. King, a Black man, flails his arms. He groans as another club makes contact. The officers can easily secure King with handcuffs, yet they continue to attack him for several agonizing minutes.
Why did they do this?
In Look, a Negro!: Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture, and Politics, Robert Gooding-Williams gave an answer to this question when he wrote about the trial in which the police officers were acquitted of all charges against them: “The defense attorneys [for Rodney King] elicited testimony from King’s assailants that depicted King repeatedly as a bear, and as emitting bear-like groans. In the eyes of the police, and then again in the eyes of the jurors [who acquitted the officers], King’s [B]lack body became that of a wild ‘Hulk-like’ and ‘wounded’ animal, whose every gesture threatened the existence of civilized society.”1
The White police officers “saw” King’s Black body as wild and threatening, like a bear that would rise up and swat them with its powerful and perilous paws. They heard King’s painful groans as menacing growls. Bears, of course, are scary. Anyone who has met them in the wild, as I have, instinctively tenses up.
Why did the police officers regard King’s groans as bear-like growls? Why did they perceive King’s prone body as a threatening and dangerous object that needed to be subdued? To answer these questions, we need to look at two features of the officers’ perceptions.
(1) The police officers’ perceiving was immediate and instinctive. They did not stop to deliberate about how they should think of what they were seeing, but beat King immediately after hearing what sounded to them to be threatening noises. This is how nearly all of us see most everyday objects, such as trees and cars. We nearly always recognize them instantly when we see them. It was the same with the police officers—they instantaneously “saw” the Black King as dangerous as a wild bear.
(2) The officers’ perceiving was also learned. This, too, is like ordinary perceiving. Children do not automatically know what trees and cars are, but have to learn to see certain shapes as consisting of certain kinds of things. In the same way, the officers went through a process of acquiring what they thought was the knowledge that Black bodies are wild and threatening. This “knowledge” prompted them to “see” King’s twisting, Black body as wild and bear-like. That threatening body had to be subdued before it attacked the officers, indeed, before it attacked the very existence of civilized society.
Although the White officers’ perception of the Black King was like ordinary perception in these two ways, it differed in a significant way: it had a moral component. This moral component consisted of an assessment of the worth of what they saw— it was not “good” like the officers conceived themselves to be, it was not to be trusted, it was able to hurt if not subdued, it was like a threatening bear.
The officers’ eyes saw only Black skin, what everyone else who was there would have seen—one color among others. But their moral assessment of Black people was added to the visual component of the perception. This moral assessment was a lens through which the officers’ visual perception was filtered to produce the complex perception of a Black human. It was just as instinctive as their visual perception was, because the moral assessment of being Black had become ingrained in the officers. It had become so much a part of their stance toward Black people that it automatically fused with their visual perception of the color black on a human.
You did, of course, visually see the same event that others saw. But your values combine with your visual perception. You have acquired these values over the course of your life, and they shape how you observe people in distress.
Here are examples of “moral perception.” You notice that someone at a nearby table in a coffee shop is quietly crying, and you instantly feel empathy for them. Another customer sees the crying but is annoyed at having to be near a person in visible distress. Or you notice an elderly, ill-kempt person stumble and fall on a crowded city street, and you stop to help her up. Others who see what happened continue on their way, indifferent to the plight of someone who is not generally valued by society.
In each case, you “saw” what happened differently from the way others saw what happened. You did, of course, visually see the same event that others saw. But your values combine with your visual perception. You have acquired these values over the course of your life, and they shape how you observe people in distress. You perceive them, instantly and without deliberation, in a way that differs from the way in which indifferent others perceive people in distress, also instantly and without deliberation. That is because those others have acquired different values or have been indifferent to certain values.
Police officers, therefore, cannot absolve themselves simply by saying that they felt unsafe. This feeling of being unsafe may have been influenced by the prejudicial values they have acquired.
The police officers who beat Rodney King had acquired values with respect to Black people over the course of their lives. Because they were White, these values undoubtedly included the sense of white normalness and superiority that is common among Whites in the United States. This sense would have affected the way they perceived the Black King as being more like a dangerous animal than a human.
The officers’ moral perception of King heightened their sense of being unsafe. Police officers are rightly trained to keep safety as a priority in their encounters with unknown people. But an assessment of safety can be affected by racially biased attitudes. When this is the case, officers are likely to regard themselves as being unsafe more quickly. They are then more likely to use excessive force. Police officers, therefore, cannot absolve themselves simply by saying that they felt unsafe. This feeling of being unsafe may have been influenced by the prejudicial values they have acquired.
The officers who beat Rodney King excessively would have acquired their values regarding Black people in the numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which nearly everyone in White America acquires them—in their families, schools, neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and in movies and on television. The officers probably watched the evening news on television where they could have picked up the belief that Black males are frequently criminal. It has been shown by Jerry Kang that “[B]lacks are disproportionately portrayed in crime news,” which itself disproportionately occupies television news. If the officers had watched movies and shows on television, they would also have picked up the same belief—Martin Gilens has shown that in these, too, “Blacks are commonly portrayed as criminals.”2
Christopher Lebron, who cites these facts in his The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time, concludes that Black people are viewed by Whites in the United States as having less social value.3 If this is true, it almost certainly was true of the White police officers who beat Rodney King. It means that they would instinctively have perceived King as threatening and as having less value. They would literally have “seen” him, without a moment’s hesitation, as a wild animal that needed forceful restraint.
This thought is reinforced by a study done by social psychologists, who “have found that the association in ordinary [W]hite minds between [B]lack Americans and apes remains strong and emotion-laden.”4 This fact means that White police officers are likely to have their moral perceptions of Black Americans formed by this stereotype.
This association between Black people and animals is intensified by the fact that King is dark “Black” (really, dark brown), and that those who are dark Black are at the far end of the color scale in “colorism.” Colorism is the belief that people with “White” skin (really, tanish or pinkish off White) have more value than those with non-White skin, and further that there are gradations of value among people with non-White skin, those with lighter skin having more value than those with darker skin. If colorism exists in American culture, as it surely does, it would have been picked up by the White police officers and would thus have affected their perception of a writhing, dark form.
One of the most significant features of moral perception is that the valuational part of it is likely to be unconscious and thus not able to be articulated easily. The valuational part has been ingrained so deeply in people that they are not normally aware of it. It is somewhat like having glasses on—after putting them on one forgets that they are there. Unlike putting glasses on, though, one is not usually aware that certain values are being embedded in one. They are simply what one breathes in as one grows up. It is what one takes in as an adult from the value-laden contexts one inhabits. It is this fact that accounts for the instinctiveness of moral perception—the immediate apprehension of a person being in distress or the automatic apprehension of Black skin as morally inferior.
It is important to say that everyone has moral perceptions, not just White police officers who beat Black Americans. This is because everyone is exposed to the values of the families and cultures of which they are a part. In families in which people who are in distress are cared about, children will grow up being attuned to the signs of distress that people exhibit. In cultures in which women are devalued, men are likely to perceive women as having less value than other men, and some women will as well. Those who inhabit multiracial contexts in which everyone is fully respected and valued are much more likely to have moral perceptions of people who differ from them as fully human and worth being respected. Our moral perceptions permeate our daily interactions with others. They have been deeply embedded in us through the common process of absorbing the values that surround us.
This deep embeddedness of values makes it seem as though moral perceptions are normal and natural. It is this sense of being normal and natural that makes it hard for people to change the way in which they perceive others. Still, moral perceptions are like visual perceptions of physical objects in that perceivers can come to realize that they are mistaken and can unlearn their habit of seeing people in certain ways.
The unlearning of habits, though, can be very difficult, unlike correcting visual perceptions. The latter may simply involve getting closer to what one perceives, whereas the former involves changing attitudes and emotions to which one has become deeply attached and which are often not easily able to be articulated. An example illustrates the difficulty of changing one’s emotional attachments. Think of a young girl who has been sexually abused by an older male and who has come to distrust all older males. That is her instinctive and automatic way of perceiving them. Her distrust may be able to be dissolved through contacts with older males who prove to be trustworthy, and over a period of years she may be able to change her moral perceptions of the males she encounters. Despite this change, though, her initial instinctive distrust may arise from time to time, and she may have to fight it off when in the presence of an older male who has proven to be trustworthy.
The same is true when changing one’s racially injurious moral perceptions. Even though one recognizes that they are mistaken, that is not enough to change the automatic and instinctive moral perceptions. To do that, one has to change the deeply embedded attitudes and emotions one has had toward people of different races. This may take years of slow unlearning. Sometimes it may involve battling occasional resurgences of one’s former instincts.
The aim of changing one’s racially injurious moral perceptions is to perceive people who are different as fully human and deserving of equal respect automatically, instinctively, and immediately whenever one encounters them. The aim is to make these moral perceptions feel natural and normal.
The long list of Black people who have been killed by White police officers in the past two decades makes it imperative that police officers’ flawed moral perceptions of Black people be corrected. Though it may take time and uncomfortable effort to bring about this change, the process needs to be started, and it needs to be kept up year after year.
The best way to engage in this process is through official programs that all police officers in a particular department participate in. Although individual efforts are good, each police officer needs to know that other officers with whom they work have the same mindset. Otherwise, racially injurious “groupthink” may take over when two or more White police officers are involved in an encounter with a person of color. Actually, groupthink may take over when just one White police officer encounters a person of color.
Groupthink occurs when an individual in a group makes a decision based on the urge to conform to the group. Groupthink definitely appeared to be operating in the Rodney King beating. But it could also operate when an individual who is part of a group simply pictures the group being present or simply regards themselves as needing to uphold the modes of conduct of the group. In this way, a police officer who acts alone can still be affected by the urge to conform to the racially injurious modes of conduct of fellow police officers.
So those racially injurious modes of conduct need to be changed among whole police departments, not just by individual police officers, by themselves, one by one. And because racially injurious modes of conduct are brought about by racially injurious moral perceptions, those perceptions need to be changed as well.
With unbiased racial moral perceptions, White police officers would not be so quick to kill Black Americans and White juries would be more impartial in their deliberations about cases involving Black victims.
Editor’s note: A version of this essay was first published at cliffordwilliams.net
1Quoted in George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America, Second Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2017), 36.
2Quoted in Christopher J. Lebron, The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice in Our Time (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 146.
3Christopher J. Lebron, The Color of Our Shame, 4–5, 44, 50.
4Joe Feagin, The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing (New York: Routledge, 2010), 104. Quoted in George Yancy, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 48.