Viewpoint: Our fear is killing us

Our fear is killing us. On the night the confrontations in Ferguson, Mo., began, our African American adopted daughter called us extremely upset over the militarized way in which the demonstrators were being treated. My wife and I calmed her down and got her to bed. But now I—a retired, white university professor—am the one paralyzed with fear for my African American grandsons. I don’t know what to do about it. Multiple times this last year black teens and young adults have been shot and killed by whites who were irrationally afraid of them. My black grandsons are exceptionally fine young men: they have never been in trouble, are soft-spoken, and have always been outstandingly helpful to others. This year’s incidents in Florida and Ohio show, however, that this is no protection. Whites interpreted innocent black behavior as threatening and African Americans were killed as a result. Fear is killing us.

White fear of violence from blacks is irrational. In this country, the perpetrators of homicide against whites are six times more likely to also be white. Of course, there are more whites than there are blacks here, so this might be expected.  Nonetheless even when we adjust for the smaller portion of African Americans in our population, it is still true that a white in the US encountering a white has a slightly higher chance of being killed by him (or her) than when dealing with a black. Over a year’s time a white in this country has a 1.05 chance out of 100,000 of being killed by the average white.  The comparable figure for black on white homicide is 1.03.

Our fears of the other might be just our personal problem, were it not for the fact that current American culture also is encouraging us to respond to our fears with aggression rather than disarming ingenuity. Stand-your-ground law is a recipe for precisely the disaster that we are observing. It multiplies irrational fear with irrational responses.

In a confrontation the best strategy for all of us—including the police—is to talk the other person down, not dominate them. This is what the famously effective British bobbies were taught to do. And it explains the surprise result of bringing women into the Berkeley, Calif., police force. Since it had been assumed that miscreants submit most readily to superior size and force, male officers had worried how (smaller) women would do. But it turned out that the female officers had fewer problems in confrontations, not more, for they had learned early in life how to calm and joke stronger men down.

When we feel threatened we need to take a deep breath, calmly assess the situation, and look for non-confrontational solutions. This is the traditional, real-life American approach rather than the dramatic, adrenaline-stoked (but destructive) action movie response. And it is the Quaker one, which we should be promoting in our communities. Otherwise our fears and aggression will continue to kill us.


1/17/2015: This article has been updated to restore a section of the author’s second paragraph that was edited out in error. We regret the error. -Eds.

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