Look carefully at the testimony of Police Officer Darren Wilson regarding his fatal encounter with the black teenager Michael Brown and something extraordinary emerges. Wilson's testimony almost perfectly channels one of America's most longstanding cultural stereotypes: the myth of the brutal, beast-like black male.
Here are some of the relevant passages. Keep in mind that while Brown was very large at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, Wilson is no lightweight at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds. Also, the autopsy showed no manic-inducing drugs like PCP in Brown’s blood.
"I said get back or I'll shoot you. He immediately grabs my gun and says, 'You are too much of a p---- to shoot me.'"
"And when I grabbed him the only way I can describe it I felt like a -year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan."
"He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, he looks like a demon."
"He turns, and when he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound."
"At this point it looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots ... and the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn't even there."
This story eerily parallels the myth of the black man as bestial, brutal and demonic, possessed of animal-like strength and agility, subject to uncontrollable rages and impervious to reason or morality, or even his own survival.
This bogus and racist myth is deeply seated in American history. A 1788 article in The Columbian Magazine says that black men are "very brutal" and "in many respects they are more like beasts than men. ... [T]hey are very nimble and run with a speed that is almost incredible."
An 1852 article in DeBow's Review attributes to the black male "brutish propensities" that lead him to "the slaughter of his white master (unless he himself be exterminated) and to the full exercise of his native barbarity and savageism."
In the late 19th century, the Police Gazette was filled with stories about the crimes of "black brutes." The Gazette described a lynching of a black rape suspect as "ridding the world of a demoniac brute." In 1901, George Winston, former president of the University of North Carolina, warned that "the black brute is lurking in the dark, a monstrous beast, crazed with lust. His ferocity is almost demoniacal. A mad bull or tiger could scarcely be more brutal."
Southern members of Congress used fear of the "black brute" to oppose anti-lynching bills. Rep. Thomas Sisson of Mississippi said, "We are going to protect our girls and womenfolk from these black brutes. When these black fiends keep their hands off the throats of the women of the South then lynching will stop."
Wilson was hardly the first white person in recent times to channel the myth of the brutal black man. In 1988, backers of then-presidential candidate George H. W. Bush aired an ad featuring an image of the fierce-looking black man, Willie Horton, who engaged in a rampage of rape and assault after being released on a weekend furlough program backed by Bush's opponent, then-Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts.
In 1989, Charles Stuart of Boston claimed that a black man had shot and killed his pregnant wife. Police rounded up hundreds of black suspects and Stuart even identified one of them as the murderer. Then, after police uncovered evidence which indicated that the accuser had likely killed his wife for the insurance money, Stuart committed suicide.
In 1994, Susan Smith of Union, S.C. claimed that a young black man had taken her car and kidnapped her two infant children. Although her story was widely believed — newspapers published a sketch based on her description and she appeared on television to tearfully ask for the return of her children — Smith later confessed to the crime of killing her own children.
In 2008, Ashley Todd, a volunteer for Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) presidential campaign, told police she was robbed and assaulted at knifepoint by a 6-foot-4 African-American male who carved a "B" (for Barack Obama) into her cheek after seeing a McCain sticker on her car. Her story gained national attention and prominent coverage on Fox News. Then, after confronted with contrary evidence, Todd confessed to having fabricated the tale.
Darren Wilson will not be tried for murder or manslaughter and Michael Brown cannot tell his side of the story. However, the close correspondence of his testimony with the well-worn racist stereotype of black males ought to give us great pause in evaluating the credibility of his story.
Lichtman is distinguished professor of history at American University in Washington.