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The Myth of the Dangerous Black Man

Updated: Jan 18

(Published on HuffPost)

The dangerous black man myth has been around for along time. Medieval renderings of African men have red gleaming eyes, looking more demonic than human, and a fifteenth century painting shows Ethiopians and Black Moors among the devil’s disciples.[1]


In medieval plays, demons wore black masks, and the devil is often called, “The Black Knight,” or “Black Jehovah.” And from the time of antiquity, black people, objects and animals were considered bad omens. Most believed that Black people were black because of their complicity with the devil. Moreover, facial characteristics of Africans indicated everything base: “Large lips mark the fool, large ears indicate dullness, and large eyes are a sign of envy, shamelessness, sloth, disobedience, and a rude wit. And he who is flat-nosed is lustful.”[2]


In contrast to all the negative associations with blackness, many used scriptures like Psalm 51:7 to equate white skin with purity: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (NKJ). I don’t think the swarthy psalmist was talking about white skin when he wrote this, since he had never seen any such thing. Nevertheless, this and other scriptures were conveniently used to debase dark skin and exalt light skin.


The men who ventured to Africa to find slaves arrived with this paradigm. They encountered a continent of very dark skinned people, who wore little and had strange practices. These Europeans grew up reading literature and hearing folk lore which literally demonized black people, so when they came to the “dark continent,” their conscience easily permitted them to round up men, women and children and ship them to the Americas to work as slaves.


Once here, slave owners sought to tame them as if they were beasts, keeping them bound in chains thinking that if they escaped they would murder them and rape their wives.


And the fears continued in post bellum years in the segregated south, where blacks were kept as far away from whites as possible, while still exploiting their labor.



The “dangerous black man” myth, however, was rife with hypocrisy from the beginning. The arts and sciences flourished in different parts of Africa during the middle-ages, and some African cultures were more advanced than European ones. Medieval paintings rarely depicted the very white Nero throwing Christians to the lions. According to these European artists, the bad guys of Bible times were Jews and dark skinned people; rarely did their works show the cruelty of the Greeks and Romans.


During slave days, it was the white slave owners who barbarically whipped and tortured fellow human beings, raped the slave women and tore families apart. And the barbarism continued into 20th century as white lynch mobs meted out a sadistic brand of justice for minor or non-existent infractions.


Today in America most rapists are white, most pedophiles are white, most serial killers are white, most mass murderers are white. While “black on black” crime is troubling, most of it is gang related, and “white on white” crime is just as real and just as troubling.


I am not concluding that white people are the dangerous ones. I am saying that wickedness is no respecter of persons and no culture has a corner on the market.


It is that lie, though, that black men are dangerous, which lay at the root of these police shootings. Somehow, deep within the American psyche, this ancient myth still exists. It helps white people feel superior and justifies the use of force: if you’re a black male, you are violent, and you should be given no benefit of the doubt, no second chance.


“He looks like a really bad dude,” said a police officer as he hovered in a helicopter above Terence Crutcher. How exactly did Crutcher look really bad? Was he waving a gun, a grenade, a knife? Was he spewing out threats and profanity? No. He was only black.


It’s time for racist myths to be replaced by timeless truth: white is no better than black. For centuries, white people have felt superior and justified cruel subjection by scapegoating black men. Enough is enough. Despite harrowing obstacles, black people continuously produce world-class athletes, scientists, artists and leaders. White is no more advanced, no more innocent, and no more pure. White people are just as defiled as the rest. “As it is written: ‘There is none righteous, no, not one’” (Romans 3:10 NKJ).


Are there too many drugs in the inner city? Absolutely. But there are too many drugs in the poor, white towns of rural Pennsylvania and rural Mississippi, and the rich suburbs that dot the map, too. New Hampshire, a state which is 98% white, has one of the worst heroine epidemics in the country. Drugs are ubiquitous and devastating to our youth, no matter the color.


Foundational to Christian theology is the fact that we are all equally tarnished by sin. We should be leading the way in debunking this myth, not tacitly agreeing with it. We need reform in our criminal justice system, but more than that, we need to stop believing a lie.


[1] Higgs, Debra. Saracens, Demons, & Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art

Princeton, New Jersey. Princeton University Press. 2003. p. 84

[2] Ibid. p. 85

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