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The ‘bad guy’ narrative is back — this time it’s Jacob Blake

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

You could have mailed this one in. The “this” is the cynical, calculated, cold hearted, factually challenged assertion that Jacob Blake was really the bad guy. The bad guy that Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey had almost no choice but to use deadly force to protect himself against. The picture painted of Blake as the villain in the deadly encounter follows almost to the letter the template that is pro forma dragged out every time a Blake or a George Floyd is victimized by police bullets or a police knee to the throat.

There’s the nonstop avalanche of veiled and not-so-veiled hints, innuendoes, digs and crass, snide, accusing comments, slander and outright lies about their alleged bad background. In Blake’s case, he was a wanted felon. He carried a knife. He assaulted officers. This “bad guy” characterization is almost always accompanied by a carefully compiled chronology of prior arrest records, prior behavioral personal and domestic problems, and an alleged dysfunctional home.

Then the professional baiters and bashers take over on. Fox and the rightwing radio talking heads endlessly peddle a twin narrative. One is of the bad guy image of the victim. The other is of the beleaguered, under-siege, hard-working police officers who do their duty under the toughest of circumstances.

The savage assault on men such as Blake has two aims. One is to deconstruct him as supposedly not an innocent choirboy. The even more devious and insidious aim is to exonerate the police officers for the slaying. After all, if enough filth can be tossed on Blake to cast doubt and suspicion about his character and motives, then maybe Rusten Sheskey had probable cause to kill.

The trashing of Blake as a closet thug is slanderous and silly stuff. The pantheon of stereotypes and negative typecasting it’s anchored on is not. It’s the shortest of short steps to think that if Blake can be depicted as a caricature of the terrifying image that much of the public still harbors about young Black males, then that image seems real, even more terrifying — and the consequences are just as deadly.

The hope was that former President Obama’s election buried once and for all negative racial typecasting and the perennial threat racial stereotypes posed to the safety and well-being of Black males. It did no such thing. Immediately after Obama’s election, teams of researchers from several major universities found that many of the old stereotypes about poverty and crime and Blacks remained just as frozen in time.

In 2003, Penn State University researchers conducted a landmark study on the tie between crime and public perceptions of who is most likely to commit crime. The study found that many whites are likely to associate pictures of Blacks with violent crime. The Penn State study found that even when Blacks didn’t commit a specific crime, whites still misidentified the perpetrator as an African American.

Five years later, university researchers wanted to see if that stereotype still held sway, even as white voters were near unanimous that race made difference in whether they would or did vote for Obama. Researchers found public attitudes on crime and race unchanged. The majority of whites still overwhelmingly fingered Blacks as the most likely to commit crimes, even when they didn’t commit them. Subsequent studies that examine racial stereotypes of Black men still find the same subtle and overt biases and misconceptions about Black men.

The bulging numbers of Blacks in America’s jails and prisons seem to reinforce the wrong-headed perception that crime and violence in America invariably comes with a young Black male face such as Blake’s. It doesn’t much matter how prominent, wealthy or celebrated the person is.

Trump’s pep rally for Kenosha police and sympathetic city officials will bolster the deep feeling and rage among countless numbers of his backers that cops such as Sheskey, not Blake, are the real victims of abuse. They, not Blake, must be given maximum public backing, they will say. The racially loaded campaign to trash Blake as the bad guy makes it that much easier for many to do just that.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.

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