Black and Wild, Like a Bear:
Police Brutality and Moral Perception

Cliff Williams


In the 1991 video of Rodney King being beaten by four or five police officers, the black King is on the ground writhing in pain as he tries to defend himself from the clubs of the white officers. King flails his arms. He groans as another club hits him. The officers can easily secure King with handcuffs, yet they continue to attack King for several agonizing minutes.

Why did they do this?

In his “Look, a Negro!” Robert Gooding-Williams gives an answer to this question when discussing 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 black body became that of a wild ‘Hulk-like’ and ‘wounded’ animal, whose every gesture threatened the existence of civilized society.” (Quoted by George Yancy in his Black Bodies, White Gazes)

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. But why did the police officers interpret 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? The answer to these unsettling questions lies in a couple of facts about perceiving.

(1) The police officers’ perceiving was immediate and instinctive. They did not stop to deliberate 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 almost always recognize them instantly when we see them.

(2) The officers’ perceiving was also learned. 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.

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. They saw his blackness, not just in an ordinary way as one color among others, but through the lens of their attitudes, values, and emotions. What they thought they saw in King was filtered through these character traits.

Here are examples of what can be called “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 notices 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 these cases, your attitudes, values, and emotions induce you to feel and act in a certain way. You have acquired these character traits 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 character traits that are deeply flawed.

The police officers who beat Rodney King had also acquired attitudes, values, and emotions over the course of their lives that were deeply flawed. Because they were white, these attitudes and values undoubtedly included the feeling of white normalness and superiority that is common among whites in the United States. This feeling may have been explicit in the officers’ minds, or it may have lain underneath their conscious awareness. In the latter case, it would what is commonly called implicit bias. Either way, explicit or implicit, the officers' feeling of white normalness and superiority would have affected the way they perceived the black King as being more like a dangerous animal than a human.

The officers probably watched the evening news on television, and there they could have picked up the belief that black males are frequently criminal. It has been shown by Jerry Kang that “blacks are disproportionately portrayed in crime news,” which itself disproportionately occupies television news. Perhaps the officers watched television shows and movies as well as the news. Martin Gilens has shown that in these, “blacks are commonly portrayed as criminals.” 

Christopher Lebron, who cites these facts, and many others, 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. 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.

These facts about moral perception are as real as the “facts of the case” when police departments investigate police brutality against black people. They are facts that should weigh heavily in those investigations and in the deliberations of jurors when deciding whether to indict or convict white police officers of unwarranted brutality. If these facts about moral perception had been recognized in the Rodney King case, the white police officers who mercilessly beat him would have been held responsible for their brutality as a racist crime.

This moral perception is, fortunately, like ordinary perceiving in another important way: in both, perceivers can come to realize that they are mistaken.

Recognizing one’s mistake in ordinary visual perception may be as simple as getting closer to an object. Recognizing one’s mistake when perceiving people through the lens of one’s racial attitudes, values, and emotions, however, is often much more difficult. This is because these attitudes, values, and emotions are often deeply embedded in one’s character. And this is due largely to the fact that they are present so extensively in white American culture.

Some people regard this racial embeddedness in one’s character as grounds for being pessimistic about whether anyone can change their flawed racial moral perceptions. Others are more hopeful. Whichever view is correct, it is a duty for everyone to take steps to try to root out these perceptions. Here are some ways this can be done:

  • Reading autobiographies of black people, including those of former slaves. 
  • Becoming acquainted with the deep harm, psychological as well as otherwise, that black people have suffered.
  • Keeping the Golden Rule constantly in mind: Do to others as you would have them do to you. 
  • Participating in corporate retraining programs.

The aim is to transform one’s moral perception so as to see that black people are fully human and therefore deserving of equal respect.

Police officers are well trained to keep safety as their priority in their encounters with unknown people. It is, indeed, necessary that they are. But what counts as being safe or unsafe is determined in part by attitudes, values, and emotions. If these are prejudicial against black people, police officers with skewed racial moral perceptions will regard themselves as being unsafe more quickly when encountering blacks than when encountering whites. In encounters with black people in which deadly force is used too quickly, the threat to safety is, therefore, not a legitimate defense, because the assessment of safety itself can be tainted by explicit or implicit racially biased attitudes, values, and emotions.

The long list of black people who have been killed by white police officers in the past decade 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 in every police department in the United States.

It is important to recognize that police officers are not the only ones who have biased racial moral perceptions. Nearly all white people who have grown up in the United States have had their attitudes, values, and emotions shaped in ways that are prejudicial to black people, to varying degrees and in varying ways. I certainly have.

Because we whites are in the majority, we have normalized being white, which means that we regard black people as not being normal, as being different from us normal people. And this prompts us to perceive black people as “deviant” and “less than us.”

This biased moral perception has caused whites to engage in racial microaggressions. These are the numerous, “brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated” (Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University). These slights and denigrating messages cause their recipients to feel demeaned, angry, and less valued.

Other harms based on biased moral perceptions are more conspicuous: convict leasing in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century, lynching, mass incarceration, restrictions on voting rights, poor educational facilities, job application discrimination, being more worthy of the death penalty in capital crimes, redlining, subprime loans. The list could go on for another five or ten lines. Although these practices are institutional, they are carried out by cooperating individuals in the institutions.

In addition, we whites enjoy numerous, everyday privileges, as Peggy McIntosh points out in her classic article, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack," such as not being followed by security officers in department stores and knowing that people of our color will be at public meetings we attend and in movies we watch. Black people do not enjoy these privileges because they are perceived as having less value.

Moreover, the association of black people in the U.S. with animals is not restricted to white police officers or white extremists. Joe Feagin writes in The White Racial Frame that in recent research studies, “social psychologists have found that the association in ordinary white minds between black Americans and apes remains strong and emotion-laden.” (Quoted in Backlash by George Yancy) The moral perception of black people as subhuman is not limited to a few racist individuals, but is pervasive among whites.

If anthropologists from another planet were to study American culture, they would include in their report that white police brutality against black people is the tip of an iceberg. They would point to the skewed moral perceptions in which the iceberg floats. And if they were activists, they would want to see the skewed moral perceptions drained off and the whole iceberg melted. 

They would be right.

With unbiased racial moral perceptions, police officers would not be so quick to kill black Americans. And white Americans would perceive black lives mattering as much as their own.

© 2018 by Cliff Williams


Other articles on race by Cliff Williams: