This week in the United States, in Texas, a fourteen year old named Ahmed Mohamed, whose family was originally from Sudan, was arrested, handcuffed, fingerprinted and charged with possession of a “hoax bomb”, even though the device in his possession — an experiment for his engineering class — was not a bomb, nor did the boy pretend it was a bomb, nor was the boy involved in a hoax of any kind. The drama surrounding the boy was the result of fear based on stereotypes and led to the boy’s arrest.
It is important to keep in mind that, according to everyone involved in the situation, including the police officers who arrested Mohamed, there was nothing that the child said or did that indicated that he was involved in a threat. The threat was in their own minds. Judging from the boy’s testimony, in which he described the police interrogation in detail, the authorities repeatedly questioned him about his last name and accused him of attempting to make a bomb.
The outpouring of support for Mohamed, from social media, high-tech firms, universities and even the President of the United States — and the boy’s encouraging words to other young people who are members of stigmatized minorities not to be discouraged or intimidated by bigotry, but to continue to show their talents and their skills — provides a hopeful and uplifting conclusion to the story.
Still, the fact that the child was arrested in the first place reflects several interrelated trends in the United States that can no longer be ignored: Stereotypes about minority populations lead to exaggerated fears; these exaggerated fears cause much of the dominant population to be complacent with dehumanizing treatment — even the use of deadly force — toward these minorities; and because of these two factors authorities are increasing their treatment of minority children, in the United States, as if they were adult criminals.
For example, people who have had little contact with Black Americans talk about our communities in the context of their own perceptions of violence, crime and danger. To be sure, low-income neighborhoods have problems, but for many people in the dominant population pathology and dysfunction is all they are willing to see, and their fears are exaggerated.
They do not see the strong social networks, extended family bonds, innovation and work ethic that is found in these neighborhoods. They do not see the creativity or the resilience of these minorities; they only see something they can disparage, ridicule and fear.
Their perceptions are not based on reality because they don’t even know us, although they like to think of themselves as being experts on our situation. They have plenty of unsolicited advice for Black communities, but little first-hand experience. The exaggerated fear of Black Americans comes from gossip they hear from their family members and friends, images in mass media and perhaps the occasional quick ride through Black neighborhoods with their car windows up and their doors locked. They do not get close enough to actually know the community, much less the people in it.
The problem of exaggerated fear is not limited to Blacks and it is not limited to the United States; it is directed toward any population that insular and self-segregated people in a dominant group (one with the largest share of political and economic power) might perceive as being “other”.
I have driven across the United States several times and in sections of the country where the poorest population is Latino I have found exaggerated fear of Latino neighborhoods. Where the poorest population consists of “First Nations” people (Native American “Indians”) I have found exaggerated fear of the reservations.
Now that the United States has a rising population of Muslims from Northern and Eastern Africa, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia. There is exaggerated and indiscriminate fear of these populations even though, unlike the other populations I have mentioned, many of the Muslim immigrants are not concentrated in impoverished areas.
The exaggerated fear of any minority population is not as harmless as it might seem at first. Whenever anyone challenges members of a dominant group about their perceptions of minority communities they dismiss such challenges as being a matter of “political correctness”.
To their minds, it is not the truthfulness of their stereotypes of non-whites or non-Christians that is at issue, rather it is a matter of being “impolite” or “insensitive”, accusations which they scoff at, believing they come from people who are too “thin-skinned.”
But these exaggerated fears are not merely a question of not being polite or of being insensitive; they encourage dominant groups to devalue the lives of the people they fear. The exaggerated fear of the “other” makes a person indifferent toward policies that dehumanize or kill the feared population. One’s first concern is always for one’s own safety.
Early American settler colonialists were indifferent toward the massacre of the indigenous American population because they thought indigenous Americans were “devils” and the settler colonialists feared for their safety. African slaves were routinely tortured, following slave rebellions in the Caribbean, because North American slave owners had exaggerated fears about the potential for slave revolts closer to home and they feared for their safety.
Over 2,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza were killed in less than a month, in the summer of 2014, and many Americans turned a blind eye because they felt Israeli fears for their safety were legitimate. In the summer of 2015 the UK Guardian reported that unarmed Black Americans were twice as likely as unarmed whites to die in police custody but many Americans were undisturbed by these findings because they fear for their safety, and so it goes.
Without exaggeration it must be said: lack of familiarity and perpetuation of stereotypes, ignorance and exaggerated fears allow people to rationalize the death of the “other” in the name of “safety” and “security”.
If you conjure up an image, in your own mind, of a population as being terrorists, savages and beasts you can justify all manner of ill-treatment toward them. Once a population is dehumanized in the popular mind there is no longer any need for human solutions to human problems.
Label Black men as “thugs” and criminals; label Muslims as “terrorists”, label indigenous populations as “savages” and you can blame the dehumanizing conditions they live in on their own behavior. If you believe they pose a threat of violence then you will not question the judgment of authorities when large numbers of them wind up dead. Fear and stereotypes, are not minor problems — they are part of the culture of death.
This brings us back to the question of how a precocious 14 year-old, who was excited about an invention he made and showed to his teacher, making no pretense whatsoever that it was an explosive device, or even a model of one, ended up being handcuffed by police, interrogated without the presence of his parents or a lawyer, fingerprinted, forced to have mug shots taken and initially charged with having a “hoax bomb”.
The hoax was not in anything that Mohamed said or did, it was in the minds of his accusers. This fear of minorities allows them to treat members of the feared group in ways that would be unthinkable outside of the context of their dehumanization.
Once a dominant group decides that you are someone to be feared there is little you can say or do to interrupt that narrative, no matter how non-threatening you or your family might be. The criminalization of Mohamed is symptomatic of a much bigger problem.