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Sociologist On How Black Men Try To Appear Non-Threatening As A Defense Mechanism


On February 23, Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga. He never finished that jog. A videotape emerged this week showing the 25-year-old black man gunned down by a white man. The shooter says he thought Arbery was a burglar. No one has been arrested. What happened to Arbery is an all-too-familiar story in this country, and these stories shape how African American men feel and move about society.

Rashawn Ray studies the ways in which black men portray themselves in public. He's an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Thank you for joining us.

RASHAWN RAY: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You spent a lot of time studying the ways in which black men try to make sure they do not seem threatening when moving around publicly, whether that's going for a run like Ahmaud Arbery or walking down the street. Before we talk about some of the specifics, tell me generally how black men perceive risk in your research.

RAY: So in my research that I did - and I conducted a large quantitative and qualitative study. I had a survey of about 500 middle-class blacks and whites. All were college-educated. All had professional occupations. And black men, particularly those who lived in predominately white neighborhoods and who worked in frequent predominately white spaces - they felt threatened on a regular basis.

And I think this is something that oftentimes people don't readily realize, and I think it's because of stereotypes that black men are the ones who are threatening to others. But black men actually, at times, are fearful for their own lives just engaging in everyday, normal activities, such as exercising, even going to a restaurant or coffee shop, driving down the street.

And part of that process is because what these men realize, particularly for middle-class men, is that their social class or their high status - no degree that they have can actually remove the fact that, unfortunately, their black skin is oftentimes weaponized against them. And they're perceived as being criminals even when they're not.

SHAPIRO: So tell me about some of the steps that people in your research take to try to moderate that.

RAY: Sure. So black men go through what we call in sociology a signaling process, where they try to signal that they belong. They try to signal that they're not threatening. Brent Staples talked about this when he was at the University of Chicago - talked about how he would whistle classical music as he was walking down the street to appear less threatening. The men in my study who were engaging in physical activity would do things like wear an alumni T-shirt when they would go for a run. They would run in well-lit areas, run in densely populated areas. They would wave and smile and neighbors. They would always have their ID on them. I mean, these are the types of activities that people don't do when they're trying to engage in exercise.

SHAPIRO: And so when you look at the case of Ahmaud Arbery, this black man who was shot and killed going for a run in his hometown of Brunswick, Ga., what insight can you help bring to that incident based on your academic expertise?

RAY: Yeah. I mean, first, I mean, my heart just goes out to his family. It's always unfortunate when my research continues to become reality. I mean, one big thing we know is that the neighborhood is a predominantly white neighborhood - well over 50% white. So that neighborhood where it happened wasn't surprising, and also, the incident wasn't surprising. Like, unfortunately, it's the same story, the same script we hear over and over again. This was a person who I thought had done something previously, and I was going to make a citizen's arrest and ask this person if they had done this.

And I think what's important to note is that pretty much every black family in America right now is stating, if they are a black man, that could have been me. If they have a black son, that could have been my son. And that is the detrimental health effects that these incidents have they ravage through black communities that create collective memories of mistrust of law enforcement and society more broadly.

SHAPIRO: Rashawn Ray is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and a Rubenstein fellow at the Brookings Institution. Thank you for joining us today.

RAY: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMARTFACE'S "SLEEPWALKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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