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Two shirtless black, young men stand facing stormy beach sky
Photography by Joshua Kissi

To truly understand the beginning of racial fear in America, we need to dig into the country’s unvarnished origin story.

Historical illustration of enslaved people laying side by side on slave ships
From The New York Public Library

During the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1600s, slave ship crews recognized a slave-led rebellion would put their lives and future earnings at risk. The potential for payback became the foundation of white fear. It’s why traders transported enslaved Africans on their ships in inhumane and grotesque ways.

Historical drawings of enslaved people interacting with violent slave ship crews
From The New York Public Library

Once in America, the relationship between a slave owner and their enslaved Africans was also entrenched in mutual fear. For an enslaved person, sold into a life of captivity, it was the soul-crushing fear of cruelty, violence, confinement, loneliness, and mental oppression. For a slave owner, it was quite different.

Historical etching of the slave trade in 1850
Retrieved from the Library of Congress


As the business of slavery matured, slave owners became reliant on slave labor to make money. This put them in a position of physical and financial dependence. If you establish a system of white supremacy and force a race into captivity, what’s your worst nightmare?

Payback and Black supremacy.

The idea of Black people overthrowing the system was enough to rally the entire white community to action. To maintain control of the status quo, slave owners doubled down on extreme violence as their primary tool to instill fear and discourage revolts or escapes. The scale and range of the brutality were horrifying. It included but wasn’t limited to: lynching, torture, rape, bombing, being dragged to death, verbal abuse, shackling, whipping, beating, starvation, mutilation, branding, and breaking up families.

Source: PBS
It is a sad feeling to be afraid of one's native country.
Harriet Ann Jacobs
Source: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Slavery established the birth of structural violence in policing. (Structural violence is where a social system creates inequity and has a negative impact on a community).  Many of these early methods, like lynching, bombing, verbal abuse, dragging, and beating Black people weren’t retired. They were either supported, ignored, or adopted by law enforcement over the course of America’s controversial policing history.


400 years later, the fear of losing control as a majority group is still consciously and subconsciously at play today for a lot of white Americans. In a 2016 psychological study on racial shooting bias, researchers found that white fear of minorities can have devastating shooting bias results for Black individuals. This effect was heightened when paired with dehumanizing Black people. This fear is still present in how America approaches policing today.

1 in every 1,000 black men can expect to be killed by police.

The police violence doesn't end there. The cycle of brutality extends to women and members of the transgender community.

Black women are about 1.4 times more likely to be killed by police than white women.
More than one-fifth (22%) of transgender people who had interacted with law enforcement reported police harassment. 6% of transgender individuals reported that they experienced bias-motivated assault by officers. Black transgender people reported much higher rates of biased harassment and assault (38% and 15%).

Overall, black transgender or gender non-conforming people reported higher rates of harassment, physical, and sexual assault by police than other races. Tragically, there are no comprehensive databases that accurately record the numbers of lives assaulted and lost at the hands of the police in these communities. However, initiatives, like Say Her Name and the Reforming Police and Ending Anti-Transgender Violence report, have started making these individuals and the patterns more visible. Learn some of their names and stories:

In 2020 alone, the police have killed 1,127 people. “Black people have been 28% of those killed by police in 2020 despite being only 13% of the population.” After centuries of systematic desensitization to Black suffering, the white American public has been largely silent when police casually administer brutality.  Public outrage only occurs when there is a witness or the evidence is refutable and recorded by a bystander. And even then,  justice is only delivered 0.3 percent of the time.

Sources: Sources: PNAS,, Vox
This means 98.7% of the time, cops get away with murder.
And those are just the cases we know about.


In the 2016 study referenced above, researchers found that one key factor significantly reduced shooting bias: empathy. This finding demonstrates that white people with high empathy have the power to neutralize learned or subconscious racial fear.

Have you ever consciously or subconsciously clutched your purse when a Black man walked by or joined you in an elevator? Or immediately wondered what an unarmed Black person did to provoke a shooting before even hearing all the facts? Where did that fear or those assumptions come from? Is that fear present in other small decisions you make?

Think about areas in your daily life where you could exercise more empathy for others. Even small decisions to be more empathetic could be a matter of life and death for another person.

Extra Credit

Ready to learn more about what the history books left out? Here are four resources we recommend:

The 1619 Project
Read the Pulitzer-winning series and listen to the accompanying podcast to learn what the history books left out. Created by Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times.
Watch the Oscar-nominated documentary directed by Ava Duvernay, which connects the dots between slavery and our current state of policing.
Mapping Police Violence
Explore this interactive website to understand how police brutality is impacting your local community and the U.S. as a whole.
White Fear of Demographic Change
If you’re part of the white majority, challenge yourself to learn more about racial fear in this Vox article that explores its psychological effects on perception and everyday decision making.