Ralph Yarl was shot because Black men and boys loom large in white imaginations

Ralph Young, standing at 5-foot-8 and weighing 140 lbs, was not deliberately exaggerating his opinion of Yarl’s size in an attempt to justify his actions, as White individuals tend to perceive Black males as more threatening and taller than they actually are, according to the consistent pattern of recollection claimed by the shooter.

These distorted perceptions of Black people’s physical stature, as well as the perceived level of “threat” they pose, have been confirmed in multiple studies. This information was reported by Rachel Hatzipanagos and Timothy Bella in an article for The Washington Post.

[R]esearchers say Lester’s description of Yarl, who is 5-foot-8 and 140 pounds, according to his family, fits a pattern among shootings of young Black males. Lester said the teenager was a “Black male approximately 6 feet tall” — several inches off Yarl’s actual height, according to the criminal complaint. “Lester stated that it was the last thing he wanted to do, but he was ‘scared to death’ due to the male’s size.”

Similar language has been used in other cases, reflecting the fear people of other races sometimes feel upon seeing Black people, researchers say. In multiple studies, people who were asked to judge the size of Black people tended to see Black men as bigger and stronger than they actually were, and gave Black children the attributes of adults. The result is that they are seen as more dangerous, researchers say.

These stereotypes are routinely used and reinforced by law enforcement as excuses for the involvement of young and old Black men in unwarranted acts of violence. As a result, the perception among white people is that young Black males are somehow “less innocent” than white children of the same age, and that older Black males are a supposed threat due to racially biased perceptions of their weight and size. The American Psychological Association has cited the disproportionate number of unarmed Black men shot by police as evidence of these racially biased perceptions.

When a police officer shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, the president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association defended the officer describing Rice as “a 12-year-old in an adult body.” Before George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, 17, in 2012, Zimmerman called 911 and described the Black teen as “a guy who looks like he’s up to no good or on drugs or something.” And former Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, who fatally shot 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014, likened the struggle inside his vehicle that preceded the deadly shooting to “a 5-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.”

The criminal justice system in America has institutionalized racism, which has helped millions of non-Black Americans internalize various biases. For decades, the media, both national and local, has perpetuated stereotypes by portraying Black people as criminals. This disproportionate coverage has created a perception that young Black males are prone to violence and have a short temper. In a high-volume conservative news program, one might expect to find individuals who anticipate an unexpected aggressive reaction from a person who fits this profile. The New York Times interviewed relatives and neighbors of Lester, who was described as “aggressive” and “surly.”

Assuming toward Whites among bias This stature–and white men see Black people as a larger threat than white men, even in facial expressions and demonstrable reactions.

Another study, led by UCLA psychologist Jenessa Shapiro, found that White people were more likely to perceive facial expressions as being threatening if those expressions came from a Black man. “White participants failed to reduce their judgments of threat when a (neutral) Black male face followed an angry Black male face,” according to the study, which was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. “Indeed, after viewing an initial same-race angry face, Black males were seen as more threatening than White males, even though the faces were pretested to be equivalently neutral.”

It didn’t really matter much what expression Ralph had on his face when he rang Lester’s doorbell, but it was definitely a surprised look. Ralph was only 5-8, and he imagined Lester to be “approximately 6 feet tall.” Lester’s initial response was to feel threatened, but it was just a knee-jerk reaction in his mind when he saw the lost teen who was simply trying to pick up his twin brothers as requested by his parents. Lester never considered that Ralph could be a sweet kid who was loved by his family, teachers, and friends. Ralph had the potential to be an all-around talented young musician, a dedicated student, and an honorable person.

“[I]t’s a devastating thing to have to clarify to a child,” expressed one Black parent interviewed in The Post article. Something few white parents ever need to contemplate, this writer believes he should be incarcerated for the remainder of his wretched existence; this investigation is not meant to justify Lester’s inexcusable behaviors. He’s simply an instance of yet another in the countless roster of explanations Black parents are compelled to have “the talk” with their children.

Lester is not just an individual, but rather the sad product of centuries of American racism, which is encouraged and fueled by his own beliefs and fears, making it the most severe and fatal flaw in American culture that has yet to be overcome.