How Does Racism Hurt Racists? The Case of Emmett Till

How does racism hurt racists? In many ways, actually. Here’s one:

The case of Emmett Till.

In 1955 this 14-year-old African-American left Chicago to visit his cousin in Mississippi.

One day his cousin dared him to flirt with a white woman. Accepting, he whistled at a woman who was working at a grocery counter, and called her “baby.”

Later that night the woman’s husband and his half-brother hunted Emmett down, kidnapped him, and the torture began. They cut off one of his ears, gouged out an eye, and put a bullet through his head before throwing him into a river.

The men were arrested. At the trial witnesses placed them at the site where Emmett was tortured, and the two men admitted the kidnapping.

But they faced a jury of white men in a Mississippi courtroom. After deliberating for less than an hour, they acquitted the case. One juror told a reporter, “If we hadn’t stopped to drink a pop, it wouldn’t have took that long.”

We easily see how racism hurt the young minority in this case. But how did it also hurt the white people who were involved?

When one person can torture another, with no conscience or concern, and when others dismiss the behavior, we see that racism dehumanizes its target, but it also dehumanizes the racist.

February is Black History Month

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I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on February 10, 2012, in psychology, race/ethnicity and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. It seems to me that racism contains its own justice. Even though racists don’t physically get hurt by others, they are hurting themselves. If the society reacts like the jury in Emmett Till’s case, then “racism dehumanizes its target, [and] it also dehumanizes the racist.” That is the punishment they will get mentally.

  2. What happened to Emmett Till is terrible, I can see how it dehumanizes whites by a great amount. I feel like you stated that it is really easy to see how it hurt the minority by a great deal. However, I feel like because the white men did this and seemed to have no concern over what they did, it makes all white people look like “that’s how they all are” and that could be hurting them, because many people would never do that to someone just because of the color of their skin, but if one person does and gets away with it, it makes them all look the same. All I know is, if I were in that jury as a white woman, I would have sent those white men to prison for what they did, and I can’t comprehend why they were acquitted. You could also say it hurt the white people who were involved because they will have to live with what they did for the rest of their lives, but they did it, so maybe you could say they deserve to live with it.

  3. I recall hearing this story back in high school when we were learning about U.S. History and it was, and still is an appalling event that never should have occurred. To think that the race of an individual could lead to such violence is both atrocious and pathetic. What those who are racist don’t realize though, is that they are not helping future generations by eliminating those they view as the “non-superior race;” if anything they are hurting the lives of their future family members and friends. Nowadays, society tends to focus more on stereotypes rather than the mere coincidences that occur between various types of people. When one individual does something, that apparently means that everyone placed in the similar category will do the exact same thing. In the case of Emmett Till, the men who were responsible for his death gave society the idea that the entire white population, but especially men, were dangerous and cruel. Stereotypes have the ability to follow an individual around for a lifetime and to many people it doesn’t matter whether or not they are true. They are simply the “chains” of society prohibiting people from reaching their full potential in life.

  4. The case of Emmett Till is one I learned about very young. I don’t believe they tell the story in schools, because that’s not even how I came to know about it. I always think about Emmett and his family in this story. However, after having read this post and thinking about the question “how does racism hurt racists?” I started to think about the other side. It makes me wonder about the two men who kidnapped Emmett and their families. Did they truly feel proud or did they feel ashamed? Guilty? Did their feelings change over time as racism “reduced’? How two adult men be so cruel as to team up on an adolescent boy and not only kill, but torture him is unfathomable to me. Racism brings about so much rage and hatred…all of it irrational. Racists hurt themselves because of their (not blissful) ignorance. Their constant anger affects their quality of life; they’re missing out on getting to know and collaborating with other people. Racists miss out because they are not open minded, they’re selling themselves short and the way they represent themselves is awful to the rest of the world especially by acquitting Emmett’s trial the way they did. People stay away from racists because they are either too scared or just too disgusted. It’s insane that a group of people sill declare themselves superior…for any reason.

  5. Back in middle school, when we were covering slavery, we were told this tragic story of Emmett Till and how this was a clear example of how much racist put value on an African-American male. The unfortunate circumstance in this story was that this was way passed times of slavery, but racism was still strong as ever. The severe nature of this crime really put “dehumanization”, to an unimaginable level. The jury saw no wrong done by the husband and half brother, it was like the two men just went out and killed a deer, that no wrong doing mindset racism dehumanizes its target like said in the blog. I’d to believe that something like this won’t be tolerated now, but the sad truth is, racism still happen now a days. When will racism really end?

  6. I do agree that racism also dehumanizes the racist. But how would feeling effect a person who has the ability to torture another human being because they are of a different race? I think racism will end when our country will convict people for acts of hate and violence. Racist believe that they are inferior than others because our justice system allows them to get away with it.

  7. Caroline Staudenraus

    Racism hurts the oppressed group for obvious reasons, but rarely do we stop to think of how it hurts the racists. Whites are privileged in knowing that they know they will be represented by a jury in court. Later, they can feel hurt by affirmative action to undo such situations. If racism never happened in the first place, affirmative action would never be necessary. All whites hurt when members of the race are racist because tension can arise when there is suspicion and distrust amongst groups. When whites carry out such terroristic acts, they become isolated and targets of resentment. Ultimately, racism hurts the oppressing group on a large scale as well as a personal one.

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