It is a familiar narrative of vilification, but it is not simply the work of fairy tales. Like the Beast of Disney fame, African American men have long been targets of vilification, given efforts to malign and defame them. The 1915 movie, Birth of a Nation, helped to codify perceptions. In the movie, black men were depicted as intellectually inferior, hypersexual predators, evidenced in a scene that featured a black man attacking a white woman. She was heroically saved by an avenging Ku Klux Klan. While only a fictional portrayal, the movie left an indelible mark. Not only did it revive interest in the Klan, but it also glorified vigilante justice, which was dispensed through the heinous act of lynching: the cause of death for thousands of African Americans. More damaging was a racist narrative accepted as physiological fact that African American men were dangerous and to be feared.
Today, this narrative is alive and well when we consider the black men who have lost their lives because of law enforcement. On November 22, 2014, a caller reported to a police dispatch in Cleveland, OH that a male was pointing a pistol at random people in a park. The caller also noted that the pistol was probably fake and that the male was probably a juvenile, but that information was not relayed. The responding police officer shot a twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, who died the next day. There was no assessment of the situation, no attempt for de-escalation. The facts observed an armed and presumed dangerous black male. A subsequent investigation found the death justified and the response reasonable.
Perhaps we could look past this if it were an isolated incident. However, the sad tale of victimization with lethal results is a continuing narrative. Rayshard Brooks, asleep and inebriated at a fast-food drive thru, was shot in the back after a struggle with police. Daniel Prude,  suffering from a mental health episode and running naked in the streets, was restrained with a spit hood that contributed to his death by asphyxiation. Similarly, Walter Wallace, Jr.  was having a mental episode. His family called for emergency medical help, but police arrived on the scene first. Wallace was shot and killed as he brandished a knife. Stephon Clark was in his grandmother’s backyard on a cellphone, which police mistook for a gun. He was shot over 20 times. Botham Jean was killed by an off-duty police officer, who mistakenly entered his apartment instead of hers and alleged that he was a dangerous intruder. Philando Castile was pulled over during a traffic stop and shot seconds after informing police that he had a legal firearm. Alton Sterling was selling CDs and DVDs when he was confronted by police. He was tasered and pinned to the ground before being shot six times. Eric Garner was confronted for selling loose cigarettes. He died because of a chokehold even as he gasped out, “I can’t breathe.” In each case, these black men were labeled as threatening or dangerous and thus vilified, which made the use of deadly force justifiable.
Two high profile incidents occurring this year helped the world see the extent of black male vilification. George Floyd allegedly attempted to use a counterfeit $20.00 bill at a convenience store. When police responded, Floyd was handcuffed and restrained. Video showed a police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. His death was declared a homicide. Jacob Blake was shot in the back as he walked away from a police officer. Video seemed to show the police officer grabbing Blake by the collar and shooting him multiple times as he opened the door of his SUV. His children were in backseat of the vehicle. Doctors fear that Blake will be permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Protests sparked internationally as videos went viral. Public outcry was swift for the need to change policing that unfairly targets black men.
But has change occurred? Sadly, efforts to vilify both Floyd and Blake have only intensified. Media reports suggested that Blake had an outstanding arrest warrant when he was shot. Reports also suggested that a knife was recovered from Blake’s vehicle. In the case against the four ex-police officers charged in the death of George Floyd, a Minnesota judge ruled to allow video and transcripts of a previous police encounter with Floyd to be made public. These reports underscore a familiar narrative: black men are a dangerous, predatory threat and as such, attempts to restrain, even with lethal force, are justified. In the words of the Mob Song, “Kill the beast.”
What can we do and how might we change the narrative that vilifies African American men? First, we could examine our biases toward people of color in general and African American men specifically, because unchallenged, our biases grow into prejudices that fuel fear. We make preconceived judgments on the aptitude and abilities of people of color, too often accepting a narrative that demotes positive characteristics and embraces nefarious intentions. These are systemic biases, and as we continue to privilege supporting narratives, our prejudices are confirmed. In other words, if the societal notion suggests that black men are dangerous, we will be most receptive to corroborating reports, which only reinforce the fear of black men.
As people of faith, we must reject such biased notions, for all are made in the image of God. When God created, God saw that everything created was good (Genesis 1:31). Therefore, we affirm God’s assertion of humanity as good by promoting and esteeming the infinite value of every individual. Anything that attempts to degrade or strip the personhood of an individual must be condemned as evil. Thus, we must repent not only for the vilification of African American men, but also for the biases that cause us to discount anyone because of race, creed, color, class, or orientation. We are all precious and beloved by God.
Secondly, as people of faith who do justice, we must advocate for reforms to our system of policing. The families of Daniel Prude and Walter Wallace, Jr. called for Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) because both men were said to have been suffering from psychiatric issues. Had EMTs been a part of the response team, it is conceivable that they may have been able to de-escalate the situation and restrain the men to receive the help they needed. We must begin to think creatively to engage social workers and mental health resources, while also providing law enforcement officials with the training they need to deal with complex situations.
Thirdly, we must remember the words of Jesus who encouraged us to love our neighbors as ourselves. It would be like the Beast finding Gaston at the side of the road and ensuring that he received the care he needed for his injuries, the irony being that the “Good Samaritan” would have been regarded as bestial. The love of neighbor that Jesus commended encourages us to honor not demonize, serve not injure. We are the children of God; therefore, we have a responsibility to love and lift those whom God has created.
 German Lopez, “Cleveland just fired the cop who shot and killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice more than 2 years ago,” Vox, May 30, 2017, https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/5/30/15713254/cleveland-police-tamir-rice-timothy-loehmann, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Chas Danner, “Everything We Know About the Killing of Rayshard Brooks by Atlanta Police,” New York Intelligencer, June 18, 2020, https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/what-we-know-about-the-killing-of-rayshard-brooks.html, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Killing of Daniel Prude, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Killing_of_Daniel_Prude, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Azi Paybarah and Johnny Diaz, “Protests in Philadelphia After Police Fatally Shoot Black Man,” New York Times, October 29, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/us/philadelphia-police-shooting-walter-wallace-jr.html, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Rhiannon Walker, “A timeline of Stephon Clark’s death at the hands of Sacramento police and the aftermath,” The Undefeated, March 23, 2018, https://theundefeated.com/features/a-timeline-of-stephon-clarks-death-at-the-hands-of-sacramento-police-to-the-protest-at-the-kings-game/, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Bill Hutchinson, “Death of an innocent man: Timeline of wrong-apartment murder trial of Amber Guyger,” ABC News, October 2, 2019, https://abcnews.go.com/US/death-innocent-man-timeline-wrong-apartment-murder-trial/story?id=65938727, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Mark Berman, “What the police officer who shot Philando Castile said about the shooting,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/06/21/what-the-police-officer-who-shot-philando-castile-said-about-the-shooting/, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 German Lopez, “Alton Sterling shooting: video from Baton Rogue police’s cameras released,” Vox, March 30, 2018, https://www.vox.com/2016/7/6/12105380/alton-sterling-police-shooting-baton-rouge-louisiana, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 “Eric Garner dies in NYPD chokehold,” History.com, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/eric-garner-dies-nypd-chokehold, Accessed 11/13/2020.
 Evan Hill, Ainara Tiefenthäler, Christiaan Triebert, Drew Jordan, Haley Willis, and Robin Stein, “How George Floyd Was Killed in Police Custody,” The New York Times, May 31, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-investigation.html, Accessed 11/13/2020.
Christina Morales, “What We Know About the Shooting of Jacob Blake,” The New York Times, November 7, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/jacob-blake-shooting-kenosha.html, Accessed 11/13/2020.