The Terence Crutcher shooting shows how the white imagination distorts black realities

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In a 2015 interview with the Guardian, poet Claudia Rankine observed that "blackness in the white imagination has nothing to do with black people." She was responding to a question about her poem, "Stop and Frisk," part of which reads, "Because white men can't/ police their imagination/ black men are dying."

Her point was that black lives are beholden to white fantasies. Black people are imagined as inherently dangerous, she suggests, and killed because of the threat they are presumed to pose, even if it has nothing to do with who they are as humans beings.

"When white men are shooting black people, some of it is malice and some an out-of-control image of blackness in their minds," Rankine explained.

Terence Crutcher was alive when Rankine wrote these lines. But white imagination was no doubt a factor in his death. In Crutcher's case, to observe the white imagination as it is applied to black people is to recognize its fatal limits: It leaves little room for black humanity. Blackness itself is viewed as a threat, and a threat that must be met with violence.  

On Friday, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer quipped from a helicopter, "That looks like a bad dude," as his fellow officers approached the stranded, black motorist with their guns drawn below. Since then, Crutcher has joined the swelling ranks of unarmed black men killed by police under questionable circumstances.

It's a familiar story. Officer Betty Shelby and her fellow officers found Crutcher near his SUV on 36th Street North, just west of Lewis Avenue in North Tulsa, Friday evening. Footage from a police vehicle's dashboard camera shows the 40-year-old walking away from officers with his hands up. Crutcher stops by the driver's side of his car, where the officers later said they thought he was reaching for a gun through the window. They stun him with a stungun. Shelby shoots him. No gun was recovered at the scene, according to reports. An enhanced screenshot from footage of the incident appears to show Crutcher's window was rolled up the whole time.

The incident was captured by multiple video cameras as it unfolded, and was shared with the public on Monday. It has since been described by local pastor Ray Owens as "among the worst that we have seen nationally."


What seems clear in this shooting is that "Crutcher the man" factored less into Officer Shelby's decision to open fire than "Crutcher the potential threat." This is what the white imagination does, in Rankine's estimation: It ingests select pieces of information — Crutcher's appearance, his blackness — and regurgitates them as fictional menaces — Crutcher's "badness," his intent to do harm.

But Crutcher the man is knowable through the legacy he left behind. In December 2014 — two months after Rankine published her poem, and less than two weeks after a grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson for killing Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri — Crutcher was mourning another death: that of his older brother, Joey, who had recently passed away.

"Made [it] through my brother's funeral!" Crutcher wrote under a series of Facebook photos from Joey's wake. "I still smile through it all!!"

Intimate and often mundane snapshots like this pepper the 40-year-old's Facebook feed. In three posts from January 2015, for example, Crutcher offers running commentary about a Dallas Cowboys football game. 

"Touchdown we in the house get um cowboys," he wrote. "They played us," he added minutes later, presumably in response to an unfavorable call from a referee, or a loss.

Another photo from the same month shows Crutcher cradling his young son, Terence Jr., captioned "My baby's birthday."

That February, Crutcher shared a photo posted by a woman who identified herself as his twin sister, Tiffany. 

"Fun fact," its caption reads, "I have a twin... Born three minutes apart... Terence & Tiffany.... He can sing, I can't... Night & day.... But we both love GOD! HAPPY SUNDAY!"

Reading these gives a vague impression of who Crutcher was when he was alive. He was a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. He was sad but resilient in the face of his brother's death. He had a young son who he was not ashamed of posting loving, affectionate photos with. He sang. He loved God. He had a twin sister, Tiffany, who loved him.

Protesters gather in Tulsa after the shooting of Terence Crutcher.Sue Ogrocki/AP

It's reductive to presume we know anything definitive about the man from this handful of posts — but it's safe to say we know more than the people who killed him ever did. Where Crutcher's social media presence projects at least the outline of a human being, the information that led Shelby to shoot him relied on cruder metrics: his size, his weight, his obedience, his blackness.

This story is not unique to Tulsa by any means. But the soil there runs red with the wages of similar calculations. About five miles southwest of where Crutcher was shot, in the Greenwood District, in 1921, the white imagination famously prompted a mob of angry whites to descend on what was then one of the wealthiest black neighborhoods in the nation — nicknamed "Black Wall Street" — and loot and set fire to black-owned businesses and homes there, razing 35 city blocks to the ground and killing 300 people. At the root of the attack was the imagined threat black wealth posed to white social dominance, according to historians.

"Black success was an intolerable affront to the social order of white supremacy," James S. Hirsch wrote. "So taking their possessions not only stripped Blacks of their material status, but also tipped the social scales back to their proper alignment."

About three miles to the north, in 2012, the white imagination prompted a white man named Alvin Watts and a Cherokee man named Jake England to go on an early morning shooting spree, killing three random black people — Bobby Clark, William Allen and Donna Fields — and injuring two more — Deon Tucker and David Hall. The attacks were believed to be retribution for the killing of England's father by a black man in 2010, and fueled by the imagined notion that all blacks must then be responsible for his death.

Now, for the umpteenth time, a dead black person's family is left waging an uphill battle to prove their loved one's humanity, his right to life and the squandered potential that his senselessly ended life represents — all while law enforcement officials scramble to justify his death.

It's ugly and devastating work. But it's work the white imagination repeatedly reminds us is necessary.

"You all want to know who that 'big bad dude' was?" Crutcher's sister, Tiffany, told reporters at an emotional press conference in Tulsa after her brother's death. "That big bad dude was my twin brother. That big bad dude was a father. That big bad dude was a son. That big bad dude was enrolled at Tulsa Community College, just wanting to make us proud ... That big bad dude was at church singing with all of his flaws, every week ... That's who he was ... Now, he'll never get that chance ... That big bad dude — his life mattered."