deputies practice marksmanship by shooting paintballs at this
handmade wooden target. Experts say that the image fits into a
long American tradition of using images of blacks as targets
-- and fear it will lead to more blacks being targeted on the
By Katy Reckdahl
As she stood behind the
Jefferson Parish Correctional Center last summer, the young
filmmaker saw a homemade wooden target, its face painted with
extra-large white eyes and big red lips.
She remembers trying to find an
excuse for it. "I thought, maybe it was old and they were just
throwing it out," she says. "Maybe it wasn't used anymore. Or
maybe there was some other explanation that would make it less
disturbing." Curious, she and her crew walked closer to film
it and take some photographs.
By a strange coincidence, the
filmmaker was Emily Kunstler, daughter of renowned civil
rights attorney William Kunstler. "We grew up in a household
that was very conscious of race and injustice," says Emily's
sister and fellow filmmaker, Sarah Kunstler. Their late father
had worked closely with many black leaders, including the Rev.
Martin Luther King Jr., whom Kunstler had met with at the
Lorraine Motel the night before the civil rights leader's
assassination. Over the years, he'd defended free speech and
racial equality in many high-profile cases, with a client list
that included Malcolm X, jailed Freedom Riders in Mississippi,
rioting prisoners in Attica, and American Indian Movement
leader Russell Means.
With their production company,
Off Center Productions, the Kunstler sisters are continuing
their father's advocacy but through a different path -- film.
The Road to Justice, Off Center's current project, a
collaborative effort with producer Julia Phillips, traces the
wrongful conviction of a Jefferson Parish youth Ryan Matthews.
By the time DNA evidence prompted Matthews' release last fall,
they'd shot 100 hours of footage about the young man, who
spent seven years in prison, most of them on Louisiana's death
Emily Kunstler stumbled onto
the target last summer after attending a court hearing for
Matthews, who that day had gotten one step closer to release.
She was in a celebratory mood, she says, as she, Phillips and
their cinematographer filmed the short walk from the Gretna
courthouse to the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center. But,
the Kunstlers say, the crudely made wooden target gave them a
wake-up call -- a grim glimpse into how black defendants are
viewed in Jefferson Parish.
"You practice using them as
targets," says Sarah Kunstler, "and then, the implication is,
you target them in real life."
UNTIL LAST WEEK, Jefferson Parish
Sheriff Harry Lee hadn't personally seen the wooden target.
After being asked about it by Gambit Weekly, he ordered
his deputies to haul the target over to his office.
He soon called back. "I'm
looking at this thing that people say is offensive," he says.
"I've looked at it, I don't find it offensive, and I have no
interest in correcting it."
According to law-enforcement
standards, the target is a little unconventional. Most law
enforcement agencies, including the New Orleans Police
Department, practice marksmanship on standard torso
silhouettes, often colored black but sometimes green or
According to Lee, his deputies
-- who have to be qualified annually with their weapons --
built the target four years ago for hands-on training. They
most often use paintballs the same size as standard-issue
pepper balls, which contain pepper spray and are shot by Jeff
Parish deputies to incapacitate suspects without using lethal
force. All in all, the sheriff's department incurs very few
expenses -- because the paintballs are inexpensive and so is
the target, which they can just use and hose off.
Lee stands back to describe
what he's seeing. "It's just a homemade thing," he says. The
image that's worn overall, but is especially shot up in the
middle of the chest, because that's where deputies aim. Its
creators were also sparing with paint, he says, only applying
it for eyes, lips and an orange prison jumpsuit.
"A critic could say that the
painting is not representative of a Caucasian eye or a
Caucasian mouth, but it doesn't look much like an African
mouth either," said Lee. In fact, it could even be "a
Chinaman," says the sheriff, who is Chinese. "No, wait," he
says, "the eyes aren't slanted enough to be a Chinaman." That
gets a big laugh from the deputies in his office.
One thing is clear -- this is
no racist caricature, says Lee. "Everybody has red lips. You
have red lips and I have red lips. It has two eyeballs, just
two eyes." The plywood was black simply because it was a piece
of 10-year-old wood that had been sitting outside for several
years, getting darker. "So blame God, not me," he said.
The response is vintage Sheriff
Harry Lee, who during his 25-year tenure has not shied away
from controversy when it comes to questions about race. During
the 1980s, Lee had ordered special scrutiny for any black
people traveling in white sections of the parish. "It's
obvious," he had said, "that two young blacks driving a
rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood � they'll
be stopped." He later apologized for the comment.
In 1994, after two black men
died in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center within one
week, Lee faced protests from the black community and
responded by withdrawing his officers from a predominantly
black neighborhood. "To hell with them," he'd said. "I haven't
heard one word of support from one black person." He soon
returned his officers to their regular patrol.
But as for the
target, Lee had no apologies. When told that some black
deputies, interviewed by Gambit, had grimaced about the
target's design, Lee still didn't budge. "If anyone thinks
it's a black person, that's the most ludicrous thing I've
heard," he said.
The phone rang again about 30
minutes later. "This is Harry Lee again. I just talked to
someone else about that silhouette." He chuckled. "And it was
pointed out to me that blacks don't have red lips; blacks have
brown lips. White people have red lips."
PUT A PHOTO OF THAT
wooden target in front of museum curator David Pilgrim and he
calls it a racist caricature -- immediately. "It's your
typical Sambo or coon image," says Pilgrim, the founder of the
Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, a Michigan-based
collection that houses more than 4,000 racist artifacts.
The wooden target would fit
nicely into the museum's new building, he says, which will
devote an entire room to what he calls "this country's long
and sad history of using blacks as targets."
The Jefferson Parish target, he
says, is rooted in games like "Hit the Coon" or "African
Dodger," which were popular on fairgrounds and traveling
carnival shows during the late 1800s. The game's operators
usually set up an elaborately painted canvas, most often
depicting a plantation scene. "Then a black man would stick
his head through this canvas," Pilgrim explains, "and white
patrons would throw balls, or even rocks, at the man's head to
win prizes." Eventually, the game evolved so that the men
would be wearing protective helmets covered with curly hair.
Some manufacturers also created life-size "Negro Heads" made
of wood, since it wasn't always easy to find live targets.
During the late 1800s and early
1900s, the idea of using blacks as targets became more
mainstream. "You'd be hard-pressed to name a major toy
manufacturer that did not have some game at some point where
you threw at blacks," Pilgrim says. There were games of
ring-toss, bean-bag toss and bowling. There was "Hit Me Hard,"
where players threw wooden balls through a child's big smile
and "Chuck," a game where contestants threw little
watermelon-shaped discs into a kid's mouth.
Backyard pursuits mimicked what
was on the market. "Deer hunters and other hunters, the
targets they created for themselves often had black imagery on
them," says Pilgrim.
At certain times,
Pilgrim notes, children's games also caricatured Native
Americans and different immigrant groups -- namely Italians,
Irish, Chinese and Mexicans. "But there's been no group with
as many variations as blacks. And no other group where the
images have continued to the present this way," says Pilgrim.
Even today, rifle targets
picturing blacks are not hard to find, he says. A few years
ago, he went to a gun show in Michigan and asked a dealer for
his most popular paper target. At first, the dealer looked up,
saw Pilgrim was not white, and balked. Then, after Pilgrim
talked with him, the dealer pulled out a target of a young
black man, wearing a backward baseball cap, low-slung pants
and a scowl.
"Is this your most popular
target?" Pilgrim asked. "Yeah, by far," said the dealer.
The Internet is also filled
with free, downloadable paper targets of squirrels, deer,
grizzly bears, and images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam
Hussein with bull's-eyes on their faces. There's been a
resurgence in a downloadable image usually titled the "Runnin'
Nigger Target," a silhouette of a sprinting man with a big
Afro that has been circulating among certain groups since the
1960s. Today, it can be found on the Internet on a number of
different white-power sites, sometimes showing up on a
background of Confederate flags.
This particular target has been
named in a few different lawsuits by African-American officers
whose colleagues either used the target for practice or, in a
St. Mary Parish case, sent the image as an email message to
all members of the police department. The silhouette is often
accompanied by captions like "Warning: bullets may ricochet
when aiming at head" and "8-point bonus for head shot using
Vintage black target games are
also still sold in flea markets, antique shops and on eBay,
which typically has a large selection in its "black Americana"
section. Pilgrim logs on to see what's there. He finds a
"Jolly Little Darkie Game," where players throw a sack into
the mouth of a black person, and a 1915 game called the Baby
Rack, where contestants use a toy cannon to shoot at
caricatured black babies made of tin.
Targets with babies on them --
the thought is obviously disturbing to Pilgrim. He takes a
deep breath. "If all you knew about race relations was what
you saw in these games, what would you think of white people's
attitudes toward blacks?" he asks.
AROUND MIDNIGHT on a February
evening in 1999, New York police officers saw Amadou Diallo, a
22-year-old West African immigrant standing in a doorway in
the Bronx. They ordered him not to move and he reached for his
pants pocket, prompting them to fire a total of 41 shots, 19
of which hit Diallo. What officers couldn't see was that
Diallo had reached for nothing more than his wallet.
His death and others like it
have sparked community protests and outrage. It also inspired
more academic interest in research that tests the effects of
race on shoot/don't shoot decisions.
Graduate student Joshua Correl
and his colleagues at the University of Colorado at Boulder
created photos of African-American and white targets, either
holding two different guns or harmless objects such as a
silver-colored Coke can, a silver camera, a black cell phone
and a black wallet. Using a videogame, participants were
instructed to shoot armed targets and to say "Don't shoot" for
any unarmed targets. The study showed what Correl calls "a
pattern of bias." Specifically, white participants shot an
armed target more quickly if he was an African American and
decided to "not shoot" more quickly when the target was white.
Correl explains what he would
tell a participant with those results. "It's not that you want
bad things for black people," he says. "But whether you
endorse it personally or not, you have an association between
the idea of black people and the idea of danger. And when you
see a black person, for just a split second, the idea of
danger pops to mind -- that prompts you to respond as if the
target is a threat."
The University of Colorado
study is titled "The Police Officer's Dilemma," even though
the study's participants were often college students and
people in the community. That's because these types of studies
have special meaning for law-enforcement officers. "They're
one of the few professions where split-second decisions may
potentially be influenced by stereotypes," says Correl, noting
that a team of researchers at Florida State University
recently recruited police officers to participate in a similar
study. Colorado's results were basically paralleled in Florida
-- officers were more likely to shoot unarmed black suspects
as compared with unarmed white suspects.
Those conclusions also mirror
what Professor Anthony Greenwald found with a study he
directed recently at the University of Washington, using
college students as participants. Greenwald is not surprised
that the findings match up. "We believe that police, like
other people, don't realize the way that their minds work
The research does, perhaps,
carry more significance for police officers because they need
to take extra steps in training to make sure that police are
aware of what Greenwald's study terms "automatic responses" --
reactions to the way that people's minds work unconsciously.
The National Organization of
Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE) addressed this issue
in a 2001 report, which concludes that Diallo's death was the
result of bias-based policing. The report notes that some law
enforcement agencies address this issue by beefing up their
firearm training. "This response would be effective if the
nature of the problem were shooting skills," says the report.
"But the nature of the problem is bias. Otherwise, these types
of shootings would not predominately affect minority officers
Greenwald currently oversees a
Web site (Implicit.harvard.edu) where anyone can
self-test biases by logging on and choosing the race-weapons
test. Of the 30,000 to 40,000 people who have taken this test
online, about 80 percent associate weapons more with blacks
than whites. "African Americans show this bias themselves,"
says Greenwald. "This bias is much less than that of whites or
Asians -- but it's still a bias." There's a lesson here for
Jefferson Parish, says Greenwald. Officers who practice
repeatedly with black targets -- or targets perceived to be
black -- may be re-enforcing already-existing biases and
stereotypes. "Practices like that do nothing to reverse
automatic associations -- they only strengthen them," says
Other Stories This Week in
Other Stories by Katy
Feature 03 29 05
Katy Reckdahl Archives