Tue | Aug 11, 2020

Michael Abrahams | Dehumanisation of black people in America

Published:Monday | July 13, 2020 | 12:17 AM
Pedestrians walk on a Black Lives Matter mural painted in front of Trump Tower, Friday, July 10, 2020, in New York.
Pedestrians walk on a Black Lives Matter mural painted in front of Trump Tower, Friday, July 10, 2020, in New York.

The recent brutal and cold-blooded killing of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer in America has triggered a global revolution. The brazenness and cruelty of the act has enraged many.

To fully comprehend the scope of what black people in America are up against, the concept of dehumanisation, and how this process has been applied to them, needs to be understood.

Dehumanisation refers to the process of depriving a person or group of positive human qualities. When we dehumanise others, we see them as subhuman, often as animals, and less worthy of the respect and rights afforded human beings. For example, during the Holocaust, Nazis referred to Jews as rats, and Hutus involved in the Rwanda genocide called Tutsis cockroaches. Similarly, slave owners throughout history considered slaves subhuman animals, and as the majority of black people in America are descendants of slaves, they have been living through generations of state-sanctioned dehumanisation.

For example, during the Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787, a slave was considered as 3/5 of a person when counting a state’s population. A scientific basis for dehumanisation was graphically promoted in a mid-19th-century book by Josiah C. Nott and George Robins Gliddon titled Types of Mankind. In their analysis, the authors, using illustrations, claimed that ‘Negroes’ ranked between ‘Greeks’ and chimpanzees. And this perception persists in this century. In 2008, research presented in a paper by psychologists at Stanford, Pennsylvania State University and the University of California-Berkeley reveals that many Americans subconsciously associate blacks with apes.


As with the Native Americans before them, dehumanising black people opened the door and made allowances for acts of cruelty and barbarism. The Bible claims that God gave man dominion over all living things, and if black people were subhuman, it gave white folks permission, in their minds, to rule over and dominate blacks.

Not surprisingly, the lynching of blacks became commonplace. Lynching, premeditated extrajudicial killing by a group of people, began in America in the Revolutionary War years, and is named after the brother of the man who founded Lynchburg, Virginia. Initially, there were more white than black victims, but in 1886 the number of black lynch victims actually exceeded the number of white lynch victims as the practice became racialised. According to the Tuskegee Institute, from 1882 to 1951, 4,730 people, mostly black, were lynched in the United States. They were tortured, hanged, burned alive and dragged behind trucks. In several instances their bodies were dismembered and the pieces either discarded or kept as souvenirs. Sometimes, lynchings were seen as entertainment, and postcards were made and sold with pictures of black bodies hanging from trees.

It is the dehumanisation of black people that allowed a Congolese man named Ota Benga to be displayed at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1904. He was later taken to New York to become part of an exhibition at the Bronx Zoo, where he was displayed in a monkey house. The card outside the exhibit read:

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.

Weight 103 pound. Brought from the Kasai River,

Congo Free State, South Central Africa,

By D. Samuel P Verner.

Exhibited each afternoon during September

In a New York Times article about the exhibit, titled ‘Bushman Shares a Cage with Bronx Park Apes’, Benga was identified as “a Bushman, one of a race that scientists do not rate high in the human scale”. Benga later committed suicide in 1916.

It is the dehumanisation of black people that permitted the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the African American Male to take place. The clinical study was conducted between 1932 and 1972 by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) and its aim was to observe the natural history of untreated syphilis. The subjects of the study were 600 impoverished, African-American sharecroppers from Macon County, Alabama. Of these men, 399 had latent syphilis, with a control group of 201 men who were not infected. The participants in the study were blatantly deceived by the PHS.

They were initially told that the study was only going to last six months, but it was extended to 40 years. Those who had syphilis were never informed of their diagnosis and were never treated. The victims of the study, all African-American, included numerous men who died of syphilis, 40 wives who contracted the disease and 19 children born with congenital syphilis.

It is this dehumanisation that gives rise to the term ‘Black Lives Matter’. Yes, all lives matter. We know that. And the expression does not suggest that black lives should matter more than others. What it is saying is that black lives should not matter less than others in a society that has, for centuries, portrayed them as being subhuman.

Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, social commentator and human rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.