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Terry Crews: Black men not recognized as victims 'until we're dead'

"This George Floyd incident has really got to me deep. I haven't been able to sleep," Crews said. "And when you do nod off, you wake up thinking, 'What if the police come to me?'"
Image: Terry Crews
Terry Crews speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference at Monarch Beach Resort in Dana Point, California on Feb. 8, 2019.Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for MAKERS file

Actor Terry Crews is well aware that white people assume he's a threat and adjusts his responses to frequent injustices to avoid dangerous run-ins with the police.

"I've been victimized since I was kid. I mean, being a black man in America, there's so many things that I had to blink past in order to make it and continue to exist," Crews told NBC News. "Most of the time as black men, we are not recognized as victimized until we're dead."

And so Crews accepted the mistreatment. He accepted it when his white landlord spit on him and called him a racial slur when he first moved to Los Angeles in 1997, he accepted that he would likely face repercussions if he came forward in 2017 accusing Adam Venit of groping him and he accepted all the racist indignities he underwent in between.

"My experience a couple of years ago, with my agent, with him molesting me in front of my wife and him knowing that if I were to touch him, the police would be there not to arrest him. They'd be there to attack me, and I could end up either in jail or dead," Crews said. "It's like the trump card every person has, especially on an African American male in particular, because we've always been seen as a threat. Always."

Gaining mainstream success doesn't minimize that perception, either, Crews said. He may be more recognizable from his time playing in the NFL or various acting credits, including roles in "Everybody Hates Chris" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," but the increased visibility doesn't mitigate views of the black male body as threatening, he said. It only garners him repeated praise from white people that he's "not like those other guys."

"And it hurts, because I am like those other guys," Crews said. "I'm still those other guys."

In fact, Crews' ability to identify with Christian Cooper, the black bird-watcher who had the police called on him by a white woman who claimed that he was threatening her when a viral video showed that he clearly was not, and George Floyd, the black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, have inspired him to use his platform to speak out about the routine violence black men face in the U.S.

"Any sudden move could mean my life. I know this, because no one's going to talk to me. They're just going to shoot," Crews said. "This George Floyd incident has really got to me deep. I haven't been able to sleep. And when you do nod off, you wake up thinking, 'What if the police come to me?'"

Floyd's death has brought back memories that Crews had avoided thinking about, like when he was a child and his father got pulled over by the police. Crews remembers starting to cry and thinking to himself, "Oh, my God, are they going to kill him?"

Three more former Minneapolis police officers were charged in the death of George Floyd, and the murder charge against a fourth, Derek Chauvin, the officer who knelt on Floyd, was elevated to second-degree from third-degree Wednesday.

"I'm talking way back to Trayvon Martin. A vigilante just murders a young boy in cold blood," Crews said. "This one right here, George Floyd, has to matter. It can't be meaningless. His life has to matter, or I don't think America will ever recover from this. There's no way we can blink past this."

To some, however, Crews is an imperfect messenger. The actor was criticized earlier this year for praising NBC's "America's Got Talent" after judge Gabrielle Union was dropped from the show for calling out what she said were racism and sexism on set and on Sunday, he posted a tweet claiming that "defeating White supremacy without White people creates Black supremacy," which was denounced by fellow artists and scholars as dangerous.

"I love you as a friend Brother Terry. But I disagree with you 100 %. No such thing as Black Supremacy," comedian Godfrey Danchimah tweeted in response. "That is a tactic that Racist whites use to counteract our rebellion to their horrific treatment of us. It's called Gas lighting. Black pride isn't anti white."

Crews acknowledges that he doesn't always get it right, stating that the criticism following his "America's Got Talent" remarks taught him how important it is that the voices of black women are amplified in the fight for racial justice and equality and that he wanted to reiterate his apology "to Gabrielle Union and black women." Union filed a discrimination complaint against the producers of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” Thursday.

"Toxic masculinity is built-in culture. I mean, look at how many women had to come forward for Bill Cosby, R. Kelly or Harvey Weinstein to be actually brought up on their crimes," Crews said. " And I think it's the same thing when you're talking about the murder of black people by law enforcement. It takes all of us to come together for something to be done, and I want to be part of the solution."