Michael Brown and the Ferguson Protests

July 23, 2015

Like many, I have been thinking a lot about Ferguson. I have debated posting something because I have too much to say.  There is so much to actually say and so many have said things already. There are also too many feelings to process. Ferguson has made me angry, frustrated, sad and emotionally drained. Notice I didn't say surprised. I’m really upset that yet another African American teenage boy has been gunned down in the prime of his life by “so called” legitimate state actors. I’m tired of the actors being construed as bad apples or as people who are just trying to do the "best they can" under difficult circumstances. I'd rather have these events be construed as a wake up call that we need to radically rethink how we create a safer society for ALL.

 

I demand better and communities of people who look like me deserve better. I am tired of hearing people say this isn’t about race. It takes a lot for a white man to be viewed as dangerous in this society. Over the course of my life, on many… MANY occasions I have seen disheveled, poorly spoken white men get belligerent with public citizens and law enforcement and walk away unscathed. Being black and male is all it takes in the U.S. to be viewed as dangerous and that color does not go away with middle-class status. Perhaps the threats are slightly diminished because middle-class African Americans are better positioned to engage in image management but those threats don’t go away. Indeed, sometimes wearing or buying higher-end clothing can trigger suspicions- remember the Barney’s JZ belt fiasco of 2013 during which a young man was pursued and arrested for purchasing a JZ belt.

 

I am also frustrated by the news media who seem to be on a continuous quest in search of any morsel of moral impropriety to justify that a boy without a weapon, holding his hands up was shot and killed. It appears that the standard we (and by we, I mean African Americans) must meet in order for our deaths to be viewed as tragic is college bound, college educated, middle class, honor student, without a speeding ticket or a dalliance in shoplifting or pot smoking. Most African Americans I know look at Michael Brown as their brother, dad, uncle, friend, spouse, the son they did or didn’t have and/or some version of themselves. In other words, they view their fates as undeniably linked to Brown’s fate. How can all of us, irrespective of racial category, view our fates as linked to him and to other human beings that this society has designated as black and brown and consequently valued as less than human?

 

So, today I woke up thinking about three things. First, I started thinking about the civil rights movements and the many non-violent activists who knew that in order for America to begin to feel the shame of racism and begin to change how they treated African Americans they would have to be above moral reproach. They would have to sit passively while hot pots of coffee were thrown on them, scalding their skin. They would have to sit passively, not fighting back as police unleashed dogs that tore away at their flesh. They would have to not respond violently when white supremacists blew up churches containing their daughters. In order to have their worth be seen, they would have to be better than an equal. Today African Americans must continue to adhere to stricter standards of behavior in order to be seen as equals. Blacks cannot demand respect or challenge authority in the same ways as Whites can. Second, and I acknowledge this is slightly random, I woke up thinking about the character Rue from the Hunger Games and how some people said they didn’t feel as bad when she met her tragic end because she was black. Art imitates life! The racial sympathy gap is so large that our pain does not seem as important or salient to many. Why does such a gap exist? I think a very partial answer is that we live segregated lives in our workplaces, in our friendships and in our neighborhoods. Sure, we can point to surveys that say things have improved but not by nearly enough. Also, Blacks continue to face higher rates of residential segregation than other groups so our experiences are more hidden from the public eye. Because we live in racially segregated neighborhoods (yes there are exceptions), some of us can get a better standard of care while others get a lower/ unacceptable standard of care. Some of us see an officer in the neighborhood and think either nothing of it or view it positively, as a sign of increased safety. Others see an officer in our neighborhood and fear that we will be viewed as the threat. The third thing I have been thinking about since this morning was my own research and the many mothers who expressed fear for their sons’ lives on a daily basis. These threats came in the form of police officers, teachers and educational administrators and members of the general public. Places where some find safety others find hostility and danger.

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University of Maryland, College Park

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