The More Things Change… or Ferguson and Black History 101
I’ll start out this post by telling you that the #Ferguson story is personal for me. I have family in St. Louis. My grandmother was born in a small farmhouse just minutes away from the Michael Brown shooting. I have cousins who live in the suburbs nearby. For this reason, over the past several days I have watched in horror as the events in Ferguson, Missouri have unfolded.
This is not the first time an unarmed black man was gunned down by police in broad daylight. We are all familiar with the media’s routine portrayal of black Americans as volatile, irrational, angry, and violent. Nonetheless, it is hard to believe that, in our day and age, an unarmed teenage boy was shot in broad daylight… by a police officer no less. It is also hard to understand how in a democracy such as ours, his killer, Darren Wilson, has still not been held accountable. (He remains on paid leave, pending indictment.) Unfortunately, my family history as a Black American reminds me this s*%! has been going on for centuries.
Writing has always been a way for me to process internal discord, both personal and with society at large. That said, up until now, I have found myself at a loss for words… What could I possibly say that would add to the conversation? What new insight, perspective, or knowledge could I share about events that seem almost surreal? An unarmed black man, is killed by “law enforcement” and slandered by the media, while his killer roams free. Those demanding justice and swift action are encouraged to “be patient” and “trust the system”. Protesters, journalists and innocent civilians that get caught in the mix (in this case town residents) are denied constitutional and basic human rights (the right to information, free speech and press, due process, peaceably assemble) “in the interest of “public safety.”
Feeling helpless and disconnected from what I see on mainstream news, I have sought comfort in connecting with others through social media. I follow hashtags on Twitter: #MikeBrown, #Ferguson, #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #DontShoot, #NMOS14, #IGotTheTalk, #BlackLifeMatters. I Google the latest news on Ferguson, and stay up late into the night watching streaming video of Melissa Harris-Perry and Rachel Maddow analyzing Ferguson law enforcement’s horrific handling of the case and subsequent protests. I scroll through Facebook looking for information and reaffirmation that the world is not insane.
The Underlying Narrative of Ferguson
As the days begin to turn into weeks, I see common trends in the posts and tweets of folks who should “know better”. These are not members of the KKK or right wing loonies. They are folks who might otherwise describe themselves as progressive. They are white, Latino, Asian, and even black. Nonetheless, there is an unsettling tone in many of the comments I see, and they all boil down to this:
“Black people aren’t victims.”
If you know about black stereotypes created during slavery and the Jim Crow era, you know there are several black caricatures, which include the following: the blood-thirsty Brute, the lazy, happy-go-lucky Coon, the ugly subservient Mammy, the lusty, over-sexed Jezebel, and the bitchy, man-hating Sapphire. Basically as a black person, if you challenge the status quo by not acting like a “happy little negro” your actions will be interpreted as angry, perverse, violent, and socially-deviant. No where in this narrative is there space for empathy, compassion or understanding, because just by being born black you are considered a threat. With this framework in mind, there is no room for blacks to claim the role of the victim or EVEN ASK FOR HELP. If I can never be the victim, the only role available is that of aggressor, suspect, perpetrator.
The stark contrast in how blacks and whites are represented in the media became glaringly evident when a Twitter user LordSVWP tweeted a photo of Michael Brown directly under another photo of James Holmes, a 24-year-old white male suspected of shooting dozens of people in a suburban Denver movie theater. (Interestingly, the photo, which originally appeared in a Huffington Post article, has since been removed.) The image clearly shows how even before black victims are laid in the ground, negative and violent images of them proliferate, while white suspects are afforded the right to a more balanced portrayal of their character.
While it may sell papers to imagine a white mass-murderer masquerading as “the boy next door”, these competing narrative reinforce the idea that when white people do bad things it is an exception to the rule; yet when black youth are themselves victims of violence, they “must have done something to deserve it.” I read a post by one Twitter user expressing this very idea regarding Michael Brown. The woman tweeted that his murder was somehow justified because “in my country, they would cut off your hands for shoplifting”. By the way: The reason we are in America is because we DO NOT SUMMARILY EXECUTE PEOPLE ON THE STREET or cut off a person”s hands for jaywalking or shoplifting.
“Yes the situation is sad, but they (Michael Brown / the protesters / all black people) deserve what they are getting because they refuse to take responsibility for their own poor choices.”
The prevailing idea that blacks deserve what they get keeps popping up in various guises. In the case of Michael Brown, the Ferguson police department attempted to reinforce the violent black male stereotype by releasing video and other “evidence” in the hope of justifying his murder. Either directly or indirectly Michael Brown has been accused of shoplifting, jaywalking, shoving a shop owner, smoking marijuana and dressing like a “thug”. Whether these accusations or innuendos are true or not is irrelevant. There is no law on the books that justifies the denial of a person’s due process rights based on bad behavior. Try listing the people you know who have never shoplifted, smoked marijuana, jaywalked, dressed inappropriately or acted defiantly toward authority in their teens. How long is your list? Even hardened criminals are afforded the right to know what they are being charged with, the right to challenge the decision, and if they are convicted, the right to fair and humane punishment befitting the crime.
Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager with no prior record, was arrested, sentenced and executed by Darren Wilson in one fell swoop. This disturbing trend has continued in the way Ferguson law enforcement have treated protesters and journalists. Even though the protest has been mostly peaceful, when some local businesses were looted, law enforcement came in with armored vehicles and shot tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. (Did I mention before that this is a suburb and there were women, children and elders in the crowd?) Next, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew, not only on protestors but on all residents, while journalists were arrested and restricted to designated press areas away from the protests.
Respectability Politics: Another Version of the Blame Game
Many called on President Obama to intervene. His response has been, frankly, a disappointment. Frustration about his handling of Ferguson is being widely shared on Twitter. Not only did many (including rapper Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs) feel his response was too slow, but when he did address the public in a press conference on the issue, he referenced My Brothers Keeper. This angered many. Yes, we should have more mentors for young black youth. Yes, we as individuals should all strive to be proactive, goal-oriented, educated, and involved in our communities. Helping young black and brown men (and women) to do this is an admirable goal. But linking the concept of self-determination with the events of Ferguson, implies that in order to eradicate racism in our country, all we have to do is teach youth the value of hard work and self-determination.
Michael Brown was a teenager on his way to college. He was born into a world that he and other young black men (Eric Garner, Trayvone Martin, Oscar Grant, and on and on and on) had no hand in creating. This world is one where many black and brown youth face the prospect of mass incarceration, racial profiling, stop and frisk policies, and heightened school suspension and expulsion rates on an almost daily basis. When we say personal responsibility is the solution to a structural, societal problem, it implies that each of us has had a equal hand in creating the problem. If black youth could change society’s problems by making “good choices”, do you still think we’d be dealing with this crap?
President Obama has made it clear that he’s of a class of thinkers who recognizes America’s longstanding history of racism, but ultimately believes that the way forward for black and brown youth is to not let their race or gender be an “excuse.” In his view, no matter your circumstances, you can achieve if you’re willing to work hard. That’s the promise of America. But that has never been the case for black and brown people. We have worked hard for centuries. That work has been exploited, undervalued and at times criminalized. To dismiss that, as the president does (and most other people do), is to take an uncomplicated view of a complicated history… But that’s ignoring the root problem…
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same…
Today, black people can be doctors, lawyers, teachers and even the President of the United States. Nonetheless, the overwhelming message for many black Americans is that, no matter who we are or what we do, black life is not important. That as a people, despite our amazing history, despite all our successes, we are not REAL Americans, we are not contributors, we are not human. Historian Blair Kelly reminded us this week, in The Root that Ferguson is just outside St. Louis, roughly five miles away from where Dred Scott sued Missouri for his freedom on the grounds that he and his wife had been living for years in a free state. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, where in 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, wrote a majority opinion siding with the defendent, arguing Scott had no right to sue because as a black man he was never intended to be a citizen. Kelly writes in his post:
“Taney dismissed the idea that the Declaration of Independence might apply to black Americans when it insisted that “all men are created equal,” writing, “It is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration.” In his version of “original intent,” Taney insisted that the framers of the Constitution believed that black Americans were so inferior that they “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.
Does this remind you of anything?
The Take-Away from All This
What can we do to right the many wrongs that African Americans still face? As one Twitter user reminds us, anti-black racism is not just an African-American problem, it’s an American problem. And just because you are Asian, Latino and yes, even black, doesn’t give you the right to opt out of this important conversation. Many people want to ignore our problems with race, or only focus on what feels positive. “Can’t we all just get along?” you will hear people say. “Let’s focus on our similarities, not our differences.” And my favorite… “I don’t see race.” Not knowing what to do isn’t an excuse to do nothing, especially when it perpetuates systematic violence against one group of human beings by another.
It’s OK to be Angry
France Francoise is the woman pictured at the top of this piece. In an article on Alternet by Terrell Jermaine Starr titled, Woman Behind Powerful Mike Brown Protest Photo Defies ‘Respectability Politics’, Francoise explains how Michael Brown’s murder reminded her of her of a time in college when she protested another death of a black teen, Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old who died after being beaten by boot camp personnel. When she learned about Michael Brown’s shooting, she felt the need to protest again. In putting together a sign for the protest, she at first questioned what to say for fear that her message would be dismissed as “black rage”. But then she reconsidered and decided to include it anyway.
“For me, it goes back to the idea that we’re not allowed to feel these sentiments,” she said. “We always have to be stoic. We always have to make certain people comfortable and I really didn’t want to make anyone comfortable at that time. I felt angry. I felt fearful for my young brother and my younger cousin. And I currently feel fearful for the son I might have and I wasn’t trying to make people feel comfortable because I don’t feel like this is a moment where we should feel comfortable. We should be questioning the fact that this continues to happen and I wanted that to be expressed.”
Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again
This is not a time to feel comfortable or numb ourselves to recent events. All Americans (not just blacks) are justified in their anger about the handling of the Michael Brown case. We have a right and a responsibility to demand that Daren Wilson be brought to justice. We have a right and a responsibility to demand that our elected officials de-militarize our police, and de-invest in the prison industrial complex in favor of education and social programs. What has transpired in Ferguson is NOT ACCEPTABLE. Calling it out is the only acceptable response.
Educate yourself. Educate others. Speak up. Get involved. Help the residents of Ferguson, Missouri and St. Louis rebuild their community and organize for positive social change to ensure another black youth’s life was not taken in vain. If we don’t, we can be sure we’ll be doing this all over again.
Where should we start? I have some ideas which I’ll share in another post…. In the meantime, watch/read this:
- Watch: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver: Ferguson, MO and Police Militarization
- Watch: Jesse Williams and the Depiction of Michael Brown
- Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-Black Racism by Scot Nakagawa
- Ferguson and Parallel Universes | the Nation
- As Ferguson Struggles, Georgia Teens Release App to Rate Police | Forbes
- As an Asian American, I Care About Ferguson and Race Relations | BlogHer
- Explaining White Privilege to a Broke White Person | Huffington Post
- An Appeal to All of My Mommy Friends, Let’s Work to Protect Young Black Men | Chaton’s World