The Sad Legacy of Michael Brown
A tragedy occurred on August 9, 2014 in the town of Ferguson, Missouri.
No matter your race, ideology or thoughts on the events that led to the shooting death of Michael Brown, that much should at least be clear. An 18-year-old man, days away from starting college, lost his life, either because he was cruelly murdered by a white police officer named Darren Wilson, or because he made the mistake of escalating what should have been a minor confrontation into something fatal.
What has happened in the months since Michael Brown’s death is, in some ways, equally tragic, as Ferguson has been torn apart by protests and looting, while the nation as a whole has found itself sharply divided once more on the issue of race. All of it stems from the opposing scenarios laid out above, and which of the two you happen to support.
Initially, the shooting was presented to the world as an appalling example of blatant racism. According to Dorian Johnson, Brown’s friend and companion at the time of the shooting, the two men had been walking in the middle of the road when they were approached by Wilson’s police vehicle. After telling the pair to “Get the f*** onto the sidewalk,” the officer backed up beside them, attempted to throw open his door (causing it to ricochet off the teens, back toward his truck), then grabbed Brown by the throat and yanked him into the vehicle. Soon after, he pulled out his gun, firing it immediately and hitting the teen. The two boys then ran as Wilson continued shooting, Johnson hiding behind a car and Brown raising his hands and kneeling. Ignoring the latter’s obvious surrender, Johnson contends, the police officer coldly fired several more shots, executing the unarmed 18-year-old in the middle of the street.
It was that version of the encounter that rocked the country, and that account which the Ferguson protestors still hold up as the truth: a “gentle giant” simply minding his own business cut down by a racist white cop; yet another innocent, defenseless youth murdered by a corrupt law enforcement system for “walking while black.”
In subsequent months, however, a very different story has emerged, one which paints Brown, Wilson, and their confrontation in a decidedly different light. Rather than “not causing any harm” as Johnson claimed, the two teens had just committed a strong-arm robbery at a nearby convenience store. Surveillance footage released by the Ferguson PD shows Brown forcibly grabbing packs of Swisher Sweets cigars from behind the counter, then pushing the establishment’s diminutive owner out of the way as he exited the store.
Though Wilson was not aware of the incident when he initially told the men to move out of the street, he received a dispatch call about it immediately afterward, which is what caused him to reverse his truck and pull up next to them. An altercation then ensued, with Wilson claiming that Brown reached into his vehicle and attempted to grab his gun before the weapon discharged. Gun residue found on Brown’s thumb during the county coroner’s autopsy supports this account. It was at this point, according to Wilson, that Brown ran away. However, rather than raising his hands in the air and surrendering (a version of the story which has inspired chants of “hands up, don’t shoot” amongst the Ferguson protestors) the teen charged at the officer, causing Wilson to fire several rounds in self-defense, ultimately killing Michael Brown.
These two competing explanations for what happened on the afternoon of August 9th have split the nation in half, largely along racial lines. Not only do blacks and whites disagree about the events leading up to Brown’s death, they differ on the shooting’s implications. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that while 80% of black people believe the case raises important questions about race, just 37% of whites felt the same. The protestors in Ferguson, and their supporters across the nation, have cited the shooting as incontrovertible evidence that police unfairly target black youths, killing them routinely due to racial animus. Many whites have countered that the Brown shooting was merely an instance of a police officer exercising his legitimate right to defend himself in the face of an attack, and have argued that the true problems within the black community are intra-, rather than interracial.
What are we to make sense of this stark contrast, and is there any hope of reconciling these disparate views? It may help to first look at the actors involved. Those who have argued that Ferguson holds profound meaning for the nation have examined it almost exclusively in the context of relations between whites and blacks, so let’s review it as such. Speaking in the broadest of senses, there are three main groups at play: the two camps, one on each side of the racial demarcation, who overtly profit from or in some ways enlarge themselves by encouraging division, and the great mass in the middle to whom the former groups appeal. The first two categories would include virulently polemical entities like the KKK and the New Black Panthers, groups who rely on animosity between the races to swell their member rolls, and who have regularly advocated violence in the past. It would also include less militant, but still controversial figures such as David Duke, the Reverend Al Sharpton and the Reverend Jesse Jackson, men whose wealth and political influence is directly correlated to increased racial unrest. It is important to note again that we are speaking in very broad terms: the methods and goals of the KKK are not being equated with those of Al Sharpton; it is simply to say that there are individuals and organizations who are unlikely to ever take part in the discourse on race as impartial commentators, and who should thus be set aside for the present discussion. We are focused on the third group, the bulk of the nation’s populace, made up of individuals who may have very strong opinions on race relations, but who do not profit directly by encouraging dissension between whites and blacks. That vast swath in the middle is obviously very complex, as complicated as the issue of race itself, made up of a mix of groups that traverse the ideological spectrum. It is a heterogeneous conflagration of heroes and villains, of hardened hearts and empathetic souls, of those who spend their lifetimes ruminating about skin tone and those who simply want to live in a colorblind society. It is within this group that the solution, if such a vexing issue as race has such a thing, will be found.
It would seem reasonable to start with the presupposition that most people in this third category are good, decent people. Liberals and conservatives will argue until the end of time about the role the United States has played in world events, past and present, but I think few on either side would argue that the overwhelming majority of its citizens are upright and just. If we can accept that condition, then I believe it follows that most people want to live in a nation where everyone, of any skin color, is treated equally. This is not to contend that racism no longer exists, or that it is inconsequential; simply, that it is not the dominating, all-encompassing force that it was during the eras of slavery, Jim Crow and “separate but equal.” Its overt form has been crushed in all but the most extreme cases, and the attitudes of previous eras have been rendered taboo.
If the majority of the American people truly want equality, then how do we achieve it? Perhaps a constructive way of looking at our ultimate goal is to view it as a relationship. We enter into relationships each day: with significant others, with friends, with business associates. In each of these interactions, we are seeking the same basic traits: openness, honesty, fairness and understanding. In order to trust the person, or persons, on the other side of the arrangement, we need to know that they are listening to our concerns and are acting in good faith. We are ultimately seeking a partner, someone who may not always agree with us, but who is always working with us towards a common goal.
For far too long in this country, the relationship between blacks and whites was anything but a partnership. That is beyond dispute. But while significant progress has been, made, the two races are still a long ways away from building a relationship whose bedrock is trust, as Ferguson has undoubtedly shown.
White Americans who believe in true equality, who seek to build a lasting partnership with their black counterparts, have seen two predominant images on their TV screens in the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown: the angry protestor who believes that whites are wantonly executing black teenagers, and the condescending intellectual, the Michael Eric Dysons and Marc Lamont Hills, telling them that, as Caucasians, they are unable to comment intelligently on the issue because their skin color prevents them from truly understanding it. The overriding narrative about Ferguson has been that, no matter what the grand jury currently deliberating over Officer Wilson’s fate decides, the verdict is in: law enforcement, writ large, is racist, and the endemic problem of white cops, and the white race as a whole, oppressing blacks is the preeminent issue facing the African-American community.
There is no context, there can be no debate. If the purpose of the Ferguson protests has been to provoke a serious conversation, the myopic attitudes on display are a very poor way of initiating it.
Relationships, partnerships of any kind, are built on communication. If the racial gulf between blacks and whites is to be narrowed and eventually eliminated, it will require a give and take by both sides. It will require an exchange of ideas and concerns, and an open and honest discussion. The loudest voices emanating from Ferguson do not seem to be interested in such a dialogue; they are simply demanding that the other side accept their view without debate. They are supported by the current of political correctness that has washed over this country, and which is magnified each day by a predominantly liberal media. Its goal seems to be to address the inequalities of the past by swinging the pendulum full tilt in the opposite direction: just as blacks once found their voices silenced, so today must white opinions on race be diminished, ignored or ostracized. How can productive communication ever occur when only one participant can ever be wrong? How will a partnership between the two races ever emerge when one side is told that its opinion is irrelevant unless it meekly accepts, en toto, that of the other?
Consider the most recent flashpoints in race relations: If Dorian Johnson’s account of the shooting had proved to be verifiably true, and Darren Wilson had, indeed, executed Michael Brown simply for walking in the middle of the road, do blacks truly believe that the majority of whites would advocate for or praise such a monster? If George Zimmerman had admitted to purposely killing Trayvon Martin solely because he was a black boy in a suburban neighborhood, would anyone have defended him? I would argue that the majority of those cautioning against a rush to judgment in the Ferguson case are simply espousing a very reasonable position: support of the rule of law, the sacred covenant that requires this nation’s regulations to be applied evenly, to all citizens. Those speaking on behalf of Officer Wilson are arguing that the nation’s police departments, regardless of any flaws, are central to a civil society and must be respected. They are saying that if there are truly cases where cops are murdering blacks for no other reason than pigmentation, then those cops should be punished to the fullest extent of the law; but this does not appear to be such a case. And yet, simply because they refuse to kowtow to the politically correct narrative, those with the temerity to voice those opinions are quickly shouted down by a vocal opposition, told that they are ignorant of the reality in the best case or branded as racists in the worst. If relations between blacks and whites are ever to coalesce into an abiding partnership, each side must be able to openly critique the other without being silenced by epithets. This is as true of the profligate use of the word “racist” as it is of the N-word.
It will also require each side to take responsibility for the current state of affairs. Again, relationships are built on honesty and openness. Much of the frustration being voiced in opposition to the Ferguson protestors stems from the notion that those holding picket signs are simply pushing an agenda, and are not willing to engage in the type of partnership that would seek the truth, and the solutions it might uncover. Those who have vilified Officer Wilson have made highly-charged claims about the other members of his race and his profession: They blame the white power system they say he represents for occupying their neighborhoods and oppressing their citizens. They say, unequivocally, that cops are indiscriminately killing black teens, indulging in racist impulses and massacring them. They carry signs saying, “Black Lives Matter”, implying that there is a cross-section of white America that believes they don’t. If anything meaningful is to emerge from this situation, those statements can, and must, be debated. What has surfaced instead is the sense that the game is rigged, and that certain answers to those posits are disallowed.
Any insinuation made by whites, or conservative-leaning blacks, that the preponderance of fatherless homes in the black community has played a key role in its stalled advancement is met with cries of “blaming the victim.” Likewise, any mention of statistics showing that black youths are far more likely to die at the hands of other blacks rather than whites, police or otherwise. There is an argument to be made that conservatives, and whites of any political stripe, only bring up the black-on-black crime in areas like Chicago when it suits their argument. More attention should be focused, regularly, on the tragedies that occur in those cities on a daily basis. And yet, that does not refute the facts behind the assertion: intraracial crime is far more of a problem that interracial crime, yet it is largely ignored by the voices purported to speak on behalf of the black community.The collective voice of Ferguson has said that those issues either don’t matter or are of relatively minor importance. It is white repression, white privilege and unadulterated white hatred that conspire to keep the black community in such a disadvantaged state. The focus is perpetually on the supposed wrongs being committed against the black community; it is never about the ills that are the black community’s responsibility alone. This creates the notion that whites who seek real change are not dealing with honest brokers in Ferguson; they ask, rightfully so, Why has an instance of a white cop shooting a black man, statistically a rare exception, evoked this level of outrage when the other 93% of black murders, committed by other blacks, go largely ignored? Instead of seeking true reconciliation, the loudest Ferguson protestors and their supporters seem only to want to assign blame, turning race relations into a contest where whites must emerge the loser. How does that engender any level of confidence between members of the two races? How does that work to build a true partnership devoted to equality?
The overwhelming majority of people in this country simply want to live by the golden rule: do unto others as they would do unto you. Reciprocity, fairness, is key. If Wilson’s supporters are told that the looters who plagued Ferguson in the immediate aftermath of Brown’s death should be seen in context, and that their actions were in some ways justified, many believe that the same consideration should then be granted to the police. They seek the full story that the media is hesitant to give them. The public is fed numbers about how many black teens die at the hands of cops each year, but those incidents don’t occur in a vacuum. 96 cases of a police officer killing a black person may happen each year, but what were the circumstances? It is an insult to everyone’s intelligence to simply assume that every one of those 96 individuals was simply a “gentle giant,” and every cop a malevolent racist, yet that is the suggestion that is left dangling in the absence of more rigorous extrapolation. Are we truly to assume that mass numbers of individuals who have chosen police work as their profession would habitually endanger their careers by placing themselves in situations that could get them fired? The notion that cops routinely seek to execute black teens due to visceral urges is preposterous. So is the notion that the violent black teen is a myth conjured up by racists. It is statistical fact that while black Americans make up 13% of the population they commit 50% of the murders in this country. That number is often dismissed by academic elites attempting to obfuscate the problems within the black community, but it is simply the very sad, very violent truth. And it is the cops who are contending with that violence, and very often, it is the cops who are placed in positions where they must protect themselves. The evidence in the Michael Brown shooting suggests that Darren Wilson was one such police officer.
Again, we must trust that the majority of Americans are good; there is no point in attempting to construct the majestic castle of racial equality if its foundation rests on a bed of sand. The majority of whites who have supported Officer Wilson haven’t done so because they’re racist; they’ve done so because they simply want to live in a safe, civil society, and they see the law enforcement community as the vanguard of that social compact. They believe that unfair treatment should be settled by the legal system, and that pent-up frustration gives no one, not Eric Garner, not VonDerrit Meyers, not Michael Brown, the right to resist arrest; anything less leads to anarchy. They do not oppose reforming any sort of injustice being done to black Americans; they just do not believe that this case proves what the protestors contend it does. The majority of whites who have supported Officer Wilson simply want a society based on equality. What they’ve been met with are voices both angry and alienating telling them that their views don’t matter.
In today’s racially-charged society, whites who have completely rejected the horrible beliefs of Americas past, who abhor the damage done by slavery and its long coda, and who truly want to live in the colorblind society described by Martin Luther King, find themselves constantly on the defensive. People who believe they are being perfectly objective and open are told they are ignorant and close-minded. Those who seek brotherhood with an open hand find it slapped away; those who would seek answers are told they are the problem. A nation that tells whites that they are racist simply because they are white and oppressive simply because they exist can never be a nation where sons and daughters “will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
What is the result of all this? What will be the lasting legacy of Ferguson? You will have a white populace that may find itself more reticent to engage on issues of race after being maligned as ignorant, and worse. You will have law enforcement personnel scared to fully enforce the law for fear of becoming the next Darren Wilson, leading to communities, both white and black, that are less safe. And you will have a new generation of black youths who will believe, because they have been told so repeatedly by the Al Sharptons of the world, that they are well within their rights to fight back against police officers, because those police officers are not worthy of their respect. The battle that has been waged to prevent more Fergusons will surely have the opposite result.
The sad legacy of Michael Brown is that all of this could have been avoided, by real leaders and forthright individuals truly seeking to strengthen the partnership between blacks and whites and advance equality; it is the same tragedy that enshrouds the nation’s first black president, a man given the unique opportunity to change the course of race relations, but who chose to follow petty ideology instead. Michael Brown could have been an example to all black youths of what not to do, the victim of an untimely death that could have easily been avoided. Instead, his image was hijacked by propagandists who saw his usefulness as a martyr, and as a way to advance their divisive agenda. While there are many in Missouri who believe the last few months will lead to resounding change, those who profit from racial discord have conspired once more to unleash destructive forces upon the nation. America will continue to pay the price long after the cameras have left Ferguson.