Take some time out of your weekend. Think about your world. Instead of feeling powerless, angry, or apathetic, read and consider the realities of injustice. Get inspired and stir your conscience.
Recommended listening while reading: Nils Frahm, “Familiar” from the album Felt
- Dr. Martin Luther King “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“ (excerpt)
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
- Jamilah King, Colorlines, “Michael Brown and the Danger of the Perfect Victim Frame” (full post)
On March 2, 1955, a black girl boarded a bus in a mid-size city in Alabama. She took a seat toward the front, something she knew went against the laws of the Jim Crow South. She didn’t get up as more white people boarded the bus. When the driver told her to move to the back, she refused. She did the same when two police officers commanded her to move. As police officers forcibly removed her from the bus in handcuffs, she repeatedly exclaimed that she had constitutional rights. Still, she was later convicted of disturbing the peace, violating the state’s segregation law and assault.
Civil rights activists had long wanted to wage a campaign against segregation on public transit, but this girl— Claudette Colvin—wouldn’t serve as the public face. Although she was active in her NAACP’s youth council, the Birmingham native didn’t fit the bill. She was 15, visibly poor, and soon, visibly pregnant, qualities that some civil rights leaders saw as flaws. Nine months later Rosa Parks—a middle class, churchgoing 42-year-old who served as the secretary of her local NAACP and a mentor to Colvin—refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus. Colvin never became a household name, but Parks’ planned act of civil disobedience made her one of the most recognizable and admired black victims of white racism of the 20th century. “Her skin texture was the kind that people associate with the middle class,” Colvin, who is dark-skinned, said 50 years later in an interview with NPR. “She fit that profile.”
In other words Parks was a perfect victim. Her morals were unassailed.
Today, if we are to believe law enforcement and personal responsibility-loving politicians such as President Obama, black victims of white racism must still, as Colvin put it, “fit the profile.” Their victimhood is only supposed to matter if their lives are pristine. That’s why St. Louis County law enforcement keeps trying to chip away at the popular image of Michael Brown as a college-bound gentle giant. Last Friday, while identifying the 18-year-old’s killer as Officer Darren Wilson, local police released surveillance footage from a convenience store that allegedlly shows Brown stealing cigars and assaulting a clerk. (Later that day, Police Chief Thomas Jackson admitted that Wilson didn’t know that Brown was a suspect.) On Monday, unnamed sources from the St. Louis County medical examiner’s office told The Washington Post that Brown had marijuana in his blood at the time of his killing.
These tidbits are an obvious distraction from the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.
This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color. Think about all of our imperfect victims: Oscar Grant did time in state prison. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school and occasionally smoked weed. Remarley Graham also smoked weed. Jordan Davis played loud hip-hop. Renisha McBride was allegedly intoxicated. Eric Garner was accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. See how this works?
Recall how, in the painful weeks before George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, Trayvon Martin’s father reinforced his son’s humanity: “I think one of things that everybody seems to overlook is the fact that, OK, that was our child,” Tracy Martin told theGrio.com. ”…At the end of the day that was our child, and we knew our child and we loved him. And no matter what you try to say about him, [or] how you try to spin his image, or you try to assassinate his character, we know his character, we know his image, and it’s up to us to not let you smear him.”
Now, let’s join Michael Brown’s family in rejecting the perfect victim frame. Whether he was a squeaky clean, college-bound, “gentle giant” or a teenager who may have done stupid things, his life still matters.
And so does his killing.
- Robert P. Jones, The Atlantic “Self-Segregation: Why It’s So Hard for Whites to Understand Ferguson” (full post)
The shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the anger poured out in response by Ferguson’s mostly black population, has snapped the issue of race into national focus. The incident has precipitated a much larger conversation, causing many Americans to question just how far racial equality and race relations have come, even in an era of a black president and a black attorney general.
Polls since the incident demonstrate that black and white Americans see this incident very differently. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll finds that while Americans overall are divided over whether Brown’s shooting was an isolated incident (35 percent) or part of a broader pattern in the way police treat black men (39 percent), this balance of opinion dissipates when broken down by race. More than three-quarters (76 percent) of black respondents say that the shooting is part of a broader pattern, nearly double the number of whites who agree (40 percent). Similarly, a Pew Research Center poll found that overall the country is divided over whether Brown’s shooting “raises important issues about race that need to be discussed” (44 percent) or whether “the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves” (40 percent). However, black Americans favor the former statement by a four-to-one margin (80 percent vs. 18 percent) and at more than twice the level of whites (37 percent); among whites, nearly half (47 percent) believe the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.
Clearly white Americans see the broader significance of Michael Brown’s death through radically different lenses than black Americans. There are myriad reasons for this divergence, from political ideologies—which, for example, place different emphases on law and order versus citizens’ rights—to fears based in racist stereotypes of young black men. But the chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.
A 2012 PRRI survey found that black Americans report higher levels of problems in their communities compared to whites. Black Americans were, on average, nearly 20 percentage points more likely than white Americans to say a range of issues were major problems in their community: lack of good jobs (20 points), lack of opportunities for young people (16 points), lack of funding for public schools (19 points), crime (23 points), and racial tensions (18 points).
Disparities in Reported Community Problems, by Race
These incongruous community contexts certainly set the stage for cultural conflict and misunderstanding, but the paucity of integrated social networks—the places where meaning is attached to experience—amplify and direct these experiences toward different ends. Drawing on techniques from social network analysis, PRRI’s 2013 American Values Survey asked respondents to identify as many as seven people with whom they had discussed important matters in the six months prior to the survey. The results reveal just how segregated white social circles are.
Overall, the social networks of whites are a remarkable 93 percent white. White American social networks are only one percent black, one percent Hispanic, one percent Asian or Pacific Islander, one percent mixed race, and one percent other race. In fact, fully three-quarters (75 percent) of whites have entirely white social networks without any minority presence. This level of social-network racial homogeneity among whites is significantly higher than among black Americans (65 percent) or Hispanic Americans (46 percent).
Racial and Ethnic Makeup of White Social Networks
For me, a white man, hearing accounts of how black parents teach their sons to deal with police is difficult to grasp as reality. Jonathan Capehart’s Washington Post column after the Brown shooting contained a personal and poignant account of his mother’s lessons to him as a young black man:
How I shouldn’t run in public, lest I arouse undue suspicion. How I most definitely should not run with anything in my hands, lest anyone think I stole something. The lesson included not talking back to the police, lest you give them a reason to take you to jail—or worse. And I was taught to never, ever leave home without identification.
And national survey data suggests that the need for this kind of parental coaching persists in the black community today. When given a choice between two traits that respondents believe their child should have, a 2012 PRRI survey found that African Americans are far more likely than white Americans to favor “obedience” over “self-reliance.” By a margin of three to one (75 percent to 25 percent), African Americans preferred “obedience” to “self-reliance;” among white Americans, only 41 percent preferred “obedience,” compared to 59 percent who preferred “self-reliance.”
In discussing these survey findings during a panel discussion, Michael McBride, an African-American pastor who directs Lifelines to Healing, a campaign to prevent neighborhood violence, related his personal story of being beaten by two white police officers in March 1999. He described it this way:
This happened because they felt like I was not being obedient enough. The way they saw the world and me in their world created a certain kind of fear and reaction to my actions that caused me harm. I live with that experience as many folks of color live with that experience.
But these are not stories most whites are socially positioned to hear. Widespread social separation is the root of divergent reactions along racial lines to events such as the Watts riots, the O.J. Simpson verdict, and, more recently, the shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. For most white Americans, #hoodies and #handsupdontshoot and the images that have accompanied these hashtags on social media may feel alien and off-putting given their communal contexts and social networks.
If perplexed whites want help understanding the present unrest in Ferguson, nearly all will need to travel well beyond their current social circles.
The United States of America is not for black people. We know this, and then we put it out of our minds, and then something happens to remind us. Saturday, in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Mo., something like that happened: An unarmed 18-year-old black man was executed by police in broad daylight.
By now, what’s happening in Ferguson is about so many second-order issues—systemic racism, the militarization of police work, and how citizens can redress grievances, among other things—that it’s worth remembering what actually happened here.
Michael Brown was walking down the middle of the street in Ferguson’s Canfield Green apartment complex around noon on Saturday with his friend Dorin Johnson when the two were approached by a police officer in a police truck. The officer exchanged words with the boys. The officer attempted to get out of his car. At this point, two narratives split.
According to the still-unnamed officer, one of the two boys shoved him back into the vehicle and then wrestled for his sidearm, discharging one shot into the cabin. The two ran, and the police officer once again stepped from his vehicle and shot at the fleeing teenagers multiple times, killing Brown.
According to Johnson and other eye witnesses, however, the cop ordered the friends to “get the fuck on the sidewalk,” but the teenagers said they had almost reached their destination. That’s when the officer slammed his door open so hard that it bounced off of Brown and closed again. The cop then reached out and grabbed Brown by the neck, then by the shirt.
“I’m gonna shoot you,” the cop said.
- T.D. Williams, Medium: The Cauldron “The Perils of Selective Decency” (excerpt)
Contempt and indecency are dished out in seemingly infinite helpings to blacks in America. There are startling, obvious examples, like Michael Brown being gunned down and left to fester in the sun. Then there are more subtle — though still insidious — examples, like ESPN’s much-publicized suspension of Stephen A. Smith.
I took no issue with Smith’s suspension, nor the widespread criticism he received for his poorly-worded commentary on female complicity in male violence against them. But I almost (not quite, but almost) felt sorry for him, because he reminds me of a trained Orca at Sea World: ESPN had been giving him bigger and better treats every time he jumped through the hoops of shallow social criticism or balanced the ball of black cultural pathology on his nose. In that context, I understood his initial shock and indignation when his treat suddenly was swapped out for a punishment. He simply was exhibiting the asinine behavior his handlers have encouraged, and which the audience usually applauded.
ESPN long ago decided complex, sensitive social issues were grist for the ratings mill. It wouldn’t have taken more than minimal coordinating to get someone on air to articulate a comprehensive, informed viewpoint on Ray Rice’s suspension as it related to larger societal discourse on domestic abuse and misogyny. The network, though, rarely demonstrates interest in comprehensive, informed viewpoints, instead attempting to reduce even complex and sensitive social issues to an easily digestible highlight clip. Ergo, Smith was given his long, dangerous leash, and it was impossible to then set aside skepticism when network higher-ups expressed surprise and disappointment that he inevitably got tangled in it and started to choke.
For years I’ve tuned into ESPN to get sports updates, only to be bombarded — on air, in print, over radio waves — with commentary by Smith and others fueled by antiquated, offensive notions of black cultural pathology. Examples range from the leadership capability of black athletes from single-parent homes being legitimized as a talking point, to the discussion of Richie Incognito calling Jonathan Martin a “half n-gger” shifting abruptly to the culpability of “the black community.”
Smith’s contribution to this noxious brand of victim-blaming and race-baiting is particularly galling because he is cloaked in the cheap, threadbare garb of a voice of “the black community.” But Smith damn sure wasn’t raised in my community, and he doesn’t represent my concerns or experiences, nor those of the bulk of blacks I know. Plus, blacks as individuals take offense to white people discussing “the black community” as a monolith; why then be fine when a black person commits the same sin?
In truth, Smith’s main, flimsy credential to wax pseudo-philosophical on how blacks should feel is that he has dark skin. He’s not a clarion voice of any community; rather, he’s a low-rent provocateur. He doesn’t have a Ph.D. in sociology or African-American Studies; he wasn’t a social columnist with years of attending pertinent conferences under his belt; he hasn’t been analyzing data or studying the most current and thorough articles and books on these subjects. He has no bonafides, but he’s allowed to — encouraged to — discuss race and society because he tends to say things that reinforce popular, base notions of black people in general, and black athletes specifically.
- Jelani Cobb, New Yorker “A Movement Grows in Ferguson” (excerpt)
In the eight days since Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old, was killed by a police officer named Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, what began as an impromptu vigil evolved into a sustained protest; it is now beginning to look like a movement. The local QuikTrip, a gas station and convenience store that was looted and burned on the second night of the protests, has now been repurposed as the epicenter for gatherings and the exchange of information. The front of the lot bears an improvised graffiti sign identifying the area as the “QT People’s Park.” With the exception of a few stretches, such as Thursday afternoon, when it was veiled in clouds of tear gas, protesters have been a constant presence in the lot. On Sunday afternoon the area was populated by members of local churches, black fraternity and sorority groups, Amnesty International, the Outcast Motorcycle Club, and twenty or so white supporters from the surrounding area. On the north side of the station, a group of volunteers with a mobile grill served free hot dogs and water, and a man stood on a crate, handing out bright yellow T-shirts with the logo of the National Action Network, the group led by Al Sharpton.
The conversation here has shifted from the immediate reaction to Michael Brown’s death and toward the underlying social dynamics. Two men I spoke with pointed to the disparity in education funding for Ferguson and more affluent municipalities nearby. Another talked about being pulled over by an officer who claimed to smell marijuana in the car as a pretense for searching him. “I’m in the United States Navy,” he told me. “We have to take drug tests in the military so I had proof that there were no drugs in my system. But other people can’t do that.” Six black men I spoke to, nearly consecutively, pointed to Missouri’s felon-disfranchisement laws as part of the equation. “If you’re a student in one of the black schools here and you get into a fight you’ll probably get arrested and charged with assault. We have kids here who are barred from voting before they’re even old enough to register,” one said. Ferguson’s elected officials did not look much different than they had years earlier, when it was a largely white community.