Ezekiel Kweku on what he sees when he looks at Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the nation’s response to the death of young black men.
In the days after Michael Brown’s death, we watched a sadly familiar story play out. The media ran pictures of him staring sullenly into the camera and making “gang” signs with his hands. They emphasized his weight and large frame, listened to his music and declared it “violent hip hop.” For their part, the police made certain to pair pertinent details about his death with seemingly irrelevant details about his life: releasing the long demanded name of the officer who shot him alongside surveillance footage of an unrelated shoplifting incident, leaking a toxicology report indicating that Brown had “marijuana in his system” at the same time they released an autopsy confirming that he’d been shot six times. Black people desperately tried to defend Michael Brown, pointing out that he was a child, that he was gentle, that he never got into any trouble, that he was going to college. If we fail to name the battleground being fought upon, this fight over what narrative to impose on the details of Brown’s life might seem oddly tangential to the argument over the circumstances of his death. So let’s be clear about the stakes of this conflict: we are trying to decide whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger. A dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for. A dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.
As the story in Ferguson became about not only the death of Michael Brown, but also about our reaction to his death, two more similar, and similarly familiar, narratives emerged, advanced by black and white media and celebrities alike. The first is that the black community’s outrage about death at the hands of white killers is opportunistic and misguided. Even if racism is a factor in these murders, and it probably isn’t, the murders of most black people are committed by other black people. The implication being made here is that blacks are quick to seize on racism as a way of ignoring or excusing problems within the black community. The second narrative is closely related to the first, and it is the story that white people may at times act in ways that may appear racist, but this behavior is merely a rational reaction to black America’s culture of criminality and violence. A direct interrogation of each of these stories could fill a book, and I will not undertake that task here. However, the fact that they are being told about the death of Michael Brown gives us a hint about whether we should think of them as valid.
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