One minute, Michael Brown was walking to his grandmother’s house in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug 9. The next minute, he was dead—another young black man sent to his grave violently before he could even really live his life.
As of this writing, we know that he was 18, preparing for college, loved rap music, and that he was unarmed. We know that he met his fate at the hands of local law enforcement and that his body lay on the street for several hours while members of the community gathered in sorrow and rage.
The story changes at that point, though. Witnesses say Brown was standing with his arms raised; police say he struggled with an officer exiting his cruiser. Blacks in the community bemoan that a peaceful vigil on Sunday was met by police in riot gear; police say their show of force didn’t start until the protesters and mourners became unruly.
At least one officer called the gathered blacks “animals,” according to media reports. Sadly, many of the news stories help reinforce the notion that the problem was a crowd of rioting savages, instead of looking at why things can go sour when a black crowd is confronted by a sea of white law enforcement—especially in the wake of a tragic event that seems to have all the trappings of an unnecessary police shooting.
An email I recently received from a reader noted: “Everything of yours that I’ve read in the Phoenix inevitably comes down to white people versus the rest. So, what’s the solution? More articles about social ills and anger, or an effort to understand the complexities of the challenge so that some substantial plan of action can be addressed?”
As I ponder the Brown story and that email, I think: “Why isn’t the white media pondering the complexities?” This column isn’t long enough for me to spell out detailed action plans; it is, however, long enough to point out disparities so that hopefully people will begin to understand why so many non-whites in this country—particularly blacks—feel threatened and angry.
There are too many stories of unarmed black men losing their lives at the hands of law enforcement officers, when similar stories about white victims are conspicuously and comparatively rare. Too little attention paid to the deference that is often given to white suspects but not to black ones.
Few whites want to contemplate that our society was set up on a foundation that established early on that blacks were seen as less than human. Sure, the Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal, endowed...with inherent and inalienable Rights; (to) Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but our very Constitution made blacks three-fifths of a person. While we have made efforts to move beyond that with later amendments, it does not erase a national record that historically views black lives as less valuable than white lives.
This belief still exists among many, many people in the white population, even if they don’t think about it or recognize it.
Asking people who aren’t very many generations removed from being property (and even more recently, victims of Jim Crow laws) to be happy that they are technically equal, when common indicators ranging from housing to education to healthcare to the justice system say otherwise, is asking a lot.