Why the Mike Brown shooting is about race, even if it isn't.

It’s been a month since Mike Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black man from Ferguson, MO, was shot to death by a white police officer named Darren Wilson. A month of protests, a month of unrest, a month of conflict between citizens and police in St. Louis—and a month of painful conversations about race and class.

With Ferguson’s largely black population calling attention to police violence against urban black citizens, and an anonymous radio caller claiming Wilson's actions were only self-defense (Wilson has yet to release an official statement explaining his side), everyone is asking, “Was this really about race?” In other words, did Wilson shoot Brown because he racially profiled Brown, or did Wilson hold totally innocent intentions? People seem to think that if we settle the question of Mike Brown’s behavior—was he doing everything right, or attacking a cop?—we can answer that question.

But I propose that regardless of what we discover about Wilson’s motives, the conversation will still be about race and class. The conversation should continue, regardless of the specific motives in Brown’s shooting.

You see, the ongoing anger displayed by St. Louis citizens isn't just about this particular shooting. Rather, Brown’s death tapped into a deep well of racial and socio-economic tension that already existed and must be addressed.

I didn’t fully understand that until I read this article detailing the history of interaction between black/white and haves/have-nots in the Ferguson area. I encourage readers to view the whole article. It finishes with the following explanation of why Ferguson residents are protesting:

They want white St. Louis to quit it with the knee-jerk paternalism and actually hear their message. They want white St. Louis to finally make an effort to grapple with its shameful racial history, a history in which a complex alchemy of private decisions and public policies conspired to leave north St. Louis County divided by race and class. They want to win some agency of their own lives instead of being at the mercy of forces that have so often let them downor actively impeded them.

Clearly, this goes back a long way before Mike Brown. Even if it turned out that race had absolutely zilch to do with his killing, the long-needed conversation has been opened, and there’s no stuffing it back now. Nor should responsible citizens want to. Nor should those of us who identify as Christ-followers want to.

Responsible readers will note that divisions of class exist here too, and not only race. Many of this summer’s protesters don't see this as merely a black-vs.-white issue, but as a question of whether a population whose majority is poor, and whose majority is black, will be listened to by those in power, who happen, in Ferguson, to be majority white. Racial issues tie into it heavily, to be sure, but it’s very complex.

The second reason this conversation is about race, and will continue to be regardless of the investigation’s outcome, is that it touched on an even bigger wound at the national scale that also must be addressed: systemic racism.

Systemic racism is the thousand little ways that society has become situated, in intentional and unintentional ways, to favor people in the majority white group (our status within this system is called white privilege, and as a white person, privilege is so hard to see that I didn’t even understand what the term meant until I read the article I just linked to). Systemic racism shows up in all kinds of places. You find it onscreen, where your average protagonist is more likely to be white, and black actors are more likely to be cast as token black friends, or drug dealers, or shooters. You find it in news media, when news outlets use thuggish pictures and negative headlines for black victims, and positive pictures and headlines for white criminals  You find it in the store owner who keeps closer surveillance on dark-skinned patrons than white patrons. You find it on juries, which are more likely to convict black suspects and use harsher penalties. You find it in prisons, which house a disproportionally high number of black prisoners. You find it when employers hold unconscious bias against job applicants with African-American sounding names. You find it in social attitudes, when black mothers get arrested and lose custody of their children based on one questionable choice.

And, worryingly, you find it when studies show that people playing video games are quicker to shoot a black character than a whitecharacter. Hm.

Now, it’s not like all of White America wakes up every morning and says, “Let’s be racist!” No, it’s more subtle than that. For a variety of reasons (media, continuing social segregation, long-held attitudes predating the Civil Rights movement), our society presents us with many subtle and negative narratives about black people. It’s hard to live as a white person in this country and escape being unconsciously programmed by those narratives, even if we have the best intentions (I include myself in this category, by the way). Many people have deep-rooted, unconscious associations between black men and crime, and it affects the behavior of everyone at every level of society, even people who don’t consciously try to marginalize black individuals (that's why the jury study, linked above, found that jurors were more likely to be fair if consciously reminded of racism, but less likely to be fair if not reminded of it). So of course it would affect police officers as well, along with judges, lawyers, and everyone else. The result is a society of well-meaning individuals who don’t realize when we’re contributing to the oppression of our brothers and sisters.

The shooting of Mike Brown has touched on a worry that black families across the united states share, and have shared, for generations: the worry that because black men are criminalized in the minds of society at large, black men will be treated harshly by law enforcement. Many black parents report that they caution their kids on how to interact with police officers so things don’t spin out of control. Back in 2013, a black parent shared thoughts on this following George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the Trayvon Martin case:

At kitchen tables, during drives to school and in parting words as we sent them off to college, we shared a version of the same lessons given to young black men for generations: "If you are stopped by a cop, do what he says, even if he's harassing you, even if you didn't do anything wrong. Let him arrest you, memorize his badge number, and call me as soon as you get to the precinct. Keep your hands where he can see them. Do not reach for your wallet. Do not grab your phone. Do not raise your voice. Do not talk back. Do you understand me?"

At first, as a sheltered white girl in the Midwest, it was hard to believe that black families have to warn their kids about law enforcement aggression the way white parents warn their kids about watching for traffic. But I soon learned that this was indeed a pretty frequent phenomenon, and not just for parents in “bad neighborhoods” where things get rough: 

Though most law enforcement agencies deny they engage in racial profiling, many blacks have long believed that they do. Consequently, many black parents warn their children -- particularly boys and young men -- about the potential danger in being stopped by the police when they're driving, bicycling or just standing around on street corners….

….Several young people interviewed said that they are not mistrustful of every police officer. Yet their own experiences have taught them that being black means there's a good chance they'll be stopped by the police, even if they haven't broken the law. They say that it's how they handle the situation that will determine whether they will be let go with a warning, hauled off to jail or just get away alive.

It’s clear that worries about law enforcement are a rather common feature of black American life. White people may think about it only when a news story breaks; but to many in the black community, stories like Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown echo the fears that haunt them daily about their own children.

But they also know these incidents offer an inroad to having a conversation and making the world pay attention. They want racial problems acknowledged, condemned, and dealt with in the public sphere. That’s why discussions of race come up when unarmed young black men are killed, and that’s why people are intent on having The Race Conversation even though we haven’t even heard Darren Wilson’s side of the story yet. It’s not just about Wilson, Brown, and Ferguson. It’s about something so much bigger, something that needs to be acknowledged and talked about anyway.

It took me a month to write this post. There’s a simple and cowardly reason for that: you get a lot of pushback when you talk too much about unconscious, systemic racism, and pushback is stressful. It’s especially stressful because I can’t even get up on my soapbox and be sanctimonious about it (my usual method for dealing with pushback)—because I, too, have been blind to white privilege, and I, too, still make mistakes and say stupid things when talking about race.

I also recognize that I’m no expert on racial reconciliation. There’s a very real danger that my discussion of the black experience could get some things wrong but people would still count it as authoritative—because I come from the demographic that our society is trained to listen to (white, educated, middle class). So I hesitated to even write this post, for fear of getting something wrong and adding to the problem. But I’ve heard over and over that one of the best ways to use your privilege is to speak up, and that’s what I’m trying for. If I have done wrong or need to be corrected, I leave that to other people to say. My comment section is open.

On that note, I have one more plea to make. To my fellow whiteys out there, I say this: Please use your privilege to speak up.

In the past month, I’ve heard from a lot of people who are hesitant to draw conclusions about what happened until we know all the facts. That’s understandable and okay. But from some others, I have also read and heard some of the worst and cruelest comments you can imagine about poor Mike Brown. After news hit that he was a suspect in a robbery (involving fifty dollars, oh no!) I saw Facebook blow up with hateful, gleeful statements about how stupid it was to assume he deserved any pity, that he was really “just a thug” after all, that people who sympathize with his grieving family are “idiots,” that we “all knew” this good kid story was just a bunch of hogwash (as if killing bad kids is justified), and that it’s obvious that Mike Brown intended for this to look like a racially-motivated crime so the officer would be unfairly blamed. I did not make up or exaggerate any of the above, including the conspiracy theory about Mike Brown purposely sacrificing his life to frame the officer.

It’s unbelievable to me that these things would be said. But what I really couldn’t believe is that these things were barely, if at all, contradicted by anyone else.

I am awash with sadness that people who will rush to pray for persecuted Christians in other countries, and rush to donate money to needy children, and rush to send relief teams to New Orleans, and rush to defend family values, suddenly become quieter than a tomb when people gloat about how they were right not to feel sorry for an 18-year-old child who is dead.

And here, too, I see systemic racism and classism at work. If this had been a middle-class white kid killed by a black police officer, with several white witnesses saying the kid had his hands up, would reactions be the same? Would people be making cruel statement implying that the kid’s one mistake negates the tragedy of his death? Would people be rushing to assume that several white, middle-class eyewitnesses must all be wrong, because some anonymous radio caller said the black shooter had a conflicting story?

Do we fail to contradict such statements because they fit the narrative we’ve been told? At heart, do we secretly believe that people from low-income neighborhoods are just criminals who never cooperate with police? Do we secretly believe that young black men are more dangerous and thus understandable targets for spooked cops? Do we secretly believe that any young black man shot by police will eventually turn out to be a criminal, because that’s what young black men do—commit crimes, resist authority, and die? Is that such a normal narrative that we won’t believe anything else?

We need to gently and lovingly let the people around us know that they can’t get away with cruelty just because the victim of their words is poor and/or black. If we, who are privileged enough to be listened to, don’t speak up when we hear systemic racism and classism at work, we are contributing to the problem. In this way, I have been a contributor more times than I care to count. I’m trying not to contribute anymore.

If you think I’m overreacting or reading too much into this situation, it is your right to think that. For my part, I would rather make a mistake and sound the alarm bell too hastily than make a mistake by continuing to facilitate injustice with silence.  

**Edit: A thoughtful friend pointed out that not everyone feels like engaging in real-world issues over FB, so perhaps my social media perusing is not the best or most accurate example of people's true feelings on the subject, must less any kind of litmus test for people's willingness to stand up to racism. I feel this is a logical critique. So I'll say this; I believe every person has to make their own decision about how "real" they feel social media interactions to be, and act accordingly. Some people feel the internet isn't a very accurate picture of who people really are; on the other hand, some think the internet shows us the bad side of ourselves more clearly. Some people feel that back-and-forth on internet threads can't have enough real-world impact to change people's minds; others disagree. I happen to be someone who feels that a great deal of our subtle influencing can happen online, and so I suppose it's logical that I'm going to put a lot of investment into what I say and what I stand up for in the public eye of Facebook. But if you are not such a person, and prefer to deal in real life, be not afraid; I still understand and respect your point of view :)  I would only ask that if you post something online, and a friend tries to hijack your thread to say something unloving about another group of people, please consider at least deleting the thread even if you don't want to argue there--after all, you don't know who else may stumble on your friend's comments and be offended--or swayed!--by what they say.