Michael Brown and Ferguson—and Us

By | August 17, 2014

Every day people are born and people die. People marry, divorce, change jobs, have kids, watch those same kids move on to college and careers and family. These are all the ordinary things we expect are ours because we are good people, and fair, and play by the rules.

Some people who have similar aspirations and hopes and dreams and us, however, are taught time and again that they must have no expectation of success and freedom and safety. They are considered, as a class, inferior, suspects in crime, complicit in social decay, willing agents of destruction and chaos and evil. They excluded from normal society, from jobs and housing and education in great numbers disproportionate to their population. They are fair game for derision and shame, fair targets for hate and anger and violence.

Which is simply weird, because there is nothing different about them, not one thing, when compared to any other human being we think as being part of the “good” people, the “right” people, the “We the People” who, by virtue of existing, possess their inalienable natural and human rights.

They are excluded because we have made up something to exclude them—the way they look. And because we’ve made up this thing, we then use it to magnify every flaw and hide every virtue. Someone of this group stole? Just like them. They’re all thieves and cheats and welfare fraudsters. Someone of this group became a super athlete, super model, highly paid executive or politician? How utterly extraordinary—shows that if they just try hard enough they can succeed as extraordinary humans (but as ordinary humans they aren’t successful or visible at all).

So imagine that you’re part of the excluded group, and unable to break out of that group because of your life history. Your education was substandard. Your home was substandard. Your parents’ jobs were substandard. You’ve had to endure far worse conditions, day after day, month after month, year by year, for no reason that makes sense to you. Even to be told it is because of how you look makes no sense—your appearance is as critical to your personhood as your height—that is, it is a fact, but it is not a defining fact.

Through native wit and effort you manage to break out a bit. You are going to go to college. Do something with the brains and life God gave you. You’re walking down the street, thinking your thoughts, and you are stopped by the police.

This happens all the time to those around you. All. The. Time. Randomly stopped and questioned as if you are all just one act away from a felony.

You don’t know it, but you have fifteen minutes left to live. You think that if you stand up for yourself you’ll be OK. Not standing up for yourself leads to marginalization, and besides, Things Have Changed.

But you’re wrong. You will be dead in ten minutes.

You have more verbal altercations, unjustified, because you were doing nothing but walking down the street. The altercation escalates.

You turn away to leave the scene—you are not being arrested, after all—and then you are shot, multiple times.

And now you are dead. You lie in the street for four hours.

You started out thinking you had a rather ordinary day ahead of you, and you were wrong.

 

That is what happens in America, day after day, to a class of people who have no other reason to be in that class except for appearance. That is it. Nothing done. No action. Just a genetic result, a thin layer of molecules that darken the skin more than others without the molecules.

There is nothing that they can do to escape their classification, because while it is inherited, it is a meaningless reason for classification. Yet it is used to exclude.

What would you, yourself, do?

I don’t know what I’d do, honestly. I don’t think there’s a single thing that limits me. I can go nearly wherever I want, shop where I want, drive where I want, eat where I want. I can confidently apply for any job I want where I feel I’m qualified and expect to receive a fair evaluation.

I don’t have a solution for this. It seems large and complex and unyielding.

But I do believe this—that as it is not a random natural event but a series of human choices, that I, as a human, can do something to reverse the situation and restore it to humaneness. I don’t know what choices to make all the time, but I know that I can choose to act and think and believe differently than how I’m expected.