Helping White Folks Make Sense of Michael Brown
Friends, are you still following along with what’s going on in Ferguson? If you aren’t, things are about to go down. Probably this week. Although it hasn’t stayed at the fore of mainstream media, protests have continued throughout the last 3 months and the grand jury is set to give it’s decision in the possible indictment against Darren Wilson any day now.
In preparation for the grand jury’s decision, the governor of Missouri has declared an official state of emergency and has activated the state’s National Guard. That’s a big deal. If there are no charges brought against Wilson, there are plans in place for more protests and who knows what sort of unrest. For a lot of White people, though, I think this entire situation is truly baffling and hard to understand. Sure, a kid died, and maybe he shouldn’t have, but… these things just happen sometimes. Don’t they?
What We Learned From OJ
When O.J. Simpson was found not-guilty back in 1995 for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman, I remember a sense of genuine bewilderment. Admittedly I was young at the time but I could not understand how people could rejoice over the acquittal of a man so obviously guilty.
I remember watching a newscast with two Black women who said something in an interiew along the lines of, “Oh, we know he’s guilty. We know he’s guilty. Everybody knows he’s guilty. But we’re so happy right now! This is a good day for Black people!”
WHAT? It made no sense to me. How could they admit his guilt AND be happy? What I didn’t understand at the time was that the trial of O.J. Simpson had taken on immensely more than just a day in court. It became the “trial of the century” because it was about more than O.J. Simpson. It was about more than one man’s guilt for a particular crime. It was about decades, centuries even, of the mistreatment of Black people. It was about trial after trial after trial of White men acquitted for murdering Black victims. It was about conviction after conviction after conviction of Black men and women by White juries.
Do you see? It was about something much bigger than whether or not this one man was guilty of this one thing. Was it the perfect answer? No. Was it justice? No. Was Simpson guilty? Are there flaws in our justice system. Undoubtedly. But it was a victory on one level for a long-oppressed and unjustly treated people group and that’s why there was dancing in the streets that day.
And now, Ferguson
Unlike O.J. Simpson, Michael Brown was the victim. Michael Brown was an unarmed boy shot in broad daylight. They left his body laying in the street, uncovered, for over 3 hours. This on the heels of Eric Garner being strangled to death by a White police officer in New York City and John Crawford being shot in the back by White police officers in an Ohio Wal-Mart. This following Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin. This following Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Jonathan Ferrell and so many others.
Do you see the similarities? As with the Simpson trial, this has become about so much more than Michael Brown. This, too, is about a long-oppressed and unjustly treated people group standing up and saying. We have had ENOUGH.
When my sister and I were younger we had this scenario that played out time and again between the two of us. So much so that it has become part of family lore. Here’s how it went: my sister would bug me in some form or fashion –waving her hands in front of my face while I was doing my homework, making an obnoxious noise when I was reading a book, pushing my chair when I was watching TV. I would ask her to stop. She wouldn’t. I would ask her to stop. She wouldn’t. I would ask her to stop. She wouldn’t.
Until I snapped.
It happened the same way every single time. She would bug me and bug me and bug me until I couldn’t take it any more and I completely lost my *$#%. I would snap at her, yell at her, bat her hand away or all three.
Then she would start crying!
Inevitably I would end up apologizing and it always felt so monumentally unfair. She bugged the heck out of me, on purpose, yet in the end I had to apologize to her.
An overly simplistic metaphor but I think it’s analogous to what we’re seeing in Ferguson. As a group, Black people in our country have been pushed down over and over and over again. Centuries upon centuries of unjust treatment, both subtle and obvious, obscure and heinous are brought to bear on this generation yet we’re surprised when they push back? We expect them to apologize to us when there is looting and rioting that gets out of hand?
We want to think that the past is the past. Slavery is over. We aren’t racist so let’s just move on already. We’re post-racial, we have a Black president, Civil Rights and all that. But we’re missing something fundamental if we brush the topic aside in an attempt to absolve ourselves of any guilt.
The Sin of Achan
In the book Miracle at Speedy Motors by Alexander McCall Smith, there’s a scene where the main character, Mma Ramotswe is talking with a friend about the unfair and unjust workload for the women of Africa compared to men. There is a male friend also standing there with them and Mma Ramotswe stops to consider whether or not they should speak so freely in front of him. He certainly worked hard. It wasn’t his fault that the conditions of their country and their continent were the way they were. But ultimately here’s what she concluded:
“He was a hard-working man, of course, but he was the only representative of the world of men present under that tree and so he would have to shoulder some of the blame.”
We must shoulder some of the blame. In Joshua, chapter 7, the entire nation of Israel was held responsible for one man’s crime. Achan, from the tribe of Judah, stole some of the goods that had been seized during the siege of Jericho. The goods were off limits because they were set aside as sacred, reserved for God alone. In response God withdrew his favor until the sin was rooted out from the nation.
The collective whole bore the blame. This isn’t the case for all transgressions mentioned in the Bible but in this particular instance it was the collective attitude of the nation as a whole that enabled Achan to act as he did. And the nation as a whole was held accountable. So too with us. We, as White people, have to shoulder some of the blame. We have to take collective responsibility. Like the people of Israel, I think it’s our only way forward.
Want to press in a little further? Here are some things that might help…
- Think we’re post-racial? Think again.
- Yikes, you aren’t racist like those quoted in the link above. Sheesh, that was intense. Read this one, then. It would be great to hear where your story intersects with mine.
- Read this. Ferguson isn’t about Black Rage Against Cops. It’s about White Rage Against Progress.
- Look at Shaun King’s timeline of corruption in Ferguson.
- Then read this interview with Shaun King. It’s short but outstanding and very insightful.
- Watch this video. When I watch it now, nearly 20 years later, I’m able to see the nuance and understand the responses in a different way.
- Put yourself into the narrative.
- Check your bias. Take the test on the left.
- Need a little comic relief? This is so good. Aamer Rahman on reverse racism.