Martyr or Demon?

When I first heard about the Michael Brown case, it was probably on NPR or maybe it was a link on Google News, and most likely, it was mere hours after the event took place. What I gathered from my informal news search was that an African American teenage boy in Missouri had been shot and killed by a white police officer. I was shocked to hear it, and wondered how with an African American man as President, we could still have such blatant acts of racism. Over the next few months, much more information came out about this story, and my understanding of what had happened developed. There are differing versions of the story. According to the LA Times article “Back Story: What happened in Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Mo.?” by Matt Pearce,  one version of the story is that the police officer, Darren Wilson, tried to leave his car while Brown pushed the door shut and a struggle ensued. According to Pearce, Wilson shot in self-defense. Pearce continues that another version of the story states “Wilson used profanity to tell the young men to get out of the street, hit Brown with his car door while trying to open it, then grabbed Brown by the neck.” Whichever of these stories is true, I still have the same gut reaction: that a teenager was unfairly killed for racial reasons. That’s not really fair, because whether or not that version of the story is actually true, it doesn’t give the police officer a fair chance. For people with the opposite gut reaction (that Michael Brown is clearly at fault), they are not giving Brown a fair chance.

Today, it may seem like we have made a lot of progress in civil rights, especially compared to a hundred years ago, or even thirty years ago. While that statement is true to a point, part of the shift has been less from racism to no racism, and more a shift in the type of racism. In Michael Omi’s essay, “In Living Color: Race and American Culture,” he discusses the difference between “overt racism, the elaboration of an explicitly racist argument, policy, or view, and inferential racism which refers to ‘those apparently naturalized representations of events and situations which have racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions’” (627). The idea that Omi is trying to advance here is that sometimes racism is obviously discriminating behavior, while at other times it is simply the way we think, whether we specifically choose to think that way or not (627). Implicit racism is harder to see, but that does not mean it is not there. While it might look like we experience less racism, this might just be a shift from overt to implicit racism.

Whether or not racial stereotypes and racial profiling have really become less common, they are called-out more often by the public. This means that whether or not things are really better than when Omi wrote his essay in the 1980’s, people are seemingly more aware of the problem. I would argue, however, that this awareness does not extend to inferential racism. Stereotypes, both positive and negative, have long been instrumental to the way we see people whom we feel are in some way “different” from us (Omi, 630). News coverage of the Michael Brown case and other similar cases show that inferential racism leads a culture to be unable to see, and thus judge, African American men fairly.

The Michael Brown case has become very high-profile, and also very emotionally charged. Whatever your political leanings might be, you likely had a gut reaction when you first read about this story, and you likely developed an image of the man who was killed. What exactly this image looked like probably varied a lot depending on your personal worldview, the news sources from which you got your information, and other personal factors. For me, growing up in a very liberal household where I was exposed to a lot of traditionally left-leaning news sources such as NPR, my initial image of Michael Brown was along the lines of the martyr who got randomly killed for doing nothing wrong, the perfect kid, etc. Other people might have had the opposite initial image. This is inferential racism in that, as Omi said, our perceptions of racial groups different from our own doesn’t allow for unique people, only general perceptions (631).

Of course, it can be argued that how we, the public, view Michael Brown is a bit irrelevant. He is already dead, and that is not going to change. But whatever your view on that, there is one thing much harder to argue against: Wilson’s view of Brown was and is very important. According to an article by Dexter Thomas titled “Michael Brown was not a boy, he was a ‘demon’” in Al Jazeera,  “In his testimony, Officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Michael Brown, said of the victim that “it look[ed] like a demon”.” These are harsh words which bring us back to that point even more strongly. Witness accounts of what happened that day vary, but Wilson’s words tell us something about his state of mind. Was Brown a ‘demon’ or an innocent kid? Those two extremes again lead us to an either/or way of thinking. Binary situations such as this are not realistic: they reinforce the view that Brown had to have been one or the other, when in reality he most probably could not have been either.

There has been another case in very recent history that shows this divide even more clearly, though in a slightly different fashion. According to a CNN article by Greg Botehlo entitled “What Happened the Night Trayvon Martin Died,” Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American, was walking back to the house where he was staying from a trip to the local convenience store to buy a snack. It was dark and on the walk Martin encountered George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person, then continued to follow him despite being told by the 911 dispatcher that that was not necessary. Accounts vary as to what happened next, but there was a commotion and Martin ended up dead on the ground.

Was Zimmerman (a 28-year-old white Hispanic man) racially profiling Martin? It is hard to say, and this issue has caused a lot of controversy. It is easy to sympathize with the family of Trayvon Martin. He was, it appears, doing nothing illegal, nothing to provoke a fight. He was then shot and killed by a perhaps overly zealous neighborhood watchman for looking suspicious. It is easy to see him as the martyr, the perfectly innocent kid who was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. But if you look into Martin’s history, another story develops. As Botehlo states, “Martin didn’t live in Sanford, a central Florida city of about 53,000 people. Yet by that winter night, he’d been there for seven days, after being suspended for the third time from Dr. Michael M. Krop High School in Miami, in this instance, for 10 days after drug residue was found in his backpack, according to records obtained by the Miami Herald.” Does this information change your view of him? It is hard not to see him in either a strictly negative or strictly positive light.

Knowing what we know about Martin, it is easy to let Zimmerman off the hook a bit. He was overenthusiastic, granted, and shouldn’t have shot without more information, but it isn’t like Martin was the perfect person either. He had been in trouble with the law, and who knows, he might have been doing something illegal or dangerous that night, right? Well, let’s go back to that night, or to what little we know about the situation. Zimmerman did not know anything about Martin when he shot. Zimmerman did not know where the teenager was going, or what he was carrying, or even his name. As far as Zimmerman knew, Martin was a perfect student who had never been in trouble in his life. And yet, he still shot and killed him. It is very hard to argue that there was not any racial profiling involved in that situation.

In both the Martin and Brown shootings, we have an African American teenager who was shot and killed. After that, the details begin to diverge. Both teenagers have been idolized and mourned by thousands of people. They have been held up as examples of a system gone wrong. They both also were killed by people who are suspected of having held the opposite, but potentially more harmful stereotype: because they were black teenagers, they were dangerous.

Even though my initial thought of Michael Brown was positive, it’s still a form of racism because I simply took the few details I had heard (black teenager, shot by police), and made a  judgment from that without actually knowing what the situation was. The problem here is not how we see people of color: it is the fact that our culture sees them as “different” at all. As Omi says in his essay, we feel a need to distinguish between the good and bad stereotypes for cultural groups, seemingly to avoid offending anyone, but that does not make any of those stereotypes less one-dimensional (631).

In the case of Michael Brown, it’s particularly problematic, because there is a lot at stake. If the police officer was at fault, he should be punished appropriately. If he was not at fault, then that fact should be made known. But due to our perceptions, both positive and negative, of the person killed, it’s extremely difficult to make a fair assessment. If some of us think that he is a martyr, and some of us think he is a savage criminal, we’re not going to get anywhere because probably none of us are right. As Omi says, “The need to paint in broad racial strokes has thus rendered ‘internal’ differences invisible” (631). The problem with these stereotypes is that they do not allow people to be individuals outside of how they are viewed culturally. For the Michael Brown case to end fairly, we have to see him not as an African American man killed by police officers, but as a person. A person who may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or a person who may have been doing something illegal, or a person in an entirely different situation altogether. We have to see him, and everyone else who might be in a similar situation, as a complex individual, not a mishmash of the stereotypes that we have been consuming our whole lives.

 

Works Cited

Boteho, Greg. “What Happened the Night Trayvon Martin Died.” CNN. Turner Broascasting Systems Inc. 23 May 2012. Web. 31 January 2015. <http://www.cnn.com/2012/05/18/justice/florida-teen-shooting-details>

Omi, Michael. “In Living Color: Race and American Culture.” Signs of Life in the U.S.A., 7th Edition. Ed. Sonia Maasik and Jack Soloman. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 625-635. Print.

Pearce, Matt. “Backstory: What happened in Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson Mo.?” LA Times. 24 November 2014. Web. <www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-back-story-ferguson-shooting-story.html#page=1>

Thomas, Dexter. “Michael Brown was not a boy, he was a ‘demon’.” Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera Media Network. 26 November 2014. Web. 31 January 2015. <www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/11/michael-brown-demon-ferguson-2014112672358760344.html>