On Monday, The New York Times published an article by John Eligon, Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise. And as usual, Ta-Nehisi Coates was there to call foul, Michael Brown’s Unremarkable Humanity. He was particularly upset with the sentence, “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life.” It is a problematic framing.
Coates noted that that he was much the same at that age. Humans are humans—none of us are angels at any age. What’s shocking is that, in my experience, all teenage boys are horrible at least some of the time. And what’s happened to Michael Brown is that he’s had a narrative developed for him that denies his humanity. (In Eligon’s defense, he’s trying to do exactly the opposite of this.) Various parts of his life have been crammed into a stereotype. And whether we want to admit it or not, that stereotype is “frightening young black man who deserves to be killed.”
Last night on The Daily Show, Jon Stewart did a great segment, “Race/Off.” It’s about the coverage of the Michael Brown killing by Fox News and it shows how disconnected it is from reality—or rather, just how determined it is to find, “Cop good! Unarmed black man baaad!” Of course, at the Bundy Ranch, it was, “White bigot good! Cops baaad!” But whatever. There is also a nice response to the “Why don’t black leaders care about black-on-black crime in Chicago?!” conservative meme. (Note: on social media you constantly hear conservatives talk about crime in Chicago, even though it doesn’t have the highest crime rate. Why is it mentioned? Because Chicago is the favored example of Fox News and other conservative media outlets. They are just parroting what they’ve heard.)
It’s very interesting that Fox News got Mark Fuhrman to come on and say, “The only racial divide that is created here is created by the race baiters.” I know if I were covering a white cop killing an unarmed black teen, my go-to man would be the racist cop from the OJ trial. But what most struck me in this segment was the one commentator who said, “You know who talks about race? Racists!” That’s textbook racial demagoguery. It is meant to shut down discussion. And it is the conservative take on racism, “If we pretend racism doesn’t exist, it doesn’t!”
Note that this is the network that talks excessively about race. Since the shooting, Bill O’Reilly has done little but talk about cultural dysfunction in African American communities. They can’t seem to talk about young black people without complaining about sagging pants. (In my community, most white boys have sagging pants too, so I hardly think it says anything other than that black kids are not long for that fashion trend.) So Fox News wants to talk about race. Their issue is talking about it in any way that would indicate that it isn’t just a problem with blacks.
In this context (which is far bigger than Fox News and the rest of the conservative media), of course Michael Brown is reduced to a stereotype. Note how it was reported from the beginning. His behavior at the convenience store was what would have been reported as shoplifting under normal circumstances. But it was reported as a robbery. “Robbery” implies a weapon as well as the taking of cash. So why wasn’t it reported as shoplifting? I think we know the answer: shoplifting is something a lot of kids do; shoplifting is a minor crime; shoplifting is not dehumanizing.
As a society we tend to see our own children as the complex creatures they are. If our children are caught shoplifting or vandalizing or almost anything else, we don’t label them as bad and forget them. But as a society we do it to their children, especially when they are black. And in this case, we have a police department with a very big motivation to paint Michael Brown in that way, and the media have just followed along. So in this way, noting that he was “no angel” is problematic. It’s technically true, but it is also technically true that Michael Brown was “no pelican.” But no one feels the need to point out that the dead teen, like all other humans, was not a member of the “genus of large water birds comprising the family Pelecanidae.”