To many, the protests after the shooting murder of black teen Michael Brown in St. Louis will seem like a routine. The outrage, the Al Sharpton—and soon, we’re on to the next thing.
What too few realize is that the main reason so many people think of racism as the core of being black in modern America is the cops: the relationship between police forces and young black men, and how often the former kill the latter under suspicious circumstances.
I am the last person to jump in with overheated rhetoric that America is engaged in a “war against black men.” There is no evidence of anything so deliberate. However, when more temperately minded people say that black lives are valued less in the clinch than white ones, jump in I must, because it’s true.
A few weeks ago, white 18-year-old Steve Lohner could tote a gun around in Aurora, Colorado (where in 2012 James Holmes gunned 12 people to death and injured 70 others), practically taunting law enforcement to mess with him, in a quest to make a showy point about gun rights. Who among us can pretend that if a black kid was doing the same thing he wouldn’t be much more likely to wind up killed? Those inclined to pretend might note that meanwhile, black 22-year-old John Crawford was killed two weeks later for holding a toy gun at a Wal-Mart in Ohio.
This kind of thing sits in black American minds and creates a sense of alienation. I first started writing about race 15 years ago, perplexed that so many people seemed convinced that nothing had changed on race in America since about 1960. Having grown up in quiet neighborhoods, I didn’t get it. I quickly learned—the sticking point was, and still is, the cops.
Incidents like what happened to Michael Brown should teach three lessons.
One: Stereotyping. As most will agree, cops need to get past the idea that what’s cocky for a white kid is potentially lethal coming from a black kid. Clearly, whatever training cops are getting to avoid unnecessary profiling is not zeroing in on this kind of Implicit Association Bias, which is hardly so complicated that it couldn’t be discussed and worked against more diligently. As a linguist, I suggest one focus be speech: outsiders can read black men’s speech as confrontational at times when it isn’t intended that way.
Two: The War on Drugs. However, getting rid of biases like these is hard. I have rarely encountered such sneering, glowering disrespect, almost gleeful in its menace, from any human beings as from New York and Jersey City cops amid minor incidents, such as when the driver of a cab I was in got a ticket and I asked if I could just get out and walk the rest of my way, or when I was deemed to be following one of their traffic-directing gestures too slowly, etc.
These interactions are minor irritants for me, but leave me dreading the fate of a black teen under the power of people like this, especially if the teen deigned to mouth off a little. Let’s just keep black kids away from people like this.
And what brings cops into black neighborhoods as often as not is the War on Drugs, where they are assigned to sniff out people holding or selling said drugs. Imagine an America where the cops had no assignment to do such patrols at all: Black boys like Michael Brown could be left to mind their business. Plus, note that much of what keeps a gang going is drug sales. Imagine if there were no money to made selling them because they weren’t illegal.
This is why we should celebrate the crumbling of the War on Drugs wall with the increasing acceptance of the legalization of marijuana, now even hallowed on the pages of The New York Times. It’s just a start: Weed is only one kind of drug the cops are assigned to trawl for. But to prod the War on Drugs ever further into history is to make the death of children like Michael Brown ever less likely.
Three: Looking inward. There’s something else, harder to discuss but, like so many such things, urgent nonetheless. Deep breath: The black community cannot pretend that the stereotype of black men as violent comes out of nowhere.
Young black men commit about 50 percent of the murders in this country, 14 times more than young white men. Or, where do murder rates among young white men go up each summer the way they do among black ones in cities like Chicago? “Flash robs” happen when large groups of teens beset a store and steal from it, and I’m sorry, but these are rarely white affairs.
There are reasons for things like these. However, we are being unrealistic to expect America to watch these things and think it’s okay because the boys don’t have Dads and decent-paying low-skill jobs aren’t always easy to find. Let’s face it: If Korean boys regularly did things like this, we’d all be scared to death of them.
Be clear: Michael Brown’s murder was grievously unjustified regardless. And forget the tired canard that the black community doesn’t care about black-on-black murder, which could only be leveled by someone who doesn’t know much about black people. Stop the Violence events are a staple in black neighborhoods.
Yet, I wonder if the black community could step it up some on this. We need to devote some more energy to figuring out what we can do about The Violence, because among all else that it destroys, it feeds a perception bias that ends up killing innocents like Michael Brown.
And Michael Dunn (2013). And Trayvon Martin (2012). And Oscar Grant (2009). And Timothy Stansbury (2004). And so on.
Black people do not “get over” this.