All of the discussions about Ferguson are going in circles. Nothing seems to work. We can make Twitter hashtags. We can bring up all the statistics we like. We can talk about the string of recent deaths of black men (and one 12-year-old boy). And in return, we are told to shut up. US social media is now full of angry white people who demand that we stop talking about racism.
But everyone seems to be missing the point, which I believe I have discovered: Black people are not people. They are not even three-fifths of a person, as some of us seem fond of saying. Blacks are apparently nothing more than fantasy creatures – demons, savages, comic book characters.
We’ve seen this movie before
On Monday, a grand jury failed to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old black boy. This was confirmed at 1 pm, but the information was not released until 9 pm. Why did the authorities wait until the evening to announce the decision? Because they knew that crowd control is more difficult at night, and that night shots of fires and police/protester standoffs would be more dramatic than daytime ones? Were the lives of thousands – civilians and police alike – put at risk, all in the name of PR, because they needed a diversion?
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In the end, they got what they wanted. A building caught fire, which gave news stations an excuse to run “Ferguson in Flames” headlines, to ignore thousands of peacefully protesting citizens to focus on looters, to report about police cars burning but ignore police scanner reports that a main suspect was a white male.
Watching things play out in Ferguson has been like watching a bad movie after a friend spoils the plot for you. That is why in all of the articles that have come out after the verdict, there is none of the original urgency that we saw during the first weeks after the shooting.
After all, we’ve all seen this one before, haven’t we? White cop shoots black thug, black thugs riot, Al Sharpton says something, people forget, credits roll.
So, it’s no wonder non-Americans tend to think that real life in the US is just like it is in violent Hollywood movies – because it often is. But this doesn’t mean that other countries have picked up our bad habit of frantically demonising blacks in the news. Watching foreign news treatment of Michael Brown is particularly illuminating. In Japan, newscasters call him “Brown-san”, using the honorific suffix “-san” out of respect. In Mexican coverage, he’s referred to as a “joven”, in Brazil, a “jovem”, in Taiwan, a “xiaonian” – all words for a “young man”. In other words, he is treated as a person.
But in the US, we are warned that Michael Brown “was no angel“. We are told that he made rap songs. We are reminded that he was quite tall (just as tall as his killer), and a bit overweight (this part makes him scary). Fox News has worked to cast doubt on whether he was headed to college or not. Any facade of humanity that Brown might have had has been stripped away, all the better to show us the terrifying monster within.
Killing our demons
In his testimony, Officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Michael Brown, said of the victim that “it look[ed] like a demon“. That is, not only was Brown a “demon”, but an “it”.
Granted, Wilson may have misspoken. He probably meant “he” instead of “it”. But, this is a man who has sworn to protect the lives of his fellow citizens. He has also had weeks to receive the finest media training available. This was, to put it neutrally, a very delicate case. If it did not occur to him or his handlers that referring to a dead boy as “it”, “a demon”, or “the threat” in public was a bad idea, does that not suggest that perhaps something might be wrong with the way Ferguson police interact with the citizenry?
But none of this matters, because Michael Brown was not a person. He was a demon, and apparently, a comic book character.
|Fault Lines – Ferguson: City under siege|
At another point in the testimony, Wilson said that Brown “looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him”.
Nobody seems to know what “bulking up” even means. I’ve only heard it in terms of sports – athletes eat more and workout during the off-season so as to “bulk up” and be more muscular and competitive come game time.
But “bulking up” isn’t something that one instantaneously does after being shot once, nor in order to prepare to run through a hail of bullets. Really, this doesn’t sound like a testimony, it sounds like the plot line of The Incredible Hulk.
To be honest, Wilson’s story doesn’t make any sense to me, but I’ll never know the truth now, because the US was denied a trial. So, I’m afraid I have to agree with all of the racists. Perhaps whatever Wilson saw that day wasn’t human. There might have been a human out there in the street, but Wilson didn’t see him. He saw a demon, and it’s hard to blame him, because that’s all we seem to see.
Black people may be dying, but white activism isn’t
One common insult thrown at the youth of the US is that we are too apathetic, and not capable of starting a social movement. This is simply not true. Americans have not lost their ability to organise. Over the past few months, we have launched two rather impressive online-based movements: the Ice Bucket Challenge, and GamerGate. In the first, millions made viral videos of themselves pouring cold water over their heads to raise money to find a cure for a debilitating disease called ALS.
In the second, a group of (largely misogynist) video game enthusiasts were able to get such multinational companies as Intel and Adobe to pull sponsorships from major technology media sites, all in the name of “ethical journalism”. Both movements were predominantly white.
But, I’m not sure if we should expect a widespread movement of white internet activists pushing companies to stop sponsoring biased real-life news programmes, or donating money to stop police brutality. In the latter case, we’ve actually seen the opposite – a “Support Darren Wilson” campaign raised nearly a half million dollars, with some contributors thanking Wilson for, among other things, “protecting normal Americans from aggressive and entitled primitive savages”.
After all, we live in an age where many Americans will gleefully dump ice water on their heads in front of a video camera, but become angry the moment someone brings up the possibility that Brown’s case might have been mishandled. In other words, a sizable portion of the population would rather risk hypothermia, heart arrhythmia, and death than endure the emotional discomfort of considering blacks as humans.
Instead, Americans prefer to consider blacks as fantasy characters, because this makes our expectations of them seem reasonable. We adore them as entertainers, but despise them as neighbours. We want them to sing loudly, but die quietly.
Fifty years ago, a writer named James Baldwin said that Americans needed to recognise that the humanity of the “submerged population” of blacks was equal to the humanity of anyone else. I fear that Baldwin may have overestimated our sense of compassion and responsibility.
It may be too early, or too late, to think of the US race problem as whites being “more”, and blacks being “less” human. I’m afraid that we may need to begin by deciding whether blacks are human at all.
Dexter Thomas, Jr is a scholar of hip-hop and contemporary culture at Cornell University. He is finishing his book on Japanese hip-hop this year.