Monday, August 18, 2014

Fear and Ferguson

Many, many years from now, toward the end of this century, three days will slip quietly past on the calendar. They will be the days that Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Renisha McBride might have died. After all, they were citizens of a country where most people live to be old. They weren't meant to die before age 20.

They weren't meant to die of other people's fear.

We need to talk about the fear that killed them.

We need to talk about it so we can stop nurturing it.

Each of these young Americans was shot and killed by an adult who had bought into a narrative that says that black teenagers are dangerous. Each of these teenagers was deemed a threat by an armed adult despite being unarmed themselves. We haven't heard from the killer of Michael Brown yet, but when and if we do, I won't be surprised if we hear, in one form or another, that he was scared. It's what we heard from the killers of Renisha McBride and Trayvon Martin. In one case, a jury rejected this nonsense. In another, it apparently found it plausible.


Because nearly everything in our popular culture and nearly everything in our news media presents African-Americans as "scary." And when one person or a small number of people are doing something out-of-line, if they're white it's spoken of as the act of individuals but if they're black it's often widely perceived and tacitly presented as an example of what "they" do. There's been a lot of this dichotomy in the discussion of what's going on in Ferguson.

For example, take a look at this brief and understated article in the Washington Post. Notice how the neighbors seem afraid of "thugs" (their word, not mine) invading their neighborhood, but absolutely unafraid of ...well, their own neighbor. The guy that shot Michael Brown. Six times.

Look at the news. Notice how those in authority, bizarrely, have focused on the people of Ferguson as if they were a problem to be solved, rather than focusing on-- or, at least, publicly saying anything about-- the investigation into the death of Michael Brown.

And, of course, in this case as in the others, there's been the business of pointing out flaws in the victim... in comparison, I suppose, to the stellar perfection of all other teenagers.

And the showering of the perpetrator with monetary gifts.

All of these are different expressions of fear, a societal fear that is killing black teenagers.

We bookish people tend to feel that the answer to this problem lies in better books, but we're only partly right. Books are such a small portion of the cultural message that most people consume. The answer lies in insisting on more sensitive, nuanced discussion across all media. The news media needs to talk about racism as if we were grownups. It needs to use the same language to talk about the actions of black people as it uses to talk about those of white people. (I could say a lot more about this!) Television and movies need to stop using blackness as a visual code for badness.

Some years ago I had a curious conversation in a remote village on the Bering Sea coast. I was in the office I shared with another teacher, a local woman. I forget what we were talking about, but she made the surprising remark that she had never met a black person.

"And I'm worried that when I do, I might react wrongly," she said. "I might act as though I expect them to be violent and angry. Because that's what I always see on tv. And I know they probably aren't really like that."

Unfortunately, not everyone is as willing to deconstruct the media message as my friend was. Many people don't demand this level of thinking from themselves. So we need to change the message.

This problem can be solved. This is America, and we've solved lots of problems. Many things that were commonplace a generation ago are unthinkable now. We can make this lethal fear of black teenagers unthinkable, as well. 
We can insist that our media and popular culture stop feeding it.

Let's do it now. Lives depend on it.