Tag Archives: Michael Brown

Why Black Lives Still Matter: An American Saga

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The notion that #BlackLivesMatter became one of the defining social protest calls of 2014.

The year 2014 was an especially tumultuous year if you happened to be a black person or a police officer in the United States. The high-profile killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice revealed the continued high cost of existing-while-black in America, while the cold-blooded murder of New York police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by a mentally ill sociopath named Ismaaiyl Brinsley on December 20 has left New York City’s police force embroiled in a dispute with the city’s black community over issues of police safety and the NYPD’s checkered history with people of color. As the Big Apple’s police force tries to move forward in the wake of the brutal slaying of two of its own, the tensions between minorities and cops that so ravaged America in 2014 once again bubbled to the surface of the national consciousness.

But amidst the tensions in New York, a small group of protesters braved the cold and debauchery of New Year’s Eve to hold a vigil reminding America that #BlackLivesMatter. Because, above all else, the historical association of blackness with crime in America is at the heart of the controversies between police and minority communities that wracked the nation in 2014. This piece will explain why the interconnectedness of blackness and criminality in U.S. history continued to fuel tensions between police and the black community in 2014.

As the bodies of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice lie alongside those of thousands of other black men taken out by America’s ivory-wrapped justice system, one thing remains abundantly clear: the U.S. has moved beyond the need to have a “conversation” about race and has lunged head-first into the intervention deep end. You can’t converse about something that you don’t understand, and what far too many white Americans don’t understand is that, in the land where All Men are Created Equal, black lives have always mattered less than white ones. In the U.S., blackness has historically been associated with criminality, and to the nation’s trigger-happy white majority, crime still wears a permanent blackface. Citizens like Brown, Garner, and Rice were killed because they were perceived as the worst kind of threat to white America: a black one. Continue reading


The Long, Strange Tale of American Race Relations

Rev. Martin Luthrt King Jr. after delivering his "I Have  Adream Speech" in Washington D.C.,  August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. after delivering his “I Have A Dream Speech” in Washington D.C., August 28, 1963. From that moment on, racism was no longer a problem.

Here’s the thing about racism in America: it’s both ubiquitous and non-existent. Race plays a role in every major cultural issue that seems to tarnish our otherwise more perfect union — except when it has nothing to do with any given problem and we should stop talking about race because only racists talk about race. The latter is the preferred talking-point of the right-wing, whose collective fetish for American exceptionalism utterly inhibits their ability to interpret U.S. history as anything more than the triumphant march of alabaster altruists spreading benevolent, capitalistic, freedom-stuffed fruit baskets to all manner of benighted minorities who should be eternally grateful for this ivory-colored benevolence. Obviously, the history of race relations is more complicated than that, and leave it to a famous, gravel-voiced comedian to shed some light on how race really works in America.

In a recent Q & A with Frank Rich for New York Magazine, stand-up legend Chris Rock made some rather insightful comments about American race relations following the verdict in Ferguson, Missouri that let white police officer Darren Wilson off the hook for gunning down black civilian Michael Brown. When discussing the idea of racial progress, Rock was straightforward in his response: “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” he stated. Continue reading

Ferguson and the Black Outsider in America

Black protestoers clash with Ferguson, Missouri's largly white, militarized police force.

Black protestors clash with Ferguson, Missouri’s largely white, militarized police force.

If you’ve never been black in America, then you can never fully understand what it means to be black in America. White folks like myself, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are born with the privilege of color — white privilege — and no matter how we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives, we’ll always be citizens of America in a way that black people still can’t be. To be white in America is to be a full citizen, but to be black in America is to be the perpetual outsider. When a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the continued outsider status of blacks in America was laid bare for the world to see. Wilson, of course, is white, and Brown was black. If you think those facts don’t mean anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Following the verdict, parts of Ferguson once again exploded, as rioters set fire to multiple buildings and smashed and burned police cars. Predictably, America’s right-wing media lined up in lock-step support for the verdict and for Wilson, and reactionary Twitter feeds lit up with the usual spiel of white victimhood. But the surge of anger among many of Ferguson’s black residents is not merely the response to the Ferguson verdict: it’s also a response to the historical legacy that laid the foundations for such a verdict. Whatever really happened on the day that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the history of institutional racism, suburban white-flight, and racially based redlining and housing discrimination have, over the decades, culminated to create a modern environment — in both Ferguson and across the country — that designates blacks as outsiders to be feared in a culture that gives special preference to whiteness. Continue reading

Ferguson and the Lingering “Floating Negro” Syndrome in America

Protestoers in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant "Don't Shoot!"To much of white America, they're just some good ole' fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri hold up their hands and chant “Don’t Shoot!” In the eyes of many white Americans, they’re just some good ole’ fashioned dangerous negroes. Photo by Lucas Jackson for Reuters.

In America, nothing is ever about race, except when it’s about race. You see, Americans have this little problem about race and historical perspective: since day-one, we’ve been wrestling over the so obvious-it’s-not-obvious paradox that stems from one of our most cherished documents proclaiming that “All Men are Created Equal” in a society where this has patently not been the case. The fact that the guy who wrote those inspiring words was a slave-owning, black concubine-schtupping product of imperialist era racialized thinking — in addition to being a brilliant statesman and enlightened political theorist — perfectly captures the mind-bending level of irony that stands at the heart of America’s experience when it comes to race. For over 2oo years, Americans have been alternating between grasping the wolf of slavery by the Ears and letting the beast go — and then trying to deal with the entailing racial consequences.

Such is the historical legacy on full display in Ferguson, Missouri in the aftermath of the August 9 shooting of eighteen year-old, unarmed black man Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson. That’s right, it matters that Brown was Black and Wilson is white. I already wrote a probably brilliant post on the Ferguson shooting, but the whole case demands an even more probably brilliant post! If you don’t think that race matters in the Ferguson case, allow me to learn ya’ a thing-or-two about why being a black person in America carries the unfortunate connotation of criminality.

What we’ve seen in Ferguson — the protests, the white police clashing with black residents, the typical claims by right-wing media outlets that “It’s not about Race!” — all invoke a historical legacy planted in American slavery and harvested during Jim Crow that identified the so-called “floating negro” as the prototypical American criminal. But before we discuss the “floating negro” syndrome, let’s briefly remind ourselves why race matters when it comes to broadly discussing crime in America — and the Ferguson case in particular. Consider, as Talking Points Memo reports, how the more scuzzy elements of the right-wing moron-o-sphere have effectively tried to legitimize Brown’s killing by tarring him as an “n-word” “negro,” “thug.”

For example, the website of noted conservative douche-canoe, David Horowitz, notes that Brown liked rap music (a black guy that likes rap music, will the shocking revelations ever cease!), that Brown was shown flashing hand-gestures that “some say are gang-signs,” and that he allegedly swiped some cheap cigars as depicted on a quick-e-mart’s security video. Plus, Brown was black. In a similar vein, the conspiracy nut-factory Worldnet Daily claims that Brown was a pot-smoker who rapped about pot-smoking, and, therefore, deserved to die. Because only black people smoke weed. And Brown was black. And that’s the real point here. Thus, when the New York Times claimed that Brown was “no angel,” that claim ignited some major controversy because the Times seemed to somehow suggest that Brown deserved to be shot dead because he was already a bit of a bad (black) seed.

But the point here isn’t that black people aren’t, and can’t be, criminals. Of course they can, and of course some of them are. No, the point is that, in American culture, blackness is automatically associated with criminality and deviance in a way that has never been the case with whiteness. To be white in America is to be American by default, but to be black in America is to be, by default, a potential criminal. What conservative media outlets — and a good chunk of white America — are harping on is the notion that Brown deserved to die because he was probably a criminal. And he was probably a criminal because he was black. But this isn’t a “natural,” “foregone” conclusion; rather, it’s a conclusion woven out of very potent historical threads that, when knitted together, created a cultural meme that associated blackness with deviance and justified constant white control over supposed black criminality.

In the antebellum South, slavery wasn’t just an economic system, it was also a system of racial control that gave whites total domestic, social, and political power over blacks. But what about when the Civil War ended slavery? How did whites scheme to control blacks then? The answer eventually coalesced under the banner of Jim Crow, a system of white hegemony over black human rights that created a nation-wide racial apartheid that was strongest in the South, where the legacy of slavery especially poisoned black-white social relations.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

Officer Darren Wilson (left) the cop who shot Mike Brown (right). And so, the American racial saga continues.

The most dangerous form of racial control in the Jim Crow South came in the form of lynching: an extra-legal form of law enforcement. And what so-often justified this form of illegal rough justice, you may ask? The answer was pretty straightforward: blacks were criminals who needed to be controlled and punished — especially when the law failed to do just that. Lynching, then, was law-enforcement by mob-rule. This brings us now to the “floating negro” syndrome.

Early twentieth-century muckraking journalist Ray Stannard Baker coined the phrase “floating negro” in his 1905 report “What is Lynching?” Baker wanted to understand how seemingly normal, small-town Americans could be responsible for the horrors of lynching, in which blacks were tortured, hanged, mutilated, and even burned alive. Now, Baker was, in many ways, a progressive-minded social-reformer whose heart was often in the right place. But he was also a man of his time who harboured some of the same (albeit water-down) notions of black inferiority that more avowed racists wore on their sleeves. Thus, while Baker was against lynching, his explanation for why it happened rested on the kind of racially based, “blame the victim” mentality that continues to influence public debate over contemporary cases like the Ferguson shooting.

In particular, Baker identified the “Danger from the Floating Negro” as the primary explanation for why lynchings occurred:

In all the towns I visited, South as well as North, I found that this floating, worthless negro caused most of the trouble. He prowls the roads by day and by night; he steals; he makes it unsafe for women to travel alone. Sometimes he has gone to school long enough to enable him to read a little and to write his name, enough education to make him hate the hard work of the fields and aspire to better things, without giving him the determination to earn them.*

In Baker’s estimation, these violence-prone, poorly educated, sexually lascivious, lazy negroes floated aimlessly across the white American landscape, driven by little more than malice in their hearts toward the caucasian devils who kept them down. No wonder lynchings occurred. According to Baker, rough justice was the natural — if sometimes brutal — white response to a very real danger: the danger that one of these ill-tempered blacks might float into their towns and wreck criminal havoc before moving on to their next sight of debauchery:

He [the floating negro] is often under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites. He has little or no regard for the family relations or home life, and when he commits a crime or is tired of one locality, he sets out un-encumbered to seek new fields, leaving his wife and children without the slightest compunction.*

Now, if you’ve been paying any attention to the media coverage of the Ferguson shooting, you should recognize some of the same themes as noted in Baker’s report. Mike Brown wasn’t lynched in the traditional sense, but he did feel the same brunt of racially motivated justice that fueled both the legal and extra-legal application of the law for much of U.S. history.

The floating negro who is “under the domination of half-educated negro preachers, who sometimes make it their stock in trade to stir their followers to greater hatred of the whites?” Enter the far-right publication the New American, which launched a standard conservative criticism of black preachers like Rev. Al Sharpton, whom it called a “notorious racist agitator” who went to Ferguson “to add his own incendiary remarks to the volatile mix.” A “worthless negro” who “steals” and “prowls the roads by day and by night?” Enter John Lott of the right-wing Daily Caller, who claims that “Michael Brown looks more like a thug, not an innocent victim.” And while Lott acknowledges that, “Black pepole [sic] have legitimate historical grievances over how they have been treated by police,” he ultimately asserts that “the main problem facing the black community is black-on-black crime.”

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the "floating negro" as the cause of white-on-black violence.i

Ray Stannard Baker, the journalist who identified the “floating negro” as the cause of Jim Crow-era white-on-black violence.

It really doesn’t matter if any of the above criticisms of the shooting of Michael Brown stem from any inherent racist attitudes. As sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva notes in his book, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America, white people in America often claim that race, as an issue, should be relegated to the past. “Most whites believe that if blacks and other minorities would just stop thinking about the past, work hard, and complain less (particularly about racial discrimination), then Americans of all hues could ‘all get along,’ he writes”*

But Bonilla-Silva argues that it just ain’t that simple. Many whites have adopted “color-blind racism” that justifies modern racial inequality and absolves them from “any responsibility for the status of people of color.”* Color-blind racism is the kind of “soft racism” that fuels discriminatory housing, school, and employment policies. It also drives political gerrymandering schemes and voter ID laws that disproportionately affect blacks. Indeed, color-blind racism “aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who it subjects and those who it rewards.”*

Color-blind racism is deeply paternalistic, and it’s just this type of paternalistic racism that influenced Baker’s concept of the “floating negro” that still resonates in contemporary American society. Heck, it’s quite easy to imagine a Ferguson police officer bathed in the culture of racial-profiling who perceived Mike Brown and a friend as two up-to-no-good negroes “floating” down a Ferguson street. Officer Darren Wilson need not be a hood-donning racist to be affected by the cultural meme of the dangerous floating negro — he wouldn’t even be unique in that respect.

Yet, even if this wasn’t the case (since the facts are not all in on the Brown shooting), the local and national reaction to the Brown shooting reveals deeply entrenched racial divides that, in many respects, hinge on where different Americans stand on the perceived danger of Ray Stannard Baker’s “floating negro.” As long as whites continue to believe that blackness equates to criminality while refusing to understand how historical trends came together to create the “color-blind racism” that supports such a belief, more blacks will be shot, more whites will deny the existence of racism, and America will continue to alternate between holding the wolf’s ears and letting them go. Either way, we’ll keep getting bitten.

* See Christopher Waldrep, ed., Lynching in America: A History in Documents (New York: New York University Press, 2006), 186.

* See Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), 1, 2, 4.

Ferguson Burning: Race and the Law in America

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of  racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

In this photo from the AP, Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain 18 year-old Michael Brown, drops rose petals at the scene where her son was killed by a police officer. This is only the latest example of racial tensions have always run deep when it comes to the law in America.

To say that the application of the law in America is highly racialized is an understatement. In the eyes of many Americans, blackness is the unofficial color of criminality, and black men have long been stereotyped as a criminal class epitomized today by the image of what sociologist Kelly Welch calls the “young Black male as a violent and menacing street thug” that’s gonna come and kill whitey!! Indeed, the interconnection between race and crime in American culture is so historically ingrained — so culturally potent — that every time white police officers shoot a black man, the resulting fallout threatens to unleash a powder keg of racial anxieties that literally stretch back to the colonial era.

Thus, when it comes to crime and the law, the issue of race exists whether we want it to or not. As Welch notes in her 2007 article, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” “perceptions about the presumed racial identity of criminals may be so ingrained in public consciousness that race does not even need to be specifically mentioned  for a connection to be made between the two because it seems that ‘talking about crime is talking about race.'”*

The ramifications of this fact are currently on full display in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. On Saturday, August 9, a Ferguson police officer shot and killed an unarmed, eighteen year-old black man named Michael Brown. As always in such cases, reports of what actually happened are conflicting. A friend of Brown’s claims that the officer treated Brown belligerently, ordering him to “get the fuck off the sidewalk,” after which an altercation ensued and Brown tried to flee the scene, only to be shot by the officer. By contrast, the police claim that Brown assaulted the cop, and that after a struggle during which Brown tried to take the officer’s gun, he fired on Brown in self-defense.

But whatever happened, the fact that even the police admit that Brown was unarmed has brought long-standing racial tensions to a boiling point in Ferguson, and the resulting anger has resulted in multiple days of neighborhood protests and a rash of rioting and looting of store fronts that have turned Ferguson into a de-facto war zone. Using language that echoes the outrage following the Trayvon Martin verdict — which allowed pudgy, would-be Batman George Zimmerman to walk free — protesters have demanded justice for Brown, whom they believe was racially profiled and killed by white police officers who simply assumed that Brown was a potential criminal. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, maintains that her son was a good-natured individual who had just graduated high school and was preparing to attend local Vatterott College. She and the protesters believe that Brown was killed for the “crime” of being black.

Brown’s killing has sparked national attention, even resulting in the Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which black Americans have been posting dueling, side-by-side “good” and “bad” pictures of themselves to bring attention to the news media’s tendency towards portraying blacks in a criminal or “thuggish” light. Incidents like the Brown killing inspire a rash of strong feelings precisely because they are the product of an American tradition that has historically linked crime to blackness.

Throughout American history, being black quite simply meant that you could be punished more harshly for crime than a white person could. During the colonial era, when the southern American colonies developed into full-blown slaveholding societies from the seventeenth century onward, slaveholders deemed it necessary to sternly punish black slaves to deter individual acts of defiance as well as wholesale slave rebellion. Separate penal codes were enacted for slaves that permitted extracting confessions by torture, and blacks were sentenced to death much more frequently than whites. And colonial slave punishment was brutal: whipping, castration, branding, and amputations were common. The race-conscious makeup of colonial criminal justice set clear patterns for the future racialization of American justice.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

Michael Brown, the victim of a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri.

During the nineteenth century, as slavery spread further west and became the most important bedrock of the southern economic and social system, deviance and criminality became further associated with the threat of rebellious blacks. In his book The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and Law in the American Hemisphere, historian Robert Cottrol notes that, “the racial rational for slavery in a society that otherwise celebrated freedom meant that the barriers between black and white had to be made more rigid, less permeable.”* One of these ways that racial barriers were made “less permeable” was the criminalization of blackness itself.

In the antebellum South, heavily armed, all-white “slave patrols” stalked the countryside in search of potentially wayward and runaway slaves who might disobey the tenant of white supremacy. These were the forerunners of “stand-your-ground law” motivated twenty-first century vigilantes and trigger-happy cops. After the Civil War abolished slavery, southern whites sought to reinstate racial dominance over blacks by associating blackness with deviancy. Whites characterized black males especially as sexually deranged potential criminals who wanted nothing more than to kill white men and rape white women. These charges resulted in thousands of vigilante lynchings in the South and beyond. When millions of African-Americans fled the South in search of better opportunities during the Great Migration, northern prejudice coalesced to concentrate blacks into segregated urban communities that, over the decades, became sights of racial strife and rioting.

One of the worst race riots in American history occurred a mere fourteen miles away from Ferguson, Missouri in an Illinois town that, in one of those eery historical coincidences, is called East St. Louis. Many blacks fleeing the racial intolerance of the Deep South settled in the industrial city of East St. Louis hoping to find work and a better overall life. The city’s white residents resented the influx of black newcomers and, as a result, racial tensions simmered. Those tensions exploded on July 2 and 3, 1917. Following a rumor on July 1 that a black man had killed a white man, the city’s white population went berserk. Rampaging white mobs — which included police officers — looted and torched black homes and businesses. Drive-by shootings, beatings, and arson reigned for nearly a week, and the chaos got so bad the Illinois National Guard was called in to quell the violence. When the riots finally stopped, white rioters had caused three-million dollars in property damage, razed multiple neighborhoods, killed hundreds of black residents, and forced seven thousand more to flee across the Mississippi River into St. Louis.

Historian Charles Lumpkins calls the July 1917 East St. Louis race riot an “American Pogrom,” referencing how Europeans had long targeted Jewish communities for spontaneous acts of violence and property damage. “The East St. Louis pogroms were but one episode in a violent and protracted struggle by various white factions to maintain legalized racism in the South and to reconfigure white supremacy into a form appropriate for the urban industrial North,” Lumpkins writes.*

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

A mob stops a street car during the 1917 East St. Louis race riots.

The situation is obviously different in the case of the Michael Brown killing, but the same tensions and racial demographics that led to the 1917 race riots are still at play in 2014, albeit in forms that reflect how race and the law interact in contemporary American society. The mass-migration of blacks to northern cities helped create the racial tensions that, over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, resulted in multiple violent altercations between whites and blacks. The subsequent rise of the black male as “menacing street thug” stereotype stems from a historical association of blackness with criminality that, when mixed with criminal statistics and race-based cultural perceptions, has combined to create a fuse that police gunshots often ignite.

As Welch writes, “blacks do account for a disproportionate amount of crime arrests and are disproportionately convicted and incarcerated.” But to claim that such statistics are clear evidence of an alleged black proclivity towards crime is a tenuous conclusion that can’t help but be clouded by centuries of historical baggage. Welch notes, for example, that “public estimates of Black criminality surpass the reality,” and that “linking race with criminality” only “fuels the practice of racial profiling by criminal justice officials.”*

We don’t yet know what really happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Obviously, black people — just like people of all shades — commit awful crimes. But if you want to know why there’s such an uproar over the police killing of an unarmed black man, and if you want to know why these incidences seem to happen enough that such uproars are now common, consider the long history that has inextricably wound race and the law together in American life.

* See Kelly Welch, “Black Criminal Stereotypes and Racial Profiling,” Journal of Contemporary Criminal Justice 23 (Aug., 2007): 276, 286.

* See Robert J. Cottroll, The Long, Lingering Shadow: Slavery, Race, and the Law in the American Hemisphere (Athens, University of Georgia Press, 2013), 10.

* See Charles Lumpkins, American Pogrom: The East St. Louis Race Riot and Black Politics (Athens, Ohio University Press, 2008), 1, 8.