Ferguson fallout: Black Americans grapple with victim blaming

Experts and activists say criminalizing excessive-force victims blocks debate on real social and economic reforms

A demonstrator before police officers move in to arrest him in Ferguson, Missouri, on Aug. 19, 2014.
Joe Raedle / Getty Images

When police in Ferguson, Missouri, released a video showing Michael Brown allegedly robbing a store and shoving around a clerk shortly before the unarmed teen was shot dead in a seemingly unrelated confrontation with an officer, many accused the department of engaging in deliberate character assassination — a tactic that some rights advocates say is commonly used against African-American victims of excessive force in an attempt to shift blame from perpetrators to victims.

Hassane A. Muhammad, chief operating officer for Black Lawyers for Justice, called the decision to go public with the footage an act of “visual provocation” that played into old stereotypes of black men as violent.

“It’s a common playbook used by police to criminalize black victims of excessive force,” said Muhammad, whose group has been active in the local protests that erupted — and at times turned violent — after the killing of 18-year-old Brown on Aug. 9 by police officer Darren Wilson. 

“Instead of giving us an ounce of justice, they would rather send in troops and spend taxpayer money to defend one white man,” Muhammad said. “It shows you how much value they place on his life versus Brown.”

Rights advocates say such character assassination operates on a broad level, through public discourse that lends credence to the victim-blaming theory of poverty or in the idea that lower-income communities are responsible for their conditions because of poor decision-making.

What connects the Brown shooting with cases such as that of Trayvon Martin — an unarmed black teen shot dead by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman in Florida in 2012 — is that both shooters perceived a risk, said Yohuru Williams, a professor of history at Fairfield University

The kid stole a box of cigars. When did we start executing people for shoplifting?

Yohuru Williams

professor of history at Fairfield University

Williams added that as a society we have to ask ourselves, “Why is that risk being imposed on young people?”

Many stereotypes of black men stem from an “underclass mythology,” said Cedric Johnson, a professor of African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“We promote an underclass mythology defined by false beliefs that the poor don’t want to work, don’t value education, don’t share the same values as we do,” he said. “So black lives are devalued by both the economy and within our popular discourse, which says they have no stake and don’t deserve support.”

Character assasination

Michael B. Thomas / AFP / Getty Images

The police handling of Brown’s case is an example of how stereotypes and victim-blaming manifest in officialdom, said Marc H. Morial, president of the National Urban League, a nonpartisan civil rights group that advocates on behalf of African-Americans.

“Ferguson police withheld naming the officer until such time as they could develop a counternarrative — that he was involved in a shoving match that they defined as robbery,” Morial said.

Police released Wilson’s name along with the security-camera video six days after Brown’s death. That delay served only to further inflame emotions in the fractured community.

Morial said this was an official act “effecting support for the idea that this young man got what he deserved.”

And that strategy may have worked, said Williams. “Ferguson police were successful in shifting the discourse from an unarmed teen to a strong-arm thug killed by police,” he said. “The kid stole a box of cigars. When did we start executing people for shoplifting?”

Similarly, in Martin’s case, news reports of his death were followed by the immediate release of photographs of a “young kid mugging for the camera,” Williams said. Some photos showed Martin apparently displaying gang signs.

“Those images were used as prima facie evidence that Martin was a criminal. Time and time again in tragedies like this, they try to conjure up images of the black boogeyman,” Williams said. “It goes back to the period of Reconstruction, when African-American men were portrayed as bestial and dangerous.”

Promoting such myths sidesteps systemic problems that hinder social and economic advancement for lower-income people in the black community, said Nick J. Mosby, a Baltimore city councilman who has been involved in a number of community outreach programs.

“I don’t think you can discuss these problems without taking into account other variables and systemic circumstances that burden our communities, from poverty to the disproportionate amount of policing and prosecution of African-American males,” he said.

Mosby believes that the criminal justice system represents the greatest obstacle to black progress. “It’s a huge barrier for employment,” he said. “It becomes an instant scarlet letter.”

‘Instead of giving us an ounce of justice, they would rather send in troops and spend taxpayer money to defend one white man.’

Hassane A. Muhammad

COO, Black Lawyers for Justice

Mosby helped sponsor Baltimore’s “ban the box” bill, which the city passed in May, banning a criminal-history check box on some job applications. The law also prevents job interviewers from inquiring about an prospective employee’s criminal background.

“The law will provide African-American males with access to jobs and opportunities,” he said. “The ability to compete fairly in the employment field is the No. 1 equalizer as it relates to systemic inequalities at play.”

Studies have pointed to structural factors that could bear on the racial mobility gap. African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate that white people are, according to the NAACP.

Although five times as many white Americans are using drugs as African-Americans, black people in the U.S. are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites, the NAACP says.

The organization also says African-Americans serve virtually as much time in prison for a drug offense as whites do for a violent offense.

“To blame the victim after you’ve set up a whole system around criminalizing them and then to turn around and say, ‘Well, you aren’t productive citizens’ — how can they be productive when more money is spent on building prisons and incarcerating blacks than on schools?” said Muhammad.


Murray Fortner, chair of the psychology and sociology department at Tarrant County College in Texas, partly blames the entertainment industry for promulgating violent stereotypes of black youth by marketing the gangster image.

Referring to this phenomena as “thuganomics,” he said an entire industry profits from the image of the “menacing street thug.”

“Thuganomics doesn’t just affect the perceptions of black youth, who internalize these images and ideas, but it also influences beliefs held by police officers, teachers, judges and teachers,” said Fortner, author of “White Collars, Black Necks: How Middle Class African Americans Successfully Failed the Children.”

He partly faults wealthier members of the black community for not being more involved in lower-income projects.

“Movements today are defined by their limited shelf life. We have these sporadic moments where we react, as opposed to movements where we have action,” Fortner said. “People galvanize around these shootings, and in a couple of months they disappear until there’s a new shooting.”

What is needed, he said, is the involvement of black churches and black celebrities to counter a pop culture that targets young African-American males.

‘The rhetoric of personal responsibility isn’t a public policy response to social ills.’

Marc H. Morial

president, National Urban League

Morial said the political right pushes the victim-blaming narrative in an “orchestrated effort.”

“The echo chamber from the right talks about family values, personal responsibility, lack of fathers in the home, as though that’s the cause of all social and economic ills,” he said. “People who are not part of the community need to understand that we are indeed encouraging the ethics of personal responsibility. That conversation is being had in our churches and homes.”

“The rhetoric of personal responsibility isn’t a public policy response to social ills,” he added. “It is, however, an effort to shift the need to develop a public policy solution to just blaming the victim.” 

Respectability politics

Zachary Norris, executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, said the victim-blaming narrative has in recent years become couched in language that employs the “politics of respectability.”

The term refers to a philosophy that emerged decades ago, promulgated by black elites to “uplift the race” by correcting the “bad” traits of the black poor, according to Fredrick C. Harris, director of the Center on African American Politics and Society at Columbia University.

Recently in Dissent magazine, Harris argued that this thinking has evolved into one of the hallmarks of black politics in the age of President Barack Obama. “Respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy, to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of black poor and working class,” Harris wrote.

The re-emergence of respectability politics is partly due to a misguided belief that we live in a postracial society, Williams said. “People bought into the notion we have triumphed over race, and therefore any discourse at present is about how hard people are willing to work, as opposed to examining deeper issues of structural inequality.”

Ultimately, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in The Atlantic this week, the politics of respectability are rooted in “the politics of changing the subject.”

“It is a message that makes all our uncomfortable truths tolerable,” he wrote. “Only if black people are somehow undeserving can a just society tolerate a yawning wealth gap, a two-tiered job market and persistent housing discrimination.”

Muhammad said she acknowledges that the black community has its share of problems to sort out. “We spent over 400 years treated like cattle. Of course we have issues in our community, and it’s going to take time to work through them.”

“The fact that our children are born with a target on their head doesn’t help,” she said. “Michael was stopped for jaywalking. And now he is dead.”

Tune in to Al Jazeera America for the latest developments in Flashpoint: Ferguson. Find Al Jazeera America on your TV lineup here

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