It remains unclear why Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson thought it was appropriate to fire six shots into Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old who was, by most accounts, fleeing from the officer. Wilson has not been arrested or charged for any crime.
What is clear, however, is that on the day of Brown’s funeral The New York Times saw fit to print an article proclaiming that he was “no angel.” He was a handful as a kid, had trouble in school, “dabbled with drugs and alcohol” and “had taken to rapping” lyrics that were occasionally “vulgar,” it said.
This disgraceful smear comes a week after the Ferguson Police Department released a video of Brown allegedly stealing cigarillos — which, by the police chief’s admission, was completely unrelated to Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer. As with Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012, Brown is being demeaned in the press before his killer has even been called to account for his actions.
Martin and Brown’s tragically short lives are being dissected in search of character details that would somehow either justify their fates or grant them posthumous respectability in the court of public opinion. Articles like these that focus myopically on individual character obscure our nation’s long history of sanctioned state violence against African-Americans. These conversations awkwardly try to make sense of unnecessary killings by leaning on tired tropes.
Consider the repeated appeal to culture to explain persistent inequality and violence. We are asked to believe that the major impediments to livelihood and opportunity for black youth are sagging pants and use of the N-word, as Don Lemon fervently stated in a segment on CNN last year. These arguments let government and business leaders off of the hook for generations of carefully planned economic exclusion and exploitation, such as red-lining, discriminatory school funding formulas and a drug war that has torn black communities apart. At the same time that dozens of states across the nation have decriminalized the use of marijuana, the Times suggests that Brown’s and Martin’s alleged marijuana use were contributing factors to their killings — an argument that, in all its insidious fear-mongering, contradicts nearly all published research on marijuana. By continuing to place blame on unarmed teenagers for their shootings at the hands of officers of the law, we dismiss the greater responsibility that sits squarely on this nation’s shoulders.
These tropes serve to separate and exempt black children from the universally shared human experience of growing up. The basics of young adulthood — independence, rebellion against authority, making hundreds of little mistakes and learning from them — are denied black teens because their behavior is held up as evidence to support outdated ideas of criminality and public safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us (PDF) that black youths are just as likely as white youths to carry a weapon and use marijuana and are less likely than white youths ever to have used cocaine or hallucinogenic drugs. Yet black youths are nearly five times as likely to be incarcerated as white youths and are too often charged as adults. If we really believe that the best way to deal with crime is to lock kids up, why aren’t we seeing more white youths locked up? America targets black youths for incarceration and questions their character after being shot while unarmed because it is unwilling to grant them the same humanity that it does to other citizens.
In her majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama, which ruled mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles unconstitutional, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the “hallmark features” of teen life were “immaturity, impetuosity and failure to appreciate risks and consequences.” She wisely recognized that the growing teenage brain has not gained the full capacities of an adult’s and that a life sentence without parole doesn’t account for that fact. This should ring true for anyone who has survived his or her own teenage years. I can’t keep track of the number of stories I’ve heard from my white colleagues who recount the dumb things they did when they were younger. Just read the papers. Even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s daughter, Caroline Giuliani, was busted after shoplifting at Sephora. She was ostensibly free to continue her studies at Harvard after serving her one-day sentence of community service.
Caroline Giuliani and others like her receive preferential treatment from a justice system that is invested in their teachable moments. She will likely have the opportunity at some point in the future to sit with her friends at lunch or over a drink and laugh at herself. Maybe she will tell them the story about how she stole things from a cosmetics store. Her friends won’t think of her as a criminal who got away. They might share stories of their teenage misadventures and the light punishments they received, if any. Driving drunk. Smoking weed. “I was a knucklehead,” she might exclaim.
It is precisely this kind of lived experience that is denied young people of color like Brown, Martin and countless others. If the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means anything, it must include the opportunity to develop as a young person and grow from formative experiences with the confidence that when one does get into trouble, one is treated as a human being whose life matters. Most important, it must include the chance to live to tell the tale.