“This whole Michael Brown thing,” a local white business owner informed me, “is a case of reverse racism!” The Saint Louis native continued, “Those people over there on the north side kill and shoot each other all the time and nobody says a word. Now that it’s a white cop, it’s suddenly a big deal.” As he brazenly brushed aside the “no free refills” sign at the coffee shop in order to refill the beverage he bought yesterday, he continued without a hint of irony, “And I’m glad they released that video of him stealing, they tried to paint that kid as an angel. He wasn’t no angel. He was a thief!”
Black and/or impoverished people steal. White and/or wealthy folks enjoy customer perks.
“This kid was a criminal,” he maintained, “plain and simple. You can’t expect to steal, assault a store clerk, and then expect to get away with it.”
I asked him why, then, Wynona Rider or Lindsay Lohan do not end up fatally shot when they shoplift or engage in familiar, reckless young adult behavior? Or why police officers did not accost the seven privileged 18 and 19-year-olds who recently broke into NBA all-star Ray Allen’s Tahiti Beach home in Coral Gables?
He responded, “Look, I don’t have all the answers okay.”
But he did have the parameters by which a just inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown should occur. He concluded his lunchtime soliloquy by stating, “Look, those people over there just need to work on their own problems before they blame or ask the police for anything and expect any sympathy.”
Residents of a nearby suburb expressed similar sentiments to a New Republic reporter. Under the condition of anonymity, a group of white residents gathered in a coffee shop chimed in with disputed narratives about the crime, followed by certainties such as “I don’t even know what they’re fighting for.” Another embellished, “The kid wasn’t really innocent … he’s got a rap sheet already, so he’s not that innocent.” In reality, Mike Brown does not have a criminal “rap sheet.” In fact, Mike Brown’s juvenile record is stellar compared to that of white teen idol Justin Bieber. But Brown does have another kind of rap: he is black. African Americans and those living in underserved communities, are expected to somehow pull off the herculean feat of proving themselves fit for justice in the eyes of the wealthy and elite before they can “rightfully” petition for a just investigation.
These local spokespersons resonate with their national religious counterparts.
MSNBC host and activist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, spoke for many when he employed a similar trope during his eulogy for Michael Brown. The Obama administration, according to one former top Obama aide, “sort of helped build him [Sharpton] up” because the White House needed someone “to deal with in the African-American community.” As the anointed one, Sharpton is considered the point person in all things black and B/brown. At the funeral he sharply and rightly criticized national policies but then made a caveat: “What does God require?” he asked rhetorically. “We’ve got to be straight up in our community!” Certain expressions of youth and hip-hop culture and especially “black-on-black crime,” he told the congregation, are seen by many (and perhaps himself) as “justifying” malicious and neglectful policies toward black communities. Since the expression “white-on-white crime” (also an all too common occurrence) does not exist in the everyday lexicon, black communities are stigmatized and pathologized. Justice is then intricately tied to the perceived communal standing of black people. When black neighborhoods (finally) begin the process of internally rectifying all their ailments, the plot lines goes, then black and poor people will prove themselves ready for justice. Sharpton made it plain: “Nobody,” he enlightened mourners, “gone help us if we don’t help ourselves.”
Perhaps Iyanla Vanzant best put this sentiment in motion. The acclaimed spiritual guru, celebrity life coach, and star of her own show “Iyanla: Fix My Life” on the Oprah Network (OWN) has helped countless followers and admirers navigate personal and family crises through her spiritual wisdom. The stated purpose of her special televised visit to Ferguson was to “join the community in finding a path from violence into healing.” Looking into the OWN cameras she stated, “We are heading off to Ferguson, Missouri, hopefully to bring a healing bond to a very hurt and angry outraged community. A community that’s calling for justice.” After praying, singing a Negro spiritual, and making a water offering to pay homage to Michael Brown, she talked with locals, and then sat down with Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson and Brown’s great uncle, the Rev. Charles Ewing. After Ewing expressed his emotions and fears, Vanzant asked the chief several apropos questions about the investigation—How did this shooting happen on his watch? Why was there no police report made immediately? Why the tear gas, etc. Seeing the chief flummoxed, however, she relented and asked what he needed in order to conduct a thorough investigation. “Fourteen days of peace,” he responded. Vanzant asked Ewing on camera if he could agree to such terms. He did. The peaceful protests were actually the result of an incompetent investigation shrouded in secrecy and nondisclosure (the lack of an officer statement, no immediate police report, etc.). However, for Vanzant and her crew, black protest was the cause of the slack legal proceedings. Stopping the protest would be a show of good faith by African Americans, and the condition by which justice and transparency would flow freely.
My respective encounters with these echoing critiques left me with one question: Why must black people and black communities always prove themselves worthy of receiving justice?
Local and national discussions in the aftermath of Brown (as before the shooting) continually link just proceedings in the case to black performances of respectability and decorum. Justice is held up as a gift bestowed upon “model” minorities and their communities. Equal treatment under the law is not deemed a right. It’s a prize.
As my coffee shop lecturer kindly told me, “See, look at you,” he said, dressed in his shorts, t-shirt, and sandals. “Look at how you dress. You aren’t scary and intimidating like those folks over there on the north side.” My necktie won me the prize of his gracious presence, comments, and the benefit of presumed innocence and worth. Glad I wore a tie on my day off.
This local and national mood, and the religious language that complements it, is deeply flawed. Spiritual guidance that calls for racial minorities to prove their individual and collective abilities and respectabilities before they can expect justice or seek the accountability of their elected officials is paralyzing. Moreover, as Howard Thurman wrote in The Luminous Darkness in 1965, it further entrenches the ideology that the wealthier classes and those in power are the rightful and “sole judges of who should and who should not be granted the rights and the responsibilities of citizenship.” Everyday people are rendered as idle patients of democracy or undeserving beggars waiting on the diagnosis and alms of elites. Once black communities get in line, “black leaders” can then bargain for equality on their behalf.
When a local or national religious professional and/or celebrity cleric unintentionally espouses such “politically debilitating” spirituality, as Jeff Stout points out in his book Blessed Are the Organized, that minister can be said to be negligent at best. If the spiritual guru is intentional in such effects, “something harsher should be said.”
One thing can certainly be said now: Part of the work of doing justice and pursuing equal treatment under the law in the aftermath of the Brown shooting is to eschew all rhetoric, monologues, dialogues, and reasoning that unwittingly or purposely supports ideas of black pathology (black-on-black crime) or places black and/or poor communities in the position of proving that they are worthy of due process and the resources of justice American law provides all its citizens.
This kind of freedom language may not be abundant in the chatter of coffee shops across the region and nation or in the pronouncements of national media, celebrity ministers, and life coaches. However, I have heard it echoed countless times during peaceful marches, in local faith communities like Christ the King, Washington Missionary Baptist Church, and Eden Theological Seminary, as well as in the meetings of local groups, such as the Organization of Black Struggle and the Metropolitan Congregations United and their partners, and in many classrooms at Washington University in St. Louis. The call is the same: Just investigations are guaranteed under our constitution for all U.S. citizens regardless of race and class. It is not a gift. It is a right.
Without this shift pervading both our local and national conversations, we will have missed one fundamental lesson of “this whole Michael Brown thing.”
Lerone A. Martin is Assistant Professor of Religion and Politics at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis.