It is, we are told, irrelevant that Michael Brown was headed to college.
The 18-year-old was killed this month by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, and although details about his life — repeated by those outraged over his shooting death — are supposed to humanize him, pundits have argued that you shouldn’t have to validate Brown’s personhood to assert that shooting an unarmed teenager (who was trying to surrender) is wrong. “It doesn’t matter that Michael Brown was starting college on Monday. And it doesn’t matter if he was involved in a robbery on Saturday. What matters is the precise circumstances in which Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown,” wrote Ezra Klein in Vox.
A couple of weeks ago, I agreed. Ferguson police had just released grainy stills from a video purportedly showing Brown committing a strong-arm robbery minutes before his death. It was proof, Police Chief Tom Jackson implied, that Brown was not one of the Good Ones (an average kid angling for greatness), but one of the Bad Ones (a thug who roughs up shopkeepers and makes off with their cigarillos). The defamation machine is so predictable: Trayvon Martin defiantly smoked weed. Eric Garner openly flouted the rules by selling untaxed cigarettes. Renisha McBride drove intoxicated, displaying utter disregard for human life. These are the weapons of choice for hysterical gun rights advocates and conservative racism skeptics, so it’s understandable why, to hobble these arguments, Brown’s supporters would say his college plans were irrelevant.
But this is a capitulation — and a meaningful one. It risks dehumanizing Brown further. Yes, cherry-picked details of his life may not matter for the inquest into his shooting. But that doesn’t make his character irrelevant. His character definitely matters.
It matters to the black people who are still alive, those of us who have to continue to muster the resolve to participate in and contribute to a country in which Brown was shot and left to languish, uncovered, for hours on the pavement.
It matters to Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, whose grief and indignation over her son’s death are compounded by the bewilderment and helplessness of knowing that she did what she was supposed to do as a parent — she kept him on track to college — but still had to identify his bullet-riddled body.
By extension, Brown’s character matters to all parents of black children, now reminded that the effort they put into conscientious parenting could be of no consequence because some jackbooted deputy might shoot them dead in the street without cause or restraint.
It can only reinforce the idea that black people have no power over their own lives.
In this way, racism is a lot like terrorism. Acts of terrorism committed against a few members of a society can still affect the broad majority by making them bear the psychic burden of knowing that their essential personhood is a subject of debate. Likewise, although most black men and women won’t experience racism in the incredibly violent way that Brown, Martin, Garner and McBride did, those deaths extract a large mental toll: Even if you aspire to greatness, you can die on any given Saturday.
The black community is fond of the idea of the Good Ones, not because it’s logical or reasonable, but because it gives people agency. It allows black people to believe the notion that effort breeds success — that, through preparation, diligence and sacrifice, we can build lives that can’t be taken away on a whim. It allows black parents to operate under the delusion afforded to all parents that keeping their children safe and ensuring their success is entirely within their sphere of control. It allows resilience in the face of indignity.
Yes, in the passionate debate around Brown’s shooting, casting him in glowing terms — college-bound, funny, gentle — risks eliciting ad hominem attacks against him and promulgating the idea that black people have to do a certain thing or be a certain way to earn their right to live. But talking around Brown’s character further dilutes his basic rights and validates the underlying premise of a terroristic act. It suggests that speaking kindly of a dead child is more trouble than it’s worth. It requires accepting that not much has changed for black parents since they were conceiving kids during slavery, when they couldn’t even expect their children to be treated as if they belong to someone.
Disregarding Brown’s character can only reinforce the idea that black people have no power over their lives. If it doesn’t matter that Brown was going to college, nothing else he did — nothing any black person does — has meaning. It means we live in a world where black people don’t live, we just wait to die.