On the front page of the New York Times today, you’ll see two profiles that serve as a case study in the way that we talk about race in this country. They are of Michael Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot to death in early August, and Darren Wilson, the officer who did the shooting.
Very little information about Wilson has been made public, other than his status as a divorced man with a high standing in the police department. The Times profile does little to elucidate who Wilson is as a person, other than some family trouble after his mother was convicted of theft and forgery and an ice hockey coach who called Wilson “a good kid by a nondescript kid.” It does not mention Wilson’s taste in music or whether, on occasion, he knocked back a beer with some pals.
On Brown, however, the Times takes a different tack. It opens with a phone call Brown made to his parents purporting to have a religious experience, including a vision of a heavenly messenger. “Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life,” reporter John Eligon continued.
“Both problems and promise” is something that every young life contains, indeed, every life full stop. But the focus on the rough patches in Brown’s biography is telling. The article talks about Brown allegedly stealing a box of cigars on camera, of his dabbling in alcohol and marijuana. “He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by terms contemptuous and vulgar,” Eligon wrote. “He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.”
In sum, Michael Brown was a human teenager. His rap sheet reads like the kind of petty, semi-offenses that many adolescents make in those painful growing up years, not as evidence of anything more. If Justin Bieber was judged as harshly as Michael Brown has been, he would be on death row and not raking in millions of dollars and posing shirtless on Instagram. Brown’s list of supposed offenses is being used as fodder by conservative pundits to indicate that he was in the wrong here, that somehow being shot six times was justified because he has, in the past, done some light shoplifting and smoked a little reefer.
It is an old tired game, this pin-the-blame-on-the-victim. This loose, presumptive language holds in it the kernel of racial profiling: The assumption that black men are up to no good, and that they somehow deserve any ill that befalls them. But Brown’s “rough patches” don’t sound like anything thousands of his white peers hadn’t also experienced. How many of us could escape that level of moral scrutiny? What about the countless white celebrities lionized for similar transgressions? How can we come to terms with the idea that the punishment for these tiny infractions is hundreds of times harsher for a young black man than a young white person?
“No angel” is the term that has stuck in people’s craw, because it negates the point that that protestors are trying to make, over and over. It is not that Brown was a perfect being. It is that he was a person. It is that his race should not make him any less a person, and that too often, in the eyes of the law and the media, it does. It is that a person died violently, and we still don’t understand why.
Follow Margaret Eby on Twitter @margareteby.