The only way to think of Michael Brown’s death as a tragedy is to studiously ignore the tragedy of the American present and the American past.
The killing of a young black man in a small city in middle America rarely makes national headlines, and I suspect that the only reason we know Michael Brown’s name is because of social media and the loud protests following his shooting. But it is a tragic fact that young black men in this nation are routinely detained by police at the slightest pretext (or no pretext at all), far more likely to be killed by police, and even more likely to be incarcerated in our massive prison system that is mostly populated by non-Caucasians. These facts represent but a few symptoms of our peculiar culture, where every problem foreign or domestic is almost always addressed though coercion and violence. Witness a near constant state of warfare lasting six decades, a bizarre idolatry of firearms that costs 30,000 lives a year, and an increasingly aggressive style of highly militarized law enforcement that when given a choice between the safety of officers and the safety of the public they are supposed to protect and serve almost always chooses the former. Needless to say, it is predominantly communities of color that bear the brunt of this more bellicose policing. Add to all this the effects of the social violence generated by persistently segregated communities, schools, and opportunities, and witness a body politic torn asunder. We can see these effects most acutely in the very city that surrounds us, which was turned over to a racial minority historically barred from political power to govern in the midst of its era of economic decline. Anyone aware of this country’s long, tragic history of race relations—the genocide of whole peoples, the coerced “immigration” of slaves, a civil war fought over slavery, the terror of the Klan, Jim Crow, etc.—cannot possibly be surprised at the cheapness of non-Caucasian lives and livelihoods on our streets and in our cities. In an age of a superfluity of information, ignorance is no excuse. In fact, it is unforgivable.
But all of these tragedies are compounded a thousand fold by the persistent denial of racism’s persistence, and racism persists because we hide it out of sight both geographically and psychologically. Historically, the term “ghetto” denoted the place where a society’s majority consigned those arbitrarily prejudged to be inferior, undesirable, unwanted, inconvenient. So segregated from our modern ghettos of inner cities, rural cell blocks, and distant reservations, the majority far more easily forgets the burden that race places on some while remaining blithely unaware of the ways in which their own race privileges them. For example, I’m a white man who lives in a majority black city, but despite my minority status I’m far less likely to be subject to state violence or coercion—the statistics prove it. The different hues of different skins plays favorites, colors lives, and shapes destinies.
Of course on the long perspective race relations in this country have improved, but no one can deny that racism still exists. Congratulate yourselves on electing a black man as president, but never forget the hysterical vitriol he has faced as a consequence of his race. Praise your generation for being far more tolerant than my own, but recall that we still live in a nation where football fans privilege the plainly racist mascot of their team over the sensibilities of the peoples practically extinguished by our ancestors. Treasure your friends of color, but ask yourself perhaps the most pertinent question on this topic: why don’t they live near you, or you near them? And always bear in mind the sobering thought that in the world they live in they could well be the next Michael Brown.