Skip to main content

American justice different for black men

By Matthew C. Whitaker
updated 8:53 AM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests. Protesters march in Ferguson, Missouri, on Thursday, August 21. The St. Louis suburb has been in turmoil since a white police officer, Darren Wilson, fatally shot an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, on August 9. Some protesters and law enforcement officers have clashed in the streets, leading to injuries and arrests.
HIDE CAPTION
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
Emotions run high in Ferguson, Missouri
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
56
57
58
59
60
61
62
63
64
65
66
67
68
69
70
71
72
73
74
75
76
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matthew C. Whitaker: Michael Brown's death by police carries troubling echoes for black men
  • Black men in America unjustly seen as violent and threatening, Whitaker says
  • He says police's release of robbery video meant to justify anxieties of white males
  • He cites Langston Hughes poem: "What happens to a dream deferred? ... Does it explode?"

Editor's note: Matthew C. Whitaker is an ASU Foundation professor of history and founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at Arizona State University. He is the author of "Peace Be Still: Modern Black America From World War II to Barack Obama." He is also the owner and CEO of the Whitaker Group LLC, a consulting firm. He can be followed on Twitter at @Dr_Whitaker. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- An autopsy report has revealed that Michael Brown was shot six times. It's among the few bits of concrete information released to the public, another being the name of the officer, Darren Wilson, who shot dead an unarmed and (by some accounts) surrendering Brown on August 9 on the street in Ferguson, Missouri.

Police have argued that their silence has been to protect Wilson from retaliatory acts of violence. After all, as possible 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson argued on Bill O'Reilly's Fox show, "Police are individuals, too. They have feelings also." They do, but Brown died without due process and is lifeless in a Ferguson morgue.

Matthew C. Whitaker
Matthew C. Whitaker

Even if Brown were guilty of stealing Swisher Sweets cigars a short time before his encounter with Wilson, as some have alleged, there is no death penalty in the United States for such an offense. But a young black man is dead.

We don't know all the details of what happened on that street in Ferguson. But for black men in America, the incident carries familiar, troubling echoes.

Black men occupy and distress the psyches of many white Americans, the way Tom Robinson in Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" unsettled the white folks of Maycomb, Alabama. Justice, for black men, often seems whatever officers deem it to be. We remain, as the writer and activist Pauli Murray put it, "the pervasive irritant, the chronic allergy, the vague apprehension which (makes) one uncomfortable and jumpy."

Who started violence in Ferguson?
Video shows moments after shooting
Raising black boys
Spike Lee: There's a war on black males

Even as we serve as the cornerstone of American "cool," we continue to be seen by many as aberrant, inferior, threatening, hyper-sexed, and ├╝ber-violent guests in this experiment in democracy -- still only "in" America and not "of" America, as the great W.E.B. Du Bois wrote more than a century ago

Regardless of what he may or may not have done, Michael Brown's very presence on that Ferguson street would be seen by too many white men as threatening. In what has become a customary occurrence in America, Brown's fate was sealed by being and breathing as a nonwhite man at the wrong place and at the wrong time.

According to a recent FBI report, white police officers in America killed a black person, 18% of whom were under 21, nearly twice a week between 2005 and 2012 -- more than twice the rate of such killings of white youth of the same age. The criminalization, incarceration and slaying of black people, in this so-called post-racial America, remain endemic.

Magazine: The aftermath in Ferguson

Unfortunately, many law enforcement professionals and police departments, but not all of them, seem to care more about safeguarding themselves and their authority than understanding this dynamic and protecting and serving accordingly.

It comes as no surprise then that Ferguson police want to paint a different picture of the circumstances surrounding Brown's death. But as one protester's sign put it, "Ferguson police need better scriptwriters." Their release of Wilson's name Friday was viewed by many not as an act of transparency, but of placation -- and instigation: While naming Wilson, police conveniently released surveillance footage of a man, alleged to be Brown, involved in a strong-armed robbery at a local minimart.

The indirect message here was that Wilson could not be another cop with a jaundiced view of black males and an itchy trigger finger; he was a dutiful white male compelled to use deadly force in the face of a menace. This new narrative is one we've seen over and over through history old and recent: A black man, like Brown, is depicted in the foulest of ways to paper over institutional missteps and white male anxieties, and to grant absolution for the imperfections of both.

As historian and writer Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, "The parameters of this story have already spread far beyond what happened between Brown and Wilson that afternoon." Is this what concerns the police in Ferguson and beyond; that there are many who would tether this tragedy to broader issues of socioeconomic isolation, criminalization of people of color and others on the margins? That Brown's shooting would expose again the entrenched, systematic authoritarianism in a society that is more diverse than it ever has been, but still vulnerable to stereotypes and intolerance?

The delicate peace that had been achieved in Ferguson on Thursday and Friday has been erased by looting, a declaration of a state of emergency and curfew by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. One hopes that more unrest will not follow as more details of Brown's death emerge.

"What happens to a dream deferred?" asked the great Langston Hughes. "Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore -- And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over -- like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?"

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:11 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
updated 1:28 PM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
updated 6:10 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
updated 5:33 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT