By Michael Eric Dyson
Nov. 29, 2014
WASHINGTON — WHEN Ferguson flared up this week after a grand jury failed to indict the white police officer Darren Wilson for killing the unarmed black youth Michael Brown, two realities were illuminated: Black and white people rarely view race in the same way or agree about how to resolve racial conflicts, and black people have furious moral debates among ourselves out of white earshot.
These colliding worlds of racial perception are why many Americans view the world so differently, and why recent comments by President Obama and the former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani cut to the quick of black identity in America.
From the start, most African-Americans were convinced that Michael Brown’s death wouldn’t be fairly considered by Ferguson’s criminal justice system. There were doubts that the prosecution and defense were really on different teams. The prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, looked as if he were coaching an intramural scrimmage with the goal of keeping Officer Wilson from being tackled by indictment.
The trove of documents released after the grand jury’s decision included Officer Wilson’s four-hour testimony, in which the 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound cop said that his encounter with the 6-foot-4-inch, 292-pound teenager left him feeling like “a 5-year-old holding on to Hulk Hogan.” He used the impersonal pronoun “it” when he said that Michael Brown looked like a “demon” rushing him. To the police officer and to many whites, Michael Brown was the black menace writ large, the terrorizing phantom that stalks the white imagination.
These clashing perceptions underscore the physics of race, in which an observer effect operates: The instrument through which one perceives race — one’s culture, one’s experiences, one’s fears and fantasies — alters in crucial ways what it measures.
The novelist Ann Petry vividly captured this observer effect in her 1946 novel “The Street,” in which the African-American protagonist, Lutie Johnson, remarks that racial perceptions of blacks “depended on where you sat.” She explains that if “you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like,” because “the Negro was never an individual” but “a threat, or an animal, or a curse.”
After a black man is killed in a failed robbery, she notes that a reporter “saw a dead Negro who had attempted to hold up a store, and so he couldn’t really see what the man lying on the sidewalk looked like.” Instead, he saw “the picture he already had in his mind: a huge, brawny, blustering, ignorant, criminally disposed black man.”
Our American culture’s fearful dehumanizing of black men materialized once again when Officer Wilson saw Michael Brown as a demonic force who had to be vanquished in a hail of bullets.
IT is nearly impossible to convey the fear that strikes at the heart of black Americans every time a cop car pulls up. When I was 17, my brother and I and a childhood friend were pulled over by four Detroit cops in an unmarked police vehicle. This was in the mid-70s, in the shadow of the infamous Detroit Police Department task force called Stress (Stop the Robberies, Enjoy Safe Streets), which was initiated after the 1967 riots. The unit lived up to its name and routinely targeted black people.
As we assumed the position against the car, I announced to one of the plainclothes officers that I was reaching into my back pocket to fish the car’s registration from my wallet. He brought the butt of his gun sharply across my back and knocked me to the ground, promising, with a racial epithet, that he’d put a bullet through my head if I moved again. When I rose to my feet, cowering, showing complete deference, the officer permitted me to show the car’s registration. When the cops ran the tags, they concluded what we already knew: The car wasn’t stolen and we weren’t thieves. They sent us on without a hint of an apology.
My recent dust-up with Mr. Giuliani on national television tapped a deep vein of racially charged perception. In a discussion on “Meet the Press” of Ferguson and its racial fallout, Mr. Giuliani steered the conversation down the path of a conservative shibboleth: that the real problem facing black communities is not brutality at the hands of white cops but brutality in the grips of black thugs. He cited the fact that 93 percent of black homicide victims are killed by black people; I argued that these murderers often go to jail, unlike the white cops who kill blacks with the backing of the government. What I didn’t have time to say was that 84 percent of white homicide victims are killed by white people, and yet no language of condemnation exists to frame a white-on-white malady that begs relief by violent policing.
This doesn’t mean that black people aren’t weary of death ravaging our communities. I witnessed it personally as I sat in a Detroit courtroom 25 years ago during the trial of my brother Everett for second-degree murder, and though I believe to this day that he is innocent, I watched him convicted by an all-black jury and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.
Many whites who point to blacks killing blacks are moved less by concern for black communities than by a desire to fend off criticism of unjust white cops. They have the earnest belief that they are offering new ideas to black folk about the peril we foment in our own neighborhoods. This idea has also found a champion in Bill Cosby, who for the past decade has levied moral charges against the black poor with an ugly intensity endorsed by white critics as tough love and accepted by most black journalists as homegrown conservatism.
But Mr. Cosby’s put-downs are more pernicious than that. How could one ever defend his misogynistic indictment of black women’s lax morals and poor parenting skills? “Five, six children, same woman, eight, 10 different husbands or whatever,” he liked to recite. “Pretty soon you’re going to have to have DNA cards so you can tell who you’re making love to. You don’t know who this is; might be your grandmother.”
Journalistic mea culpas are now accompanying Mr. Cosby’s Shakespearean fall from grace. He has been recast as a leering king who is more sinner than sinned against as the allegations of drugging and raping women pile up. But these writers avoid mentioning the sexist blinders that kept them from seeing how hateful Mr. Cosby was toward black women long before he was accused of abusing mostly white women.
Bill Cosby didn’t invent the politics of respectability — the belief that good behavior and stern chiding will cure black ills and uplift black people and convince white people that we’re human and worthy of respect. But he certainly gave it a vernacular swagger that has since been polished by Barack Obama. The president has lectured black folk about our moral shortcomings before cheering audiences at college commencements and civil rights conventions. And yet his themes are shopworn and mix the innocuous and the insidious: pull your pants up, stop making racial excuses for failure, stop complaining about racism, turn off the television and the video games and study, don’t feed your kids fried chicken for breakfast, be a good father.
As big a fan as he is of respectability politics, Mr. Obama is the most eloquent reminder that they don’t work, that no matter how smart, sophisticated or upstanding one is, and no matter how much chastising black people pleases white ears, the suspicions about black identity persist. Despite his accomplishments and charisma, he is for millions the unalterable “other” of national life, the opposite of what they mean when they think of America.
Barack Obama, like Michael Brown, is changed before our eyes into a monstrous thing that lacks humanity: a monkey, a cipher, a black hole that kills light. One might expect the ultimate target of this black otherness to have sympathy for its lesser targets, who also have lesser standing and lesser protection, like the people in Ferguson, in Ohio, in New York, in Florida, and all around the country, who can’t keep their unarmed children from being cut down in the street by callous cops who leave their bodies to stiffen into rigor mortis in the presence of horrified onlookers.
President Obama’s clinical approach to race was cemented after the 2009 Henry Louis Gates Jr. incident — in which the Harvard professor and the white police officer who arrested him for breaking into his own house were invited to the White House to commune over a beer — convinced him that he should talk race only when his hand was forced.
He has employed a twin strategy: the “heroic explicit,” in which he deliberately and clearly assails black moral failure and poor cultural habits, and the “noble implicit,” in which he avoids linking whites to social distress or pathology and speaks in the broadest terms possible, in grammar both tentative and tortured, about the problems we all confront. It’s an effort that hinges on false equivalencies between black and white and the mistaken identification of effect for cause.
MR. OBAMA spoke twice in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision. He spoke Monday night about America as a nation of laws and said that we must respect the jury’s conclusion, even if we don’t agree with it, and make progress by working together — not by throwing bottles, smashing car windows or using anger as an excuse to vandalize property or hurt anyone.
On Tuesday, the president doubled down on his indictment of “criminal acts” and declared, “I do not have any sympathy” for those who destroy “your own communities.” While he avoided saying so, it was clear that his remarks were directed at the black people who looted and rioted in Ferguson. But their criminal activity is the effect of going unrecognized by the state for decades, a crime in itself. As for the plague of white cops who kill unarmed black youth, the facts of which are tediously and sickeningly repetitive and impose a psychological tariff on black minds, the president was vague, halting and sincerely noncommittal.
Instead, he lauded the racial progress that he said he had witnessed “in my own life,” substituting his life for ours, and signaled again how his story of advancement was ours, suggesting, sadly, that the sum of our political fortunes in his presidency may be lesser than the parts of our persistent suffering. Even when he sidled up to the truth and nudged it gently — “these are real issues,” the president acknowledged — he slipped back into an emotional blandness that underplayed the searing divide, saying there was “an impression that folks have” about unjust policing and “there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in discriminatory fashion.”
Whose impression is it, though that word hardly captures the fierce facts of the case? Who feels it? Who is the subject? Who is the recipient of the action? Mr. Obama’s treacherous balancing act between white and black, left and right, obscures who has held the power for the longest amount of time to make things the way they are. This is something, of course, he can never admit, but which nevertheless strains his words and turns an often eloquent word artist into a faltering, fumbling linguist. President Obama said that our nation was built on the rule of law. That is true, but incomplete. His life, and his career, too, are the product of broken laws: His parents would have committed a crime in most states at the time of their interracial union, and without Martin Luther King Jr. breaking what he deemed to be unjust laws, Mr. Obama wouldn’t be president today. He is the ultimate paradox: the product of a churning assault on the realm of power that he now represents.
No wonder he turns to his own body and story and life to narrate our bodies, our stories and our lives. The problem is that the ordinary black person possesses neither his protections against peril nor his triumphant trajectory that will continue long after he leaves office.
More than 45 years ago, the Kerner Commission concluded that we still lived in two societies, one white, one black, separate and still unequal. President Lyndon B. Johnson convened that commission while the flames that engulfed my native Detroit in the riot of 1967 still burned. If our president and our nation now don’t show the will and courage to speak the truth and remake the destinies of millions of beleaguered citizens, then we are doomed to watch the same sparks reignite, whenever and wherever injustice meets desperation.