Sometime on Aug 9 in Ferguson, Mo., Michael Brown and Darren Wilson lost their unique identities as individuals and picked up a script as old as America itself. Older probably.
Seconds later, Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown.
Michael Brown was just 18 years old the day he died, the son of Lesley McSpadden and Mike Brown, Sr. He had just graduated high school, hoping perhaps to attend trade school or own his own business.
Brown was, like the rest of us, neither entirely sinner or saint. He was a young black man making his way in North St. Louis, which is about 95 percent black.
Ferguson is 67 percent black. Its police force has 53 officers. Three – or four, depending on who you talk to – are black.
Darren Wilson, a young white man, was 28 years old the day he killed Michael Brown. He’d been a police officer in Ferguson for about four years, but he lived in Crestwood, Mo., which is about 91 percent white.
Wilson is, like the rest of us, neither entirely sinner or saint. He received a commendation from the department in February for “extraordinary effort in the line of duty.” He was divorced last November.
Two men. Two stories. One gun. One dead.
Their individual stories and perceptions were layered over by an America tainted by racism.
I grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, where African Americans stood out like signposts poking out from a heavy cover of white snow. I hardly knew any black people. Racism was covert, like sexism and classism and homophobia. It’s easy to pretend you aren’t racist when you never see anyone who isn’t white.
I went to college at the University of Missouri, just two hours down the road from Ferguson. We played basketball at the Rec Center there almost every day. The afternoon crowd was an even mix of black and white players. We all got along, were friends even.
But sometimes the white guys I played with would make jokes about how the black players only picked each other up for teams sometimes. There was a division, a line between us that dated back to Civil War and slavery.
I’ll never forget the time someone – I’ve tried, but I can’t recall his face – sat near me on the bench and said: “Oh I never go in the (rec center) pool and lazy river. The black people get in there all the time and the water gets all greasy.”
It’s attitudes like that – scripts like that – that killed Michael Brown.
Racism is convenient because it allows us to put entire groups of individuals into one box and make sweeping generalizations and decisions based on that one box. As I learned later about my seemingly innocent snow-white Minnesota town, we are all racist.
Tobias Wolff says this about racism:
In order for us to live comfortably with ourselves while living on unjust terms with others, we have to tell ourselves a story that makes us innocent. The only possible story is that those others are not fully human and must be held apart, if not in subjugation, because of the danger they represent to persons and morals and social cohesion and themselves – for they are like children, the story goes, and must be treated as children. Every unjust society tells itself that lie, and over time the stain touches everyone.
America has told itself this story since the time of the Declaration of Independence, which declared all white, land-owning men free. It’s written into the Constitution, which declared each black slave was to be counted as 3/5 a person.
The stain of the story has touched us all.
Michael Brown, an 18-year-old high school graduate who may have stolen some cigars, becomes the Black Threat of yore. Darren Wilson didn’t mean to think about the white husbands who tarred and feathered young black men who looked at their wives. He didn’t mean to think about those racist books that predicted “the rising tide of color against white world supremacy, ” ideas so popular in KKK meetings and corporate boardrooms and, sometimes, Ivy League universities.
Darren Wilson wasn’t the only one who must have picked up the storyline. Michael Brown, it seems, must have picked it up, too.
Darren Wilson was no longer an anonymous cop standing in front of him, another young man just 10 years Brown’s senior. Instead, his uniform became in Brown’s eyes a sign of oppression. As the two young men confronted each other and confronted their blackness and whiteness, Wilson loomed in Brown’s eyes as Oppressor. It wasn’t his fault. It was the story.
The story that police officers are corrupt and racist, especially in the South – and Missouri is the South.
Maybe it wasn’t conscious, but Brown couldn’t help but see the old film footage in front of him as he confronted Darren Wilson. This was his Race Moment, and the anger of generations of young black men who were wrongfully accused, wrongfully imprisoned, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully killed at the hands of police officers – that anger rose up inside of him as he stared no longer at Darren Wilson but instead at the White Oppressor.
It’s tempting to imagine that this story doesn’t impact us anymore. We have a black president. A black attorney general. African Americans coach and quarterback professional football teams.
Racism was so 1965.
And then another young black man dies.
For every story of Barack Obama and Eric Holder and Oprah Winfrey, there is a story of Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin.
Perhaps it’s almost worse today, to grow up in neighborhoods the Civil Rights movement seems to have forgotten. Here police officers are still largely white and the accused are still largely black – and poor. Absent opportunity – joblessness is rampant among young black men in Ferguson – the narrative seizes people and takes hold.
A confluence of folks descends upon Ferguson, some looking to get richer or more famous by adding their voices to the narrative. It got louder for many days but now it’s starting to move into the background yet again as other stories threaten to take over our frenzied, schizophrenic news hole.
In the background is where the story is most dangerous. Inside of us, black and white, it lies unexamined and ready to pounce: like HIV, attacking our immune system and making us vulnerable to hatred and death.
Maybe you’re wondering, if it’s a story – an overall narrative – that’s at fault, then why aren’t they equally to blame? Why does Darren Wilson bear all this responsibility and Michael Brown none when it seems in that moment that they were both being racist: viewing each other through a racist narrative of young black thug and white racist oppressor?
This narrative – this American story – does not kill white people. It doesn’t even hurt white people.
This narrative keeps things the way they are, where despite very obvious and visible examples to the contrary, the corner on power in this country is still overwhelmingly grasped by white men.
The narrative, underlying and insidious as it is, protects white people from our racist hearts; says “just another gangbanger, what a shame.”
The narrative kills young black men, over and over again.
But we also know another story, this one more Middle Eastern in origin.
In this narrative a young man from a poor family was wrongfully accused and killed by government authorities.
He said he was from God – that he was God – and that he had come to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free.
Three days after his murder, this young man named Jesus rose again, changing the narrative of life and death forever.
In moments of confrontation, of fear, of racism – Jesus offers us a new script.
In it white folks and black folks – but especially white folks – recover our sight to the ugliness of racism that has enabled us to snatch power and control for centuries.
In it young black men like Trayvon and Michael are released from the script that says they are thugs destined to captivity in jail or an early death on an urban street.
In Jesus’ script Trayvon and Michael see themselves – not in the hopelessness of those left behind but in the hope of a Savior who came to set them free, again.
None of lives without a script, of course. Which is why it matters so much which story we’re living.