I am an angel in this nation.
And I suspect the New York Times or Fox News would remember me as an angel if I am murdered in the middle of the road by a police officer in California, Florida, Missouri or Washington. Of course, I don’t worry much about being shot by a police officer. I have the ultimate get-out-jail-free card, the most powerful form of protection: whiteness.
I have no reason to believe that I will be written off as a disrespectful punk, a “thug,” a “troubled kid” looking for fights. I will be seen as just another white boy figuring out the world.
I stole a lot as a kid. That will not matter. I fought a lot. That will not matter. I punched holes in doors, and drank throughout high school. On the football field, I was known as “an enforcer,” a term reserved for the white athletes in my division who bullied and wreaked havoc. None of that will ever be counted against me.
I’d like to challenge the national racial logic that contributes to all too deaths, that sanctions and rationalizes the almost daily killing of black youth. I’d like to really question how this nation constructs and ultimately forgives its angels. Why are we angels always white?
In what has become a predicable playbook, Michael Brown’s death resulted in a public trial and conviction of the victim. The police and much of the media and the public engaged at what has become the ultimate two-step: first denying racism, only to quickly deny Brown’s innocence but implicate and convict him in his own death. In the words of John Eligon of The New York Times, Brown was “no angel.”
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. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
Not done, Eligon painted Brown as a “handful,” a child who spent a lifetime wreaking havoc, defying authority, and otherwise getting into trouble. “When his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it. When they left out pens and pencils, he would use them to write on the wall. He used to tap on the ground, so his parents got him a drum set; his father played the drums.”
If Brown were white, and his murderer black, would his experimentation with drugs and alcohol, his love of rap music, and any other mistakes be been dismissed as youthful indiscretions? If he’d been white, would the story have been that he was curious because he wanted to explore beyond the security gate, that he was a budding artist who expressed himself through his drawings and his music?
Like me, Mike Brown might have smoked marijuana and even sagged his pants prior to being gunned down in the streets. In response to Times piece, and the persistent criminalization and demonization of black victims, people took to Twitter to express their outrage, questioning why Darren Wilson, the Newtown shooter Adam Lanza, or James Holes were provided more sympathetic narratives than Brown, Martin, McBride, or countless others.
African Americans took to social media to challenge the double standards and societal stereotypes that govern black entry into public discourse. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown juxtaposed images that mirrored dominant stereotypes with the others defying expectations of white America: a young black male puffing smoke and wearing a hoodie; the same young man in his Navy uniform.
The question was, if the time came, which photo the media would use, and which person white America would see: a thug, a criminal, a pot-smoking threat, or a soldier, a student, a professor, a doctor, a son, daughter, father, mother and loved one?
Why are all the angels white? Out with my teenage friends one Saturday night, we found ourselves, loitering, seemingly looking for trouble on the Santa Monica Promenade. Standing around, we were talking shit, mad-dogging and scowling every dude the block. We were teenage boys, entitled, white, and without a worry in our minds. That didn’t change when a group of bicycle cops rode up
“What is this?” I yelled. “A fucking donut convention?”
Satisfied by my friends’ laughter, and feeling a sense of accomplishment, I puffed my chest out. Fearless, I was challenging authority. The officers looked at me, tucked their tails between their legs, and rode off to look for some “real criminals,” some dangerous “punks” up to no good.
Out for lunch with the same group of friends, we found ourselves sitting next to a group of LA’s finest at a West Los Angeles McDonalds.
Alerting us to the presence of the cops, a friend blurted loudly “MC WOOOOOOOOOO.”
Hearing our laughter and our continuous uttering “MC Woo,” one of the officers turned around, unamused.
“What’s so funny?”
“The joke was not meant for you, MC Woo,” one of us replied.
Laughter continued as we strolled back to school.
This is what white privilege looks like. This is but one of the experiences of an American angel. The fact that we said these things, and didn’t fear consequences reveals the power of whiteness, of our middle-class existence. We could act like jerks, punks, and thugs without punishment or shame. The fact that the police didn’t respond, didn’t exert their power, didn’t teach us a lesson, merely confirmed our status.
The protests in Ferguson and the campaigns online are not simply a refutation of the dehumanization and criminalization of Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Rekia Boyd, Ayana Jones and so many others; they are resounding arguments that black life matters, in a supposedly post-racial nation where blackness is probable cause and all the angels happen to be white.
David J. Leonard is Associate Professor and chair in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender and Race Studies at Washington State University, Pullman. He regularly writes about issues of race, gender, inequality, and the criminal justice system. His work has appeared in a number of academic journals and anthologies. He is a regular contributor to Vitae, The Chronicle of Higher Education, NewBlackMan, and Feminist Wire, and a past contributor toEbony, The Root, and the Washington Post.
[Image by Tara Jacoby]