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Why it's objectionable to describe Ferguson's Michael Brown as 'no angel'

Michael Brown
Was the New York Times wrong to write that Michael Brown was 'no angel'? Yes
How would you feel if someone who didn't know you described you as 'no angel'?

Was the New York Times wrong to write that Michael Brown was “no angel”?

“I read the profile and didn’t find the ‘no angel’ line objectionable,” wrote Times editorial board member Michael McGough.

It’s unfortunate that McGough is unable to see the phrase “no angel” as unobjectionable. It had nothing to do with the sum total of Brown’s life, and subtly suggested that he was a “bad boy” and was directly responsible for being shot and killed.

Picking one incident out of someone’s short life and using it to say, “See, he was headed for trouble,” is always reductive thinking, and, in the life of a black man, is something we have been combating since the 1600s. Until you abolish it from your vocabulary — and your spiritual nature — you will always be able to justify thinking that about anyone, whether black, white, female, transgender.

People like to be able to reduce others into a box so they can feel they’ve afforded the person all the “moral” goodness they have within themselves. Frequently, it is more a statement on how little consciousness they have that they can do this within the space of two or three newspaper articles, as though a person’s life is circumscribed by the equivalent of 10 inches of black type on a white page. 

Ask someone — who does not know you well — to describe how they see you to your face and to do so honestly, and experience how comfortable it is for you to hear the reductive statements that leave out so much of who you are to your friends, who really know you well.

If you are a minority — in particular, a black man — you will understand.

If you are the average white person, who has never had to worry that walking in the “wrong neighborhood” (read: white) at night will get you arrested, shot, clubbed or killed, you haven’t got a clue.

View Jon Stewart’s recent “Race/Off” segment in which he addressed racism. It may be enlightening.

Glen McLeod is a Los Angeles Times reader who splits time between San Francisco and New Haven, Conn.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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