In the chorus of voices last week protesting the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., one stood out: President Obama's. On the surface, what he said was routine in a presidential, consoler in chief kind of way: We've lost an 18-year-old whose family would "never hold Michael in their arms again." The significance was not the particular words, but the fact that Obama was defining Brown first and foremost as a human being — a son whose parents are grieving his sudden and permanent absence. With that standard presidential pronoun "we," Obama was implying something else radical: The death was a loss not just for the Browns and Ferguson, but for the whole nation. Michael Brown, he was saying, was one of us. All of us.
That simple but specific assertion was in stark contrast to the familiar media chatter about Michael Brown not as a person, but as a symbol. Brown has been cast as a victim of history, a martyr, a robbery suspect, a criminal in the making. However accurate each of those labels may be, they are also dehumanizing, concerned less with the actual Michael Brown than with what he represents in America's deeply troubled view of race and blackness.
For much of our history it's been impractical, virtually impossible and often illegal to regard blacks as people, black men especially. How to think first of Michael Brown's welfare, his individuality, when black men are the very definition of criminality and sub-humanness, when black life was once so degraded, when the public lynchings of black men were family-friendly events suitable for postcards? We may congratulate ourselves on how far we've come, but the fact is that we still live that legacy of degradation, a legacy most vividly expressed in these high-profile clashes between blacks and police.
All the facts of the latest clash have yet to come to light, but consider this: After a video surfaced last week that police say showed Brown stealing a $50 box of cigars at a convenience store, speculation immediately tilted toward whether he might have somehow deserved what happened to him. Being guilty of a petty crime isn't reason enough to shoot and kill an unarmed person, but that's the point: Brown appears to have been viewed as not just any unarmed person, but as a young black man who didn't need to be carrying a gun to be considered dangerous.
In a recent column in the New York Times, Charles Blow linked disproportionately high rates of school discipline among black males to higher rates of incarceration, concluding that the consequences of dehumanization start early and get worse with time.
I know what he means. I live in Inglewood, a black working-class neighborhood that I imagine is much like Ferguson. When the boy across the street graduated from high school and went on to college, I breathed a sigh of relief. But a couple of houses down is another boy who also recently finished high school but has been notably aimless ever since. He worries me. Of course, the battle against a perception of worthlessness — the "burden of bias," as Blow calls it — is waged by all black men, regardless of their success.
Obama acknowledged as much after the controversial not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial when he said that "Trayvon Martin could have been me." In identifying himself with black men and that burden, the president was encouraging us all to reflexively humanize, not criminalize, those who look like Trayvon. Obama was doing the same thing last week, though somewhat more subtly. Call it subliminal suggestion.
But it'll take more than subliminal suggestion to change things. Compounding the problem of empathy for Michael Brown is his physiognomy. When I saw his photo the day after the story broke, I admit, my first thought was, "Of course he was targeted." Brown was tall, dark-skinned and heavyset — the stereotypical, aggressive black brute. In 1991, many people had the same unforgiving view of Rodney King, another burly black man who we all discovered was soft-spoken, emotionally troubled and most remembered not for his misdeeds but for his tearful plea in 1992, as all hell was breaking loose in Los Angeles, that we all just get along.
I used to hate that plea — too conciliatory, I thought — but now I'm willing to give King the last word, if only because there's truly nothing else left to say. How many times can we have the same conversation about race and power, convene the same panel discussions, before we acknowledge that the real problem isn't police tactics or the militarization of police departments or even rogue cops, but fear of blackness?
To be sure, other groups in recent years have had their own issues with profiling, prejudice and unequal treatment under the law, notably Muslims and undocumented immigrants. But at the rock bottom of a society still stratified by race are black men. They're there by design. The only way to raise them up and change their outcomes, including not getting killed by police, is to see them differently. Talking about them differently, as human beings and Americans, qualities not incompatible with blackness, is one way to start.
Erin Aubry Kaplan is the author of "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line: Dispatches From a Black Journalista."