Opinion
Protesters gesture and chant as they stand near Missouri Highway Patrol officers during ongoing demonstrations in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 16, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson  Protesters gesture and chant as they stand near Missouri Highway Patrol officers during ongoing demonstrations in reaction to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri August 16, 2014. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson   

What Was Racist About Ferguson?

Photo of David Benkof
David Benkof
Freelance Writer

Millions of Americans are angry over charges of racism in the death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, at the hands of a white police officer. Thousands of Americans have rallied in protest.

But none has answered a simple question: What was racist about the incident in Ferguson?

I’ve been talking to my friends about that very question, and no one has given me a satisfactory answer. Or, actually, any specific answer at all. I haven’t concluded that the event wasn’t racist. I just can’t call it racist without, well, evidence.

Here are some of the non-answers I’ve received, ranging from reasonable to preposterous.

What if Michael Brown wasn’t a young black male?

We do not know for sure how the incident would have unfolded if Brown had been a different age, race, and sex. But the question is not carefully thought out. Should our police really treat young black male suspects precisely the same way they treat elderly Native American suspects? Pregnant Asian suspects?

Hatred of discrimination should not force our police to excessively restrain themselves under circumstances that are particularly dangerous – nor to crack down on blind Hmong scofflaws in the name of fairness.

“Racial profiling” sounds scary, but is it always wrong? When anti-Islam graffiti has been scrawled on a mosque, must the police spend as much energy looking for Muslim suspects as for skinheads? If a voice recording of a robbery demonstrates the perpetrator spoke Spanish, is it wrong to investigate Latinos first?

Proceeding extra carefully when confronted with someone 6’4” inches tall, weighing 292 pounds, who has just robbed a convenience store, is not unfair racial profiling. It’s common sense.

If Brown’s race was at all a factor in his death, that’s by definition racist.

Not under the, um, definition of racism. According to Google it’s either:

1) The belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races; or

2) Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.

I have seen no evidence, so far, that this incident matches either definition.

Look at the circumstances.

The number of bullets shot, the victim’s unarmed status, the racial composition of the police vs. the city’s population, racism in the broader community, and a “pattern” of disparate arrest statistics and incarceration rates, even if they are all cause for concern, do not address whether the shooting was motivated by race. They may be reasons to ask questions, but the protesters are not asking questions. They are drawing conclusions and making demands.

We live in a racist society.

I’m not going to address the tendentious accusation that Americans are generally racist. But surely one specific man should never be denounced in the streets, maligned in the press, and given more intense criminal scrutiny because of broad social trends.

You don’t need evidence to show that this was a racist event

Yes, you do. If we abandon requirements for substantiation when making serious accusations such as racism, then literally anything goes in our society. That’s not good for anyone.