Stereotypes are dangerous. And for Michael Brown, they proved to be deadly.
Of all that we heard Monday night about the St. Louis County grand jury’s decision not to indict Ferguson, Mo., Police Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Brown, what kept me awake for hours after the announcement was made was Wilson’s testimony.
Testimony in which Wilson said that Brown “had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”
It was rife with imagery that dates back hundreds of years as it relates to how white men often perceive black men. His use of vivid language, describing Brown like “Hulk Hogan” while describing himself, in comparison, like a small child holding on for dear life, is troubling. This is the power and danger of racial “stereotypes.”
When we believe that another human being is in fact, not human, we remove ourselves from how we treat, and entreat, them. We justify prejudices. We justify disrespect. We justify dehumanization in ways that can, and often does, lead to tragedy.
The anger and violence that erupted last night in Ferguson is so much bigger than Brown’s tragic death though. It’s not really about whether Wilson was “justified” in taking a life. Or whether Brown robbed a grocery store for cigars, “charged” Wilson or caused the officer to fear for his life. It’s about a community that feels disenfranchised—and assaulted by the very officers sworn to protect them.
This American tragedy is about a longstanding history of “fear” between white law-enforcement officers and young black men (unarmed, in uniform, in suits or driving while black). And until we address that issue, we will continue to see more teens like Trayvon Martin stalked and gunned down by unarmed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. And we will continue to see the use of deadly force to “subdue” black male suspects who have not been given their fundamental rights of due process.