“I still believe that peace and plenty and happiness can be worked out some way. I am a fool.”
– Kurt Vonnegut
Americans like to say they value justice.
We do. We value romantic justice. It’s an old American value, is it not? The underdog wins against the big guy who talks smack. Justice. The helpless victim is defended by the heroic lawyer from the morally-bankrupt accuser and John Grisham’s name makes its way to the top of the bestsellers list again. Justice. The ending we’ve wanted is the ending we’ve gotten. We want justice that is, above all, vigilant. The anti-hero is the prime symbol of this. We cheer at the violent demise of a wrongdoer. We enjoy seeing an adversary on his knees at the mercy of a brooding, bloodthirsty vigilante. Vigilant justice is the best kind of justice.
On a hot summer’s day in Missouri, a young man by the name of Michael Brown—black, urban lower-class—was killed by the shot of a gun. This gun belonged to a cop named Darren Wilson. Brown’s young, lifeless body was left on the sidewalk—for hours, I might add—for all the confused neighbors to ponder over. A day later, these neighbors would be shouting protests against the slaughter of not only Brown but of young black men by police officers the country over, the century over. Photographs of militarized policemen pointing guns at the folks waving the signs looked an awful lot like something taken in the 60’s and printed in the margins of a Howard Zinn book. Hey presto, a Molotov cocktail. Who’s thirsty?
Hundreds of miles away, in the comfort of their living rooms (CNN turned up), white Americans would be shouting protests against the protestors. Because, of course, this cannot be about race. Oh no. Get real. This is not about the color of the person’s skin like the news outlets are making it out to be, is it? This cannot be another race thing?
No, they say to themselves. The protestors were getting mad about just another simple case that has been convoluted because the victim just so happened to have another shade of melanin. They’re jumping the gun. If it had been a black officer killing a white boy, the story wouldn’t trigger these protests, would it?
Of course not. And if it did, they would be carried out differently, by different people.
And that is the thing. This issue is absolutely, 100% about race. It is not about a simple verdict regarding an individual case. It is about a centuries old problem that the privileged ones in this country—which I am a part of—perpetuate by holding to lies about America, race, and history.
Nobody cares about the fact that a young man died—that a life ended—because they are mortified by the fact that it is conjured up as another race-related issue. This is one part that I find most disconcerting. The other part is that it is another human issue that has been reduced to a partisan debate. People are trapped into thinking a certain way without looking at the big picture. And what a big picture it is.
Somehow, the fact that Michael Brown may have robbed a convenience store is more important than the fact that 27% of all African-Americans live in poverty, the highest for any racial group within the United States.
Somehow, the autopsy showing evidence (a gun wound to the hand) that Brown had tried to grab Wilson’s gun is more important than the fact that blacks are three times more likely than whites to be stopped by police in their vehicles, more than three times more likely to be handcuffed, and almost three times more likely to be arrested, while 27.4% of all white people stopped are simply let off with a traffic warning (compared to black men in a similar situation’s 18.3%).
And somehow, the only justice that mattered was the dismantling of the “gentle giant” myth applied to Brown and an acquittal for the innocent policeman. Swift, easy justice.
Here are some more, if you like stats; a Pew research poll stated that 37% of all white people believed that the situations in Ferguson, MO raised important questions about race in America. And 47% believed that race was given too much attention.
I don’t call this justice. I call it denial.
You cannot look at the facts regarding race in America and tell me that we live in a purely just society. You cannot look at parts of our history—Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin—and tell me that we are a just country. I love America, especially the America that was meant to be conceived, and that’s exactly why I feel that the ignorance that mars our society has to be faced before the lies continue to be perpetuated.
These systems that divide us have been part of human societies since that first Sin took hold of the world. They are instituted to divide us. They trick us into trapping ourselves. With the ones who hold privilege, there is no exception. We’re given lies, and these lies are what convince us into denial.
Racism did not disappear after Jim Crow. In fact, the neighborhoods we are separated by resemble Jim Crow in many ways. You cannot spend two years relying on a public bus system for transportation and stay blind to the issue of racial division in your city unless you really, really want to.
I will spend the next couple of days praying for the Brown family and all of Michael’s friends. I can’t forget to mention Darren Williams. I honestly fear for his life. Plus, there is no doubt that his life will be changed by this. And I hope it is changed, and that he realizes his guilt, and America’s guilt as well.
Because that’s all we really need to do to know real justice.