When Michael Brown became a Symbol

FergusonEven as Michael Brown lay in a Ferguson street, a transformation was happening. Certainly he was changing from life to death, but something changed in those moments, not in him, but in us.

Michael Brown stopped being a person who was shot and transformed into a symbol. The metamorphosis was gradual, taking hours and days, but soon we were no longer looking at  a young man.

Officer Darren Wilson, the man who shot Michael, was also making the same change. He was becoming something much greater than himself. While Michael never lived to see himself become a symbol, Officer Wilson lives as a symbol to this day.

Even while the blood dried on the pavement, Michael represented another victim of hundred of years of oppression of black men; another recipient of a bullet from a system over-eager to shoot black men. He was the cry of an oppressed minority seeking justice.

To others he symbolized the failure of the family. Another stupid teenager who was out of control: another outcropping on a gang culture that breeds violence.

Officer Wilson also stopped being a person and became a symbol of the oppressor. A cowboy who just couldn’t wait to shoot a black man with the weakest of provocations. The hands of an oppressive state pressed him on and would protect him from any recriminations from those he wronged.

To others, he became a protector from an out of control gang war zone. The Officer Wilsons of the world were the last line of defence before hoodlums were breaking down doors. He represented a man’s right to defend himself with deadly force, if necessary.

The speed with which these symbols were generated was amazing. Partly to blame is the proximity to the Trayvon Martin case, which had similar symbolic overtones. The pain and anger felt by both whites and blacks were aggravated by the Trayvon Martin case and were now inflamed even more by another unarmed black teen shot to death.

What was amazing as well was how quickly the symbolism sped ahead of the facts of the case. Opinions were formed quickly and facts came out slowly. Most parties seemed invested in their understanding of what happened long before it was clear what actually happened. Wilson was a hero or a villain long before it was clear which one he really was.

But this is the nature of symbols. One of the great mistakes we make is to believe that the national debate that has proceeded has had anything to do with Michael Brown or Officer Wilson. They were names that were attached to a symbol that long preceded them. We had a narrative in mind before Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin and the narrative we planned was the narrative we would give, regardless of the facts.

The debate we are having has little, if anything, to do with Michael Brown. Whether he was completely innocent with his hands in the air or aggressively attacking Officer Wilson does not change that we have some serious racial tensions.

That, of course, is the real problem.

We don’t get to feel too special for having racial problems. They are ubiquitous to human culture. Britain has tensions with the Irish. Rwanda with the Tutsi. South African’s with the indigenous Africans. China with the Tibetans. Russia with, well, anyone who’s not Russian. Australia with the Aborigines.

Because the exact nature of the encounter between Michael Brown and Officer Wilson only symbolizes the existing racial tensions, we would be foolish to get hung up on the details of that encounter. Whoever is in the wrong, it does not fix the broader racial tension that exists.

So when we speak of the Michael Brown, we must be careful to realize that we are really talking about the sense oppression by African-Americans. When we speak of Officer Wilson, we must know that to most whites, he represents another victim of angry black teenagers.

So, when Officer Wilson was not charged with wrongdoing, the ensuing riots had little to do with him. He represented another one of those officers that beat Rodney King, another George Zimmerman, another case of the system protecting a racial predator. The wound in the nation is symbolized by him, but it is not him.

The riots themselves have taken on symbolism. To the minority communities, they show how deeply they feel oppressed and abused. To the white majority, it is yet another example of lawlessness and anger among minorities.

The point is that when we talk to each other about these cases, let’s not get too hung up on the facts. Let’s have the more important discussion about why we want to believe one set of facts or the other. Why is Officer Wilson’s guilt or innocence important to you? Why is it important to me?

Most of us had a narrative that we quickly placed these events inside. That narrative drives the anger and resentment. Any discussion that ignores that narrative, that symbolism, misses the point entirely.

Finally, listen, really listen to the other’s narrative. It is important for the majority whites to recognize that we simply don’t understand what it feels like to be part of a minority. We need to listen to their narrative. Really listen. There is a deep and painful story to be heard that goes back centuries.

For the African-American community, it is quite painful to have a presumption of racism placed on me simply because I am a white man from the South. Much of my own reaction comes from the narrative that assumes I am a racist simply because I am a white man. Many white men feel like I do. We don’t talk about race because we always come away judged no matter how thoughtful we are. Please, we want to engage with you in these discussions. Please listen to our narrative.

When God made human being, he made them all in His image. The chorus of Heaven will not have pale skin. The ethnicity of Heaven will have every tribe, tongue, and nation. One of the great delights of Heaven will be seamless racial harmony. When we listen well to each other now, we taste a bit of what that will be like.

I can’t wait.

-Chip

The image above is courtesy of Jamelle Bouie and is used with permission

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