Ferguson: Facts and Opinions

By Angie Shen

While uninformed activists may think what happened was that an unarmed black teenager minding his own business walking down the street in broad daylight got harassed and murdered by a white police officer (If this is what you believe, you can read interview with Darren Wilson and his testimony before the grand jury. Although they may not be entirely true, they do offer a different perspective), the reality is much more complicated. Because eyewitness accounts contradict one another, we may never know what actually happened. However, from the several details that we can confirm, we can see how some may interpret the tragedy as "not about race": Wilson caught Brown jaywalking, realized Brown matched the profile of the suspect in a robbery at a local market and tried to stop Brown; Initial altercation deteriorated into physical struggle in the car (Brown clearly wanted to do something to Wilson by coming to his car); Wilson claimed that Brown came at him even after being shot, which led to the fatal shot in Brown's head. Brown's aggression in this case led some to argue that the same thing would have happened if Brown were white, which indicates race is not a factor in the shooting.

At Duke, more than 100 students laid down on the Chapel Quad Friday afternoon to protest the grand jury verdicts not to indict the police officers who killed Michel Brown in Ferguson, Mo. and Eric Garner in New York. (Source: Duke Chronicle)

Of course, counter arguments abound: How could Wilson's final fatal shot be justified when Brown had already been severely injured? How could Wilson's motivation of self-defense or "fear for his life" stand when Wilson was one holding a lethal weapon while Brown was unarmed and injured? Although Wilson did not shoot Brown because he was black, race is subtly at play. Wilson presents himself as having been overwhelmed by Brown’s physicality—when they scuffled through the car window, he said, “the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” He also said 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…." The association between an angry black face and aggression and danger can be traced back to the Anglo-normative beauty standards(teenage romantic comedies usually star a white protagonist with a token black best friend) and how young black males are deemed as the quintessential criminal class. One can also argue Brown’s murder reflects the broader trend of racial profiling in the criminal justice system and elsewhere in American social life. A racial-profiling report from the Missouri attorney general’s office showed that, last year, African Americans in Ferguson were twice as likely to be involved in police traffic stops and arrests as whites.

According to a 2006 study Punishment and Inequality in America by Princeton sociologist Bruce Western, there is an 8-to-1 ratio of black-white incarceration rates, 2-to-1 ratio of unemployment rates, 2-to-1 ratio of infant mortality rates and 1-to-5 ratio of net worth. In 2000, 1 in 9 young blacks was incarcerated. A black male resident in California is more likely to go to a state prison than state college.

The Ferguson tragedy, rather than an anomaly, is the direct product of deadly tensions born from decades of housing discrimination, white flight, inter-generational poverty and racial profiling. To rebut the argument that arresting Brown who broke the law serves justice, one can look at the apparently unjust racial profiling in police arrests and the racialized class division in America--statistically, more African Americans than whites are plagued by poverty, lack of education, unemployment and crime--which traces back to the historical injustice of slavery and segregation. As Harvard sociologist Glenn Loury potently argues, "the disparity in human development is, as a historical matter, rooted in political, economic, and cultural factors reflective of its unlovely racial history."

Angie is a sophomore at Duke University.