White People, Ferguson, and Empathy

_76994258_76994257This is not a post about whether or not Darren Wilson should have been indicted. This is not a post defending the rioting and looting that has come after. This is a post about examining our reactions to phenomena that we can’t properly understand.


Obviously, an ordered society cannot long survive when looting and destruction of property – especially the private property of innocent bystanders – are accepted as legitimate forms of airing grievances with the system. And so I have no fault with anyone who rightly points out that the excesses of the protesters must stop and I have no objection to the police arresting anyone who is involved in these activities and throwing the book at them.

What I do object to is the dismissive, contempt-laden tone taken by many commentators and armchair experts (particularly on twitter) about what is happening here. I don’t want to call out individual folks in this post but I saw numerous tweets to the effect of “White people didn’t riot when the OJ verdict was announced” (which is, boiled down, a not-very-veiled way of suggesting that white people are better than black people), or “I stand with cops. Period. The end.” (which is, boiled down, an invitation to totalitarianism), or other expressions bordering on glee that people were incensed that the system had exonerated Darren Wilson. Equally troubling, I find people expressing sentiment to the effect that they are either glad Michael Brown is dead, or are indifferent to his death.

All of this rhetoric is fine and well from people for whom, with relatively rare exceptions, the system has by and large over the years worked to protect their legal interests. Most of the people making these comments have probably been taught from a very young age, “If you are in trouble, call the cops. They will help you.” They have likewise been taught, “Never take the law into your own hands. If someone violates your rights, take them to court and the justice system will protect you.” They have been taught this because of the justified expectation that things would work out exactly this way. And they (apparently) have complete ignorance of the existence of a class of people for whom – for decades or even centuries – things did not work out exactly this way.


I think it’s difficult for many of us to acknowledge the shadow our parents cast on the way we view the world in this (and many other) respects. Even if you feel that the justice system is completely fair today (an extraordinarily doubtful proposition but one we will assume for the purposes of this discussion), you must acknowledge that people are being raised today by parents who lived in a time when the justice system was patently and openly unfair – when calling for the aid of the police would only bring trouble to your door and when taking someone to court was likely to produce either no result at all or a negative result. So it’s easy enough to sit in an armchair and “tsk tsk” at people who disregard the law when they feel the system has wronged them, even though we cannot imagine what it would be like to have been raised by parents who taught us, with good reason based on their own experiences, that trusting the cops or the courts is a game for fools.

I’m dismayed by how quickly – especially in the Internet age – we all dig trenches and throw ourselves in them and start throwing grenades at the other side. We are all expected to take a side and have opinions on it so quickly, and the longer the process drags out, the more we assume the “other side” is acting in bad faith and the more glee we have when the “other side” loses, which is terrible in a tragic situation like this one. What sort of sentiment is it to say that Michael Brown deserved to die or that the world is better off without him? Even if you think Darren Wilson was legally justified in killing him in this circumstance can we not acknowledge that this is an 18-year-old “man” who was killed? Can we not say that many people who were antisocial idiots at 18 grew up to be productive members of society and that the loss of virtually anyone that young ought to be mourned? Can we not acknowledge that if a white unarmed kid from the burbs got high on weed and put himself in a situation where he got shot by some cops we’d at least all be sad? I mean, we all have the decency to be pissed off when cops shoot people’s dogs, surely we can manage this? And can we not acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, if this exact scenario had played out with a black guy shooting an unarmed white guy, he’d at the very least be indicted for it no matter what the circumstances were?


I guess my own perception of the story is colored perhaps to an unfair degree by the fact that as I look back at my own self at age 18, I find it miraculous that I made it out alive and largely unharmed by my terrible life choices and it saddens me when everyone doesn’t get that same chance. I acknowledge and own that, but I call upon everyone else who is popping off at the mouth about this story, and the subsequent civil disorder, to root out the way their own experiences color the way they see this story, and how a completely different set of experiences might lead people to view it differently. I am not saying anyone has to excuse or condone looting or violence, just that we ought to be able to talk about it in ways that don’t indicate perpetual unwillingness to even try to view the world through the eyes of our neighbors. Because if we can’t accomplish that, we have a long road ahead indeed.


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