Young, Black, And Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Terrance Heath

The New York Times informed us that Michael Brown was “no angel.” When being young and black is to be guilty until proven innocent, black children must be “angelic” just to be worthy of living.

The Times initially defended its “no angel” assessment of Michael Brown’s young life, which ran on the day of Brown’s funeral. National Editor Allison Mitchell said the description connected to the lead paragraph about a moment when Brown thought he saw an angel, and that the article would have been written the same way if it had been about a young white man in the same situation.

The Times eventually apologized, but the article is typical of a media pattern of treating white suspects and killers better than black victims. The pattern was so clear in the media narratives around Brown’s death, that black Twitter users responded by posting side-by-side pictures of themselves under the hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, to underscore the power of the images media uses to portray black victims.

The ritual now follows every police killing — or extra-legal killing — of an unarmed black male. It starts with the formation of a narrative against the victim, as when rumors that Trayvon Martin stole the candy and iced tea found near his body spread across social media. Even video footage of Martin making his last purchase couldn’t quell rumors of his criminality. Martin’s suspension from school, marijuana use, and social media profiles became fodder to “prove” that he must have deserved to die as he did.

In Michael Brown’s case, the ritual began when Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson named Darren Wilson as the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown, while simultaneously releasing video of Brown’s alleged “strong arm robbery” at a local store moments before his death.

The construction of the narrative against Michael Brown was laid bare when the store’s owners disputed Jackson’s claims. Their attorney stated that neither the owners nor any store employee reported a robbery. (A customer inside the store called 911.) The attorney also said that any alleged theft had nothing to do with Wilson shooting and killing Michael Brown. After a barrage of criticism, Chief Jackson admitted that the alleged robbery was “not related to the initial contact” between Brown and Wilson.

Jackson said he released the video because “the press asked for it” and couldn’t withhold it indefinitely. Police came looking for the store’s surveillance video almost a week after Brown’s death, and withheld at least part of it.

Much later, the unedited surveillance video surfaced, which showed Brown appearing to pay for some items. At the register, Brown seems to realize that he doesn’t have enough money, and appears to put some items back. This prompts the cashier to step from behind the counter, apparently with Brown’s cash in hand, leading to the shoving confrontation in the video clip and still photos that Chief Jackson did release.

More recent revelations cast doubt on a narrative designed to frame Brown as a violent “thug.”

The ritual begins robbing black children of their innocence in early childhood. Research shows that people — including police officers — see black children as less innocent and less young than white children. A study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that black boys as young as 10 are more likely than white boys to be mistaken as older, perceived as guilty, and face police violence if accused of a crime.

The school-to-prison pipeline begins in preschool, where black students are disciplined more harshly than their white classmates.

  • Though they make up 18 percent of students, black children account for 35 percent of one-time suspensions, 46 percent of multiple suspensions, and 39 percent of expulsions.
  • One in five black boys, and more than one in ten black girls have received out-of-school suspension.
  • Overall, black students are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled than white students.
  • In districts with “zero tolerance” policies, black and Hispanic students make up 45 percent of students, but 56 percent of expulsions.

Research identifies discrimination as the source of disparity in punishments, and shows that “[e]ven when they commit the exact same offense as white students, black students suffer more severe consequences.”

Michael Brown’s 98-percent-black high school seems to reflect these dismal statistics, with a suspension rate nearly 4 times the national rate of 11 percent. In 2011, nearly 45 percent of students were suspended. Against these odds, Michael Brown managed to graduate, and would have started college in a few days.

Instead, Michael Brown became just one more young black man killed by police, and posthumously judged guilty until proven “angelic.”

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