Are We Asking the Wrong Questions about Ferguson?

A shooting. A white on black shooting. A white policeman shoots an unarmed black teenager. With each layer of detail, the picture of Michael Brown’s death at the hands of Officer Darren Wilson becomes more unsettling. The events of August ninth in Ferguson, Missouri and the legal response thereto have ignited a dialogue that is anything but levelheaded, and the rage, resentment, and despair have precluded an important realization: by debating the simple narrative of the racist cop, we are missing the point.

We are asking, “Did Officer Wilson shoot Mr. Brown because he was black?” when we should be asking, “Did Officer Wilson assume Mr. Brown was dangerous because he was black?”

The first question is deceptively irrelevant. Testimony heard by the grand jury leaves little doubt that Officer Wilson fired in self-defense; this was not a premeditated hate crime or a whimsical execution. Instead, it was an impulsive response to a hasty—and gravely erroneous—assessment of the situation. It was a decision by a police officer to use deadly force in the face of what he believed (albeit wrongly) was a threat to his and the public’s safety.

A more compelling question is why Officer Wilson came in such a short time (according to testimony, the entire encounter lasted about 90 seconds) to such a drastically misguided conclusion. What made him feel so endangered? He couldn’t have seen Mr. Brown brandish a gun—the young man was unarmed. Why, then, did he perceive Mr. Brown to be a threat to his life? Did he find it impossible that Mr. Brown might not have a concealed weapon? Were Mr. Brown white, would Officer Wilson have made the same assumptions? Would the incident still have ended in death?

In order to have this discussion, we must resist the inclination to mistake prejudice for racism. If we are to forge the fervor into positive change, we must soberly dissect the incensing result and examine the causes. It is perfectly conceivable for a white police officer to be more afraid of a black suspect than a white suspect under the same circumstances—even if he genuinely isn’t racist. That is the real issue at hand here: fear born of ignorance. That is the social malady that allows calamities like Ferguson to transpire on a maddeningly regular basis.

It’s not simply an issue of racism. It’s an issue of education, opportunity, welfare, gun control, demographics, and history, among other things. It’s an issue of vestigial policies and practices from a darker era that, while maybe no longer motivated by racism, were never sufficiently updated or corrected to help bring African-Americans abreast of white Americans. And it’s an issue that underscores the way in which stereotypes wrongly tint our perception of people we’ve never met, sometimes to deadly consequence. These are the insidious realities that influenced Officer Wilson’s encounter with Mr. Brown, not hate. They informed his decision to pull the trigger, not malice.

None of this is to deny that racism remains a pernicious blight on our society, but rather to highlight that to write off Michael Brown’s death as an example of textbook racism would be to miss an opportunity for progress. The narrative of the racist cop is a natural explanation for the shooting; it’s straightforward and easy to grasp. For these same reasons, it doesn’t apply to Ferguson. Ferguson was a tragedy that, sadly, is no anomaly in this country. It was the product of a complex web of realities—realities that must change if we are to live in a just and equal society where a panicked police officer won’t assume a suspect is armed and dangerous simply because he is black.

In this case, that is where we should be focusing our attention.

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