For a moment, Monday’s funeral for Michael Brown, the young black man shot and killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, pulled our attention away from the protests and militarized police response and back to the body on the street. The police left Michael there in the middle of the road, under the midday sky, for over four hours, blood seeping from his head in a drying rivulet on the asphalt. “To have that boy lying there, like nobody cared about him. Like he didn’t have any loved ones, like his life value didn’t matter,” Rev. Al Sharpton reminded the funeral mourners.
Michael was a human being. This is a simple truth, Michael’s humanity. Yet it is also implicitly a fragile insight, one that the police indifference to the dignity of his corpse and to the sentiments of his gathering neighbors suggests that many officers failed to grasp. Instead, they seemingly saw Michael as a black man, a shoplifter (as the video released by the police portrayed him), a criminal, a menace, something far less than human — and saw his community in similar terms, almost as animals to be feared, controlled and contained, rather than as traumatized neighbors anguished by the killing of a child. (Mother Jones reported today that on the night Michael died, police actually ran over a homemade memorial of candles and flowers that family members and neighbors had created to mark the spot.)
This point must not be taken lightly or shrugged off because there is no clear evidence that malevolence drove the officer who killed Michael or the police who rallied around their colleague. We tend to talk about racism in simplistic terms as the hateful actions of (potential) Klan members, while dismissing just about everything else as, at worst, the universally shared tendency to be more comfortable with one’s own. In so doing, we blind ourselves to how racism justifies the inequalities of power and position that exist in society with narratives of unbridgeable difference, of fixed and inherent superiority and inferiority. Racism isn’t simply bigotry; at root, it’s about dignity and denigration.