Michael Brown, Ferguson, Missouri, and the Invisibility of Race
Fans of the Colbert Report are familiar with Stephen Colbert’s long-running routine about not seeing race (here is one of many examples during his interview with Michelle Alexander). Pretending to be a conservative talk-show host, Colbert often pretends that he does not see race and that we live in a society where skin color is no longer important. He is especially fond of emphasizing this last point given that we have a Black president in the White House.
Although Colbert is playing this role to get laughs from his audience, the sad irony is that the majority of conservatives and a fair number of whites actually subscribe to this point of view. The idea that race is no longer important in the United States becomes particularly evident when there are confrontations between Black citizens and white police officers. The fatal shooting of Michael Brown, the unarmed Black man who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, offers a prime example.
- 80% of Blacks said that the Michael Brown case raised important issues about race whereas only 37% of whites expressed this opinion
- 47% of whites felt that race is getting more attention than it deserves in this case whereas only 12% of Blacks expressed this opinion
- 65% of Blacks thought the police response had gone too far whereas only 33% of whites felt the same way
- 68% of Democrats thought that this case raises important issues about race whereas only 22% of Republicans expressed this opinion
- 61% of Republicans felt that race was getting too much attention with this issue whereas only 22% of whites felt the same way
When I consider these findings I can’t help but feel confusion and concern. How is it possible that anyone could think that the shooting of Michael Brown does not raise important issues about race? The fact that two-thirds of whites expressed this viewpoint is astounding.
Let’s be totally honest about the Michael Brown incident: it is all about race. When was the last time we read about an unarmed upper-class white male being killed by the police—much less by a Black police officer? How many predominantly white communities around the United States have a police force comprised predominantly of officers of color? And when unarmed white men or women are shot by the police, are there ever public opinion polls to even ascertain if race is significant?
To think that the case of Michael Brown (or Trayvon Martin, Ezell Ford, Oscar Grant, Anthony Dwain Lee, or any of the other unarmed Black males who were fatally shot) is not about race is to be oblivious and ignorant about the social, historical, and political landscape of the United States. Since its very beginning and continuing to the present day, our country has been shaped, scarred, and defined by race. This is a basic sociological premise. As a sociologist, I’m grappling with how so many people can lack this elementary understanding of the society in which we live.
There is no shortage of sociological theories and explanations for this race-blind or color-blind ideology (for a comprehensive overview, see Eduardo Bonilla Silva’s book, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States). What always fascinates me is the epistemology of this ideology; in other words, how we come to know what we know about the importance of race.
Let me highlight three possible explanations for this pervasive inability of many whites to see the significance of race. These three points are in no way meant to be exhaustive or even conclusive; rather, they are an attempt to offer some sociological insights for this deeply troubling social issue.
1. The Mis- and Missing Education of Race. When you think back to your education, how much time did you spend discussing slavery, race, racism, and topics such as white privilege? If you attended school in the United States, you probably had very little of your curriculum devoted to these topics. As James Loewen demonstrates in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me, the typical U.S. history textbook paints an inaccurate and incomplete view of slavery. What’s particularly disturbing is that most books fail horribly at drawing connections between the slavery of the past and the racism of the present:
To function adequately in civic life in our troubled times, students must learn what causes racism. Although it is a complicated historical issue, racism in the Western world stems primarily from two related historical processes: taking land from and destroying indigenous peoples and enslaving Africans to work that land. To teach this relationship, textbooks would have to show students the dynamic interplay between slavery as a socioeconomic system and racism as an idea system.
In addition to not learning the full story about slavery and how its legacy still plays a significant role in our lives today, the educational process further hampers our ability to understand the racial landscape because so many students are attending segregated schools. Despite the recent 60th anniversary of the famous Brown v. the Board of Education Supreme Court decision that declared separate but equal schools to be unconstitutional, schools today are still largely separated by race and class, and they are still inherently unequal. How can we expect to promote greater understanding, awareness, and even empathy on matters pertaining to race if most students are attending racially homogenous schools?
2. Residential Racial Segregation. One of the main reasons why schools are still so segregated today is because our cities and towns are also characterized by segregation. Although some like to believe that the United States is a harmonious melting pot of diverse communities, the reality is that residential segregation is on the rise. According to a recent sociological study, Blacks tend to move into predominantly Black neighborhoods and whites tend to move into predominantly white neighborhoods. This study reaffirms the findings detailed in American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, an earlier, and more comprehensive, analysis of residential racial segregation in United States.
Ferguson, Missouri, the city where the Michael Brown incident occurred, is part of one of the most segregated metropolitan areas (St. Louis) in the United States (click here for interactive maps of the history of racial residential segregation in St. Louis). Cities like St Louis did not end up like this overnight. There is a long historical process, much like the history we do not learn about in schools, that contributes to this landscape of separate and unequal. Without understanding this history, and especially the unequal and unjust social policies that contributed to it, is difficult to understand the plight that others have traversed. As with segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods make understanding and empathy hard to achieve.
3. Media Monsters: If many of us live in separate neighborhoods and attend segregated schools, how do we come to learn about other racial groups? Not surprisingly, many of our ideas about race come from the mass media. The media is a source of socialization for many topics but it can be particularly injurious with regards to race. Depictions of racialized stereotypes in the mass media are ubiquitous, and such caricaturized images shape our perceptions of various racial groups. This socializing effect is especially evident with individuals like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
As sociologist Kelly Welch points out, “The stereotyping of Blacks as criminals is so pervasive throughout society that ‘criminal predator’ is used as a euphemism for ‘young Black male.’”
Consider this point in the context of the Pew Research Center poll. If whites see people like Michael Brown as a “criminal predator” instead of a Black male, then race conveniently disappears from the equation. In this line of reasoning, white respondents might argue that Michael Brown’s shooting was not about race as much as it was about a “typical” criminal. Consequently, this incident is interpreted as not being about race as much as it is about crime and safely protecting society from these criminal predators.
I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination—indeed, everything and anything except me.
Although these are the words of Ellison’s narrator, they could just as easily be a definition of race and racism in the United States today. There are many “figments of imagination” that seem to be circulating in white people’s heads about how race plays out in society. The results of the Pew Research Center poll suggest that while many people have explanations for the shootings of unarmed Black men like Michael Brown, they often include “everything and anything” except race.
A little over fifty years before Ellison wrote Invisible Man, W. E. B. DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk, one of the first sociological analyses of race in the United States. In this classic text, DuBois made the prophetic statement that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” More than one hundred years later, we still have a problem with the color-line, but maybe now our troubles lie in being able to see it, acknowledge it, and confront it.