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Column: Black America and the burden of the perfect victim

A woman rises to her feet during funeral services for Michael Brown on Monday at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Brown, 18, was shot to death Aug. 9.

Associated Press

A woman rises to her feet during funeral services for Michael Brown on Monday at Friendly Temple Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis. Brown, 18, was shot to death Aug. 9.

An information war is being waged in Ferguson, Mo., each salvo meant to shape public perceptions of Michael Brown and Darren Wilson.

Through this war we've learned that the 18-year-old Brown had marijuana in his system when he was killed, suggesting he was of poor character, and that police officer Wilson shot Brown six times, a use of force that could seem reckless or excessive.

We've been told that Brown was a "gentle giant" who would have started attending classes at a technical college this month, but we've also seen a grainy convenience store video in which he does not look gentle. We have seen a video of Wilson receiving an award, looking professional and happy, but we've also heard about him cursing at a Ferguson woman who had been maced, weeks before the town began to smolder.

Such snippets and images are efforts to shape public opinion about these men. In an information war, the news media is deployed as a weapon, our collective mind becomes a battlefield, and biases are land mines waiting to explode.

I feel confident stating that neither Brown nor Wilson is an angel — because no one is. But that doesn't matter, because the two men have been reduced to symbols. Information wars suggest that character is destiny and that character is knowable, as if a handful of snapshots or tweets constitute an autopsy of the soul. They are waged in all kinds of legal battles, from civil suits to contract negotiations to public divorces.

But when there's a black victim involved, the information takes a different and predictable turn: The victim becomes thuggified. This is an easy leap for many minds, given the widespread expectation of black criminality.

If you become nervous when you see a young black male approaching on the street, it is not hard to convince you that a kid who was shot was not one of the "good ones," that he was scary and maybe did something to deserve it. Information wars thrive on America's empathy gap — the way some people struggle to see any kinship or shared humanity with strangers who don't look like them.

So after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed in Sanford on Feb. 26, 2012, people were told that he had been suspended from school, that he had written graffiti, that he had smoked marijuana. As a result, many saw him as a thug — even though many nonthugs have been suspended from school or gotten high, and those are not violent acts. More important, none of that sheds any light on what happened the night George Zimmerman shot him.

It's as if a black person must be a perfect victim to escape being thuggified, an angel with an unblemished history in order to warrant justice. The burden of the perfect victim suggests that only impeccable resumes may qualify for protection under the law and the support of the community.

But when individuals arrive in the court of public opinion, or in a court of law, the burden of being a perfect victim in order to receive justice is impossibly heavy. It doesn't allow for human fallibility. Is there any information from your past that could make you look bad? Any photo that, taken out of context, could portray you as someone you don't recognize?

Most of us have something in our pasts we would not want revealed. And for black Americans, those facts too often are used to suggest that victims of injustice don't deserve justice, because they weren't some sort of credit to their race. In a nation where police often approach black communities with a dragnet, stopping and frisking everyone, marking as many black men as possible with a record, it would be hard to find a black male who looks like an angel. But it doesn't matter whether Brown was an angel. He was young and growing and human, and he made mistakes. That's okay. The real question is not: Was Brown a good kid? The real question is: How are police officers supposed to treat citizens? California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, has put it well: "Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White."

Michael Brown was not perfect. But few of us are. And that does not speak to whether we deserve to die.

Touré, a co-host of "The Cycle" on MSNBC, is the author of "Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now."

© 2014 Washington Post

Column: Black America and the burden of the perfect victim 08/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 4:03pm]
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