US News & World Report
By Nicole Hemmer
On MSNBC’s "Morning Joe" on Monday, host Joe Scarborough proclaimed he’d had enough. It wasn’t the shooting of an unarmed teen that pushed him over the line, nor the militarized police response to the initial protests, nor the grand jury’s failure to indict, nor the prosecutor’s botched press conference. It was the sight of five St. Louis Rams players holding their hands up in protest as they took the field Sunday night. “This Rams thing was the last straw for me,” he told his co-hosts. “I can’t take it anymore.”
Scarborough objected to Michael Brown, the teen killed by police officer Darren Wilson in August, becoming “the face of black oppression.” “There are so many great people to embrace as heroes in the black community,” he argued. But he failed to understand one of the most important points behind the Ferguson protests: Michael Brown wasn’t a hero. He was a teenager who made some bad choices – bad choices being one of the defining features of being a teenager – and who, because he was black, was 21 times more likely than a white teenager to die during his encounter with the police.
“I don’t want to discuss the criminal justice system,” Scarborough said. And that’s exactly the problem. “Hands up, don’t shoot” is explicitly about the criminal justice system: about police brutality and lethality, about incarceration rates, and about crimes against black Americans that are not met with justice. Not discussing the criminal justice system – not discussing racism and inequality and the long history of black Americans’ interactions with state power – wrenches the reaction of Ferguson protesters from its context and makes it inexplicable.
Ultimately, Scarborough doesn’t want to talk about racism because he doesn’t see it as a factor. Had Brown behaved better, he wouldn’t be dead. Had Tamir Rice not been playing with a toy gun in a park, he wouldn’t be dead. But had Brown or Rice been white, their chances of survival would have been much, much higher. If we don’t talk about that, then we can’t understand the shopping mall die-ins or #blacklivesmatter or the Sunday night protest of the Rams.
Of all the powerful insights about racism in America following Ferguson, one of the most compelling came from comedian Chris Rock. In an interview with Frank Rich for New York magazine, Rock observed the fundamental truth that racism is a white problem, not a black one. “There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before,” Rock said. He went on to point out that milestones like the election of President Barack Obama were not signs of black progress but of white progress. “The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people,” he said.
Rock was echoing an argument made by James Baldwin fifty years ago in his essay “My Dungeon Shook.” First published in Dec. 1962 as a letter to his nephew, it marked the 100th anniversary of emancipation. “There is no reason for you to try to become like white people,” he wrote, “and there is no basis for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them.” White Americans, he explained, relied on an understanding of racial superiority, an understanding so central to their identity that black claims to equality threatened to tear down their very sense of self. “You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope," he wrote.
And while Scarborough doesn’t want to tackle the broader context surrounding Ferguson, plenty of other people do. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates on Ferguson (and then read his case for reparations). Read Kiese Laymon’s account of teaching-while-black at Vassar. Read Rebecca Traister on how power works. Read all of Jelani Cobb’s reporting for the New Yorker. Heck, read Conor Friedersdorf’s contrarian take on Ferguson’s place in the case for police reform. Then forward them along to Scarborough. They might help him better understand that you don’t have to believe that Michael Brown’s hands were up to understand why the protesters’ are, and that you don’t have to believe Brown was a hero to understand the demonstrations taking place everywhere from shopping malls to the Lincoln Tunnel to the playing fields of the NFL.
This article originally appeared on US News & World Report.