The black middle class failed Michael Brown long before a white policeman shot him

August 21, 2014
August 21, 2014

Last week, as I sat and watched the events unfold in Ferguson, Missouri over the death of Michael Brown, I went through a range of emotions: rage, grief, depression. Even without the full details of the case, it was upsetting—horrifying really—to see another unarmed black body slain in the broad daylight for the entire world to see. For days and days, I tried to express the emotions that I was feeling, but my fingers went limp.

Perhaps, I thought, I was angry that I had to write another piece about an unarmed black man being killed in the streets. Perhaps, I was upset that once again a black man was being framed as a thug rather than a victim, or perhaps I was sick of being reminded that the brown bodies of my friends, cousins, and brothers are perpetually marked as prey by the very people who are supposed to protect them. Looking back, however, I can see it wasn’t any of that—it was guilt.

In the 12 days since the shooting of Michael Brown, I can’t help but think that I’ve failed him and the many young black men and women like him around the country. In a media culture that often portrays only the grimiest black characters or the ace students, I’ll probably never get to know who Michael Brown really was. I most likely won’t ever understand his complexities, his contradictions, or the myriad things that made him unique—the things that made him human—and some of that is my fault. Sure, I didn’t pull the trigger, but I worry that my lack of understanding—my lack of relationships with black youth, particularly poorer black youth, may have contributed to the disconnect and invisibility that surrounds so many black bodies in America.

Class divide

Almost 25 years ago, I attended the funeral of Phillip Pannell, a 16-year-old black teenager who was killed by a white police officer on the same street that I live on today in Teaneck, New Jersey. Back then, I understood what it meant to be a black youth in the era of hip-hop—I loved Tupac, Biggie, and baggy pants as much as the guys did. Us girls were glared at by police, too. But if I’m completely honest with myself, while the burden of being black in America has not changed, the experiences of many young black men and women today have become increasingly distant to me.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m plenty frustrated with our criminal justice system, which continuously seems to leave blacks and Latinos behind.  I’m mad at the police department in Ferguson, that reportedly arrests African Americans—which make up nearly 70% of the population—at four times the rate of their white counterparts. And yes, it angers me that a new poll from the Pew Research Center found that in our alleged “post-racial society,” whites and blacks are still divided as ever on whether race was an issue in the Ferguson shooting. But more than anyone, I’m mad at myself.

As a journalist, sometimes my work requires me to engage with youth, but it still doesn’t preclude me from shaking my head at some of Wiz Khalifa’s lyrics, or rolling my eyes when someone’s pants hang a bit too low. My disconnect hasn’t been intentional, it’s something that’s slowly happened after I graduated from college, moved to a more affluent neighborhood, and found myself immersed in the professional world. One day I looked up and realized that my circle of friends looked like me—30- and 40-something professionals with middle and upper class backgrounds with college degrees—and I realized how distant I was from the culture of young black America. Sure, some of my crew could spit Biggie and switch up to speak in black slang, but unlike so many frustrated black youth in Ferguson and around the country, we privileged few at least had a chance at taking our small stake in the “American Dream.” As a 33-year-old without kids (or siblings), I wonder sometimes, if that distance has contributed to the frustrations that so many of these youth are articulating.

There are some middle class folks that are out there doing good work and I’m proud of them. But there’s an opportunity now for me and other middle class blacks to engage more with these youth that are feeling so close to the edge. I’m not talking some “Talented Tenth” stuff, where black elites lead the other classes, proclaim to be role models and leaders for marginalized folks, but rather a shared system of support, a connected community where both parties listen, learn from each other, and explore the possibilities of how a better, more equitable America might look. If I, as well as my peers, don’t seek to rectify this, don’t seek to understand the experience of black youth, with all their faults, contradictions and complexities, then how can we blame white folks for not always understanding their plight? How could we expect Darren Wilson to see Michael Brown as a complete human being, if we don’t also afford the Michael Browns of the world that same opportunity?

Generational gap

It’s clear there’s a generational disconnect among the people of Ferguson, but just exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. Scholar Peniel Joseph says that unlike the 1960s, today’s black youth in Ferguson, particularly those who aren’t a part of the middle class, don’t have a Stokely Carmichael or Black Panther Party advocating for their interests:

“National black political leaders from the civil rights era have tried, through organizational outreach, speeches, media (traditional and social), marches and demonstrations to reach out to and stay connected with a new generation of young people. But this effort bumps up against the limitations of resources and outreach.

America’s racial underclass, the off-the-grid hustlers and entrepreneurs who many black elites ignore or demonize, rarely sees political leaders of any color advocating for them.

The divide, while generational on the surface, is also fueled by class, as young people with education, networks and access tend to view politics as a long-term process—one that comes with victories, but also compromise and setbacks. Millions of young blacks have no entrée to the nuances of American democracy and racial struggle. Their world is more painfully straightforward and wrenching: black folk get shot in the streets with no hope of justice.”

Attorney General Eric Holder sat down on Wednesday with a group of young people in Ferguson to try to understand what’s flaming the tensions in the suburban town. It was a step in the right direction, particularly as he articulated his own troubled interactions with law enforcement, and one that I hope provided a bridge between generations. I wish the president had made some similar connections. It was a missed opportunity to reach out to a generation that so vibrantly connected with Obama when he was a candidate just a few short years ago and so desperately needs him now.

All too often black youth are accused by their elders and the society-at-large of being lazy, self-absorbed, and without the spirit of their parents in the ’60s. So I’m glad that so many young people are leading movements for change in Ferguson—but as their bodies and spaces continue to be under siege, their fight will be an uphill one.

I want to make sure there is a place for young black activists and not just when something bad happens to a black youth, but when we’re pushing for new voter ID laws, or better policies for low wage workers. By not listening to our young, we too are subtly giving them the message that their voices don’t matter. Even if we’re not pulling these triggers, we’re leaving them for dead.

To be clear, I’m not blaming black folk for the killing of Michael Brown. We’ve known for far too long that black bodies are under siege, we’ve shouted, protested, and marched and I’m glad to see some intergenerational solidarity in Ferguson. But I want to see more of it, not just when a slain body is dead in the streets, but all the time.

Black folks, like myself, need to take more time to listen to the Michael Browns of the world. The black middle class is not going to “save” young black men and women anymore than they can save themselves. But together, a unified community and unified experience can prove to the world that there is value in black lives but we can’t dispel the stereotypes without squashing those thoughts ourselves.

If young black men and women were understood better, acknowledged more as unique human beings, as full parts of society, perhaps their complexities wouldn’t be so invisible, perhaps their plights not so unknown. Perhaps we could see that Renisha McBride wasn’t an intruder, that Trayvon Martin didn’t carry a weapon, and that Jonathan Ferrell was wounded and looking for help. Too much of society has already turned their backs on young black folk. The black community doesn’t have to do the same.

Follow Reniqua on Twitter @rnz1_c. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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