Mike Brown and Our American Problem

FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 13:  Demonstrators, protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, hold up signs after they w
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 13: Demonstrators, protesting the shooting death of teenager Michael Brown, hold up signs after they were ordered off the street on August 13, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown was shot and killed by a Ferguson police officer on Saturday. Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb, has experienced three days of violent protests since the killing. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Last summer, after the outrage at the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, I wrote a piece wondering why it takes death and tragedy for us to have conversations about race in this country. And, here we are again, following the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, living in the "eerie echo" of tragedy repeated, as Charles M. Blow describes it.

And, so once again, I wonder why it requires death to grapple with our legacy of racism and the continuation of institutionalized racism that criminalizes black and brown bodies. When can we accept the pattern before us and move forward to change it?

Why is it not enough to look at the disproportionate numbers of black men in our prisons or the disproportionate numbers of black men who are stopped and frisked on our streets? How about the fact that more black men are charged with drug crimes despite the fact that they use drugs at the same rate as whites? What about the harsher sentences given to black defendants or the disproportionate number of black defendants given the death penalty?What about the disparity in school suspension rates and dropout rates? What about our failure to take seriously the issue of reparations and continued discrimination in hiring or loans? Or, we could look at the many recent attempts to disenfranchise minority voters or the Supreme Court's striking down of the Voting Rights Act. What about the inane belief held by some that because Barack Obama is our president we live in a Post-racial America? What about the white privilege of not being harassed or suspected of wrongdoing in our daily lives?

My fellow Americans: look at our segregated lives. Think of your neighborhood, your schools, your places of work, your Facebook friends. How diverse are these places? How many people who have a skin color different than yours are you intimately connected with? How sad is it that we have very few opportunities to reach across the gulf of race and culture?

We (and I mean white folks) may believe we know black people because we listen to black music, but this is feel-good falsity. Indeed, to paraphrase the British critic Charles Shaar Murray, we care far more about black music and culture than black people. This is certainly due in part to our segregated spaces.

But we cannot overlook that our present relationship with black men and black masculinity in this country is based on myths that are centuries old. On the one hand, we all want a piece of the mythical black masculinity (i.e. sexual and physical prowess) that has now been bottled and commodified and sold to us through hip hop culture. All American men seek to emulate this particular brand of masculinity, even though the real power lies in the economic and political prowess which black men are rarely permitted to possess.

On the other hand, we are taught to fear black men who are "dangerous" and violent." That lesson has been internalized even by civil rights leaders like Jesse Jackson who, when fearful of being robbed on the streets, admitted relief when the footsteps behind him were those of a white person.

So, if we are having this conversation, let's be honest: We all internalize racism, just as we internalize sexism. We are all indoctrinated to fear and devalue black people. And, in particular we are taught to fear the danger of black men, whether they are Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin or Barack Obama. There are no accidents when it comes to racism and no such thing as an accidental racist. We live in a society where racism is both institutionalized and internalized so that discrimination on the basis of race persists on both a small and large scale. This is our American problem.

It is my hope that we can avoid more tragedies and more deaths and the devaluing of black people by recognizing how these myths about race and masculinity -- these social constructs -- literally color everything around us. It will take all of us talking and getting involved to repaint our world.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on The Good Men Project.