Presumed Unworthy

The possibility of being imperfect -- of making mistakes -- without dire consequences is in some respects the very definition of privilege. For only some groups need to fear that they may trip the wire of state-sanctioned violence at any moment.
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On August 9, 2014, a black teenager named Michael Brown was shot to death in broad daylight by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. His dead body lay uncovered in the street for four hours afterwards. News of the killing spread rapidly across social media, and soon began to dominate mainstream news as well. Among the details to emerge was that Brown was a recent high school graduate who was due to begin college only a few days before his death. Other reports note that Brown was a "gentle giant" who had been in JROTC and loved making music. Media outlets were criticized for circulating a picture of Brown that seemed to portray him as a menacing figure when several other photographs were available, including a picture of Brown in his graduation cap and gown and another of him sitting at a dinner table with a young relative. Similar criticisms were made in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin's death, and the question of the media's selective portrayal of black shooting victims sparked the powerfulTwitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown. Twitter users -- many of them black and male -- post contrasting photos of themselves (e.g. in military dress v. in casual clothing with drinks in their hands) asking "#IfTheyGunnedMeDown which photo would they use?"

The point is obvious and important: to emphasize the humanity of those whose lives have been cruelly taken, to challenge racist stereotypes that clearly play a role in the violence so often aimed at minorities, and to highlight the media's complicity in after-the-fact rationalizations of unjustified killings.

But this attempt to humanize is fraught with its own dangers. In one of the many insightful and poignant reflections written in the wake of Brown's death, Roxane Gay expressed this stark sentiment:

I don't care if Mike Brown was going to college soon. This should not matter. We should not have to prove Mike Brown was worthy of living. We should not have to account for the ways in which he is suitably respectable. We should not have to prove that his body did not deserve to be riddled with bullets.

"We should not have to prove Mike Brown was worthy of living." The truth of this statement cannot -- must not -- be ignored. This is not simply because, as Gay astutely points out, the worthiness of white male victims of violence rarely needs to be similarly demonstrated. It is also because it leaves undisturbed the deadly presumption that the value of some people -- of some lives -- is contingent upon a showing of good behavior. It is as though an ever-present question mark is allowed to hover over some people's lives -- in particular, blacks, women, sexual minorities, the poor -- calling their very right to exist into question.

Some have called the killing of Michael Brown a denial of due process. Due process may seem like a curiously legalistic term to invoke in this context, but it throws the values at stake into sharp relief: a society that polices, prosecutes, and condemns people based not on objective indications of wrongdoing but on the whims and prejudices of the powerful is a society without due process and without justice. A foundational moral principle echoed everywhere from the Bible to Immanuel Kant to J.S. Mill to the U.S. Constitution is that human beings are presumed worthy of respect and liberty. We do not lose that presumption merely by looking or acting in ways that other people find objectionable or unwise. In the absence of strong evidence of willful wrongdoing, we must be allowed to make our own decisions, our own mistakes, our own lives.

What if Trayvon Martin sometimes smoked marijuana or if Michael Brown threw gang signs in pictures? What if Marissa Alexander was furious and not just frightened when she fired a gun in the direction of her abusive husband? What if Eric Garner got angry at the police as they tried to arrest him? What if Mark Carson was "flaunting" his homosexuality in front of the man who shot him in the face? What if Christy Mack had engaged in infidelity before her MMA fighter boyfriend broke her jaw? What if the unnamed homeless man sleeping on a memorial in Seattle had been disrespectful to the firefighters that beat and stomped on him? What if, in other words, these people sometimes made mistakes or acted before they thought or experienced strong emotions -- what if they were, in short, typical human beings?

Typical, and yet not, because the lives of racial minorities, sexual minorities, women, and the poor are presumed unworthy. Their lives are singled out for constant scrutiny, interrogation, and interference by both state and society, and they are expected to be nothing less than gracious in the face of this. The state regulation of their bodies is reinforced by society's casual claims to their labor, attention, and deference. This is a social order that carefully measures out the acceptable amounts of anger, resentment, or aggression for these groups and warns them of the consequences for exceeding them. The moment they step out of line or go off script, their fragile claim to basic dignity and security is shattered. The silent message follows them wherever they go: Your claim to existence is contingent on our indulgence. One false move and you will be punished. Or, in Stacia L. Brown's poignant words, "One false move and their minds or their wills or their ability to feel at all will be gone."

The possibility of being imperfect -- of making mistakes -- without dire consequences is in some respects the very definition of privilege. For only some groups need to fear that they may trip the wire of state-sanctioned violence at any moment. Some groups can engage in armed resistance against the government, walk into department stores with assault rifles slung across their backs, cheat on their partners, flaunt their sexual orientation, destroy the economy, and be indulged and even celebrated for it. Others cannot so much as walk through a store, a neighborhood, down a street, or into a clinic without being threatened, spat on, shoved, or shot. Some groups get to proclaim that their actions are uncontrollable or inevitable, practically forces of nature, while others are told that every act they perform is a choice for which they alone can be held responsible.

This dysfunctional state of affairs must be rejected. There is no justice in condemning some people to a perpetual state of cross-examination, tasked with convincing the rest of society that they deserve to move freely, make personal choices, or continue breathing. We cannot continue to subject certain groups to selective scrutiny, seizing on the slightest infraction as a pretext for unleashing our suspicion and hostility..

In a Facebook post that went viral in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, a man named Bob Seay wrote that he doubted both extremes of the media characterizations of Trayvon Martin: "I'm guessing that neither portrayal -- saint or thug -- is accurate. People are more complex than that." How good of a kid Martin was, says Seay, is ultimately beside the point. "None of the Trayvon Martins that I know deserve to die. They may arouse suspicion, but your paranoia is not their crime."

As tributes and protests form following Brown's death, as they did after Trayvon Martin's killing, there are many proclamations of solidarity: "We are Michael Brown." But this identification is not the only path to justice, and it may inadvertently obscure other ones. Seay's Facebook post, provocatively titled "I Am Not Travyon Martin," suggested that identification is an unstable foundation for revolution. "You don't have to be Trayvon Martin to know this is wrong. You don't have to be black, or young, or a 'troubled student' or a pot smoker to know this was murder." Seay concluded, "Let me be more blunt: This type of injustice will continue until enough guys like me -- guys who are not Trayvon Martin -- have had enough of it and finally say 'No more.'"

We cannot continue to accept the inverted, discriminatory, deadly logic of our current society. The endless demand for some people to prove the worth of their own lives will take everything they have, and will never be enough.

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