I made this point yesterday afternoon, but it’s good to have company. John McWhorter is an academic and author who describes himself as a Democrat but who occasionally veers from ideological orthodoxy on issues involving race. He also once worked for the conservative Manhattan Institute which means some people on the left view him as a Republican. So I’ll say upfront that while I don’t always agree with McWhorter, he’s often interesting to read and frequently says something a lot more reasonable than many other writers of similar think-pieces on these topics. And that’s the case again today on the 5th anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. From Slate:
John Crawford, killed for holding up a toy. Eric Garner was basically pleading for his life. And these sorts of things are not happening once every five years. What was interesting about it was that finally white America could see what ails a lot of black America. I think a lot of very well-intentioned whites look at the race debate and think, “Why are black people still so upset? What’s the issue?” And a great deal of the issue has been the cops.
But so much of what people remember about the August day Brown was killed is simply a myth. We can go on and on with various black men who were killed under conditions quite different from Ferguson. It’s inconvenient to me that the case that forever people will think about is the one where essentially we were lied to…
When you saw the Department of Justice report, did that change how you thought about what you’ve been writing about for a year at that point?
Yes. What happened in Ferguson was quite different from what we were told. No one can doubt now that Brown did not die with his hands up—he had been quite aggressive with Darren Wilson, and Darren Wilson shot him because he was afraid. Now, we can talk about Why did Darren Wilson have to shoot him to kill? That’s a whole conversation, as opposed to shooting him in the leg, but the idea that the “gentle giant” got shot with his hands up is a myth, and we’ve heard this even from the people who were watching.
I have been quite disturbed that a major element in our intelligence and punditocracy pretends that the truth about Ferguson is somehow beside the point. You can assume that there is going to be a movie about Ferguson, and I’m sure they are probably shooting it now, and in the part where Michael Brown was killed you can be sure that they’re going to go in slow motion, they’re going to start with strobe lighting, the camera angles are going to get weird. The director and the writer are going to give interviews where they say that they wanted to make it clear that the truth is unsure, that there are varying perspectives. But no, the truth is quite simple.
McWhorter makes it clear that he’s not saying there isn’t a problem between black Americans and the police. In fact, he thinks the other Justice Department report, the one that found all sorts of misbehavior by the mostly white police force, may help explain why Mike Brown reacted the way he did that day five years ago. I think he has a point there but you can’t really make that point (in my view) unless you’re also willing to tell the truth about Mike Brown (as McWhorter does).
What bothers me about it is that it being untrue leaves black people who are concerned with where we are on race open to a charge of lying. There are so many cases where the facts are quite clear. And then there is a case that people will bring all the time, that there will be movies and plays about, which is based on a lie. And the lie is easy to find today with the internet.
The most prominent case of a cop murdering a black man is one where we happen not to have been told the truth. Where you can always say, “Actually, that didn’t happen.” It’s not healthy because it’s going to stand in the way of constructive debate. It’ll leave many people wondering whether we were lied to about a lot of the other cases.
McWhorter would prefer activists focus on the cases where the facts clearly support the argument they want to make, rather than one where it really does not. He specifically mentions Eric Garner. I would add Walter Scott. There are, unfortunately, enough cases to make the underlying point without relying on the false story about Mike Brown. And I would add, though McWhorter does not, that you could say much the same about Trayvon Martin, another case where many of the claims initially made turned out not be true.
Slate’s interviewer believes that ultimately the nation’s fixation on Mike Brown’s case was beneficial to the nation even if you grant that the initial story wasn’t accurate. McWhorter agrees saying, “If all of America is more aware of the problem of black men and the cops, the problem with the militarization of the police, then we’re further on than we were 10 years ago.”
This is where I would disagree (respectfully) with McWhorter. Ultimately it has to matter that the story which generated much of that energy was a lie. Because you really can’t have a conversation about the problem when the most fundamental thing many people believe about the issue is a lie. I understand the appeal of that lie. And I understand that similar things have really happened. But at some point, a real conversation about this has to be based on the truth. And five years later, that’s still not where we are.
Update: Case in point of the lie that persists to this day (and why it matters).
5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 9, 2019