Black and White Thinking, and Other Things Ferguson

We likely all fall prey to it from time to time – dualistic thinking of the ‘all or nothing’ type. You know, something is either right or it’s wrong. It’s good or it’s bad. Circumstances are either pristinely perfect or they’re an unholy mess. Someone is either with us or against us, friend or foe. Such ‘black and white’ thinking might help us navigate those emotionally stressful situations that arise from time to time, it might even help us make a quick decision that we feel needs to be made, but it doesn’t much help us see the underlying reality of the situation with any clarity. In fact, ‘black and white’ thinking merely preempts our ability to see what’s really going on.

Let’s face it, though, most of the time we’re not all that interested in seeing what’s really going on. Feeling good is what we care most about. And so we gravitate to people who make us feel good about ourselves rather than those who might challenge us to grow in ways that would be healthier for both us and the world. We stay in jobs that provide us with status and material comfort in lieu of accepting work that might be better for our spiritual growth and the planet. We adopt a belief system that bolsters our self-esteem instead of allowing ourselves to see things as they really are. Yes, we feign interest in this thing we call “the truth”. In reality, though, it’s pretty much like Colonel Jessup said in the film A Few Good Men: we can’t handle the truth!

An example of a belief that keeps us from really seeing things as they are is the so-called ‘just world hypothesis’. In the eyes of a ‘just world’ believer people get what they deserve. If someone is poor, it’s because they’re too lazy to get out and find work. If someone is sick, it’s because they didn’t have the discipline to live an active life and eat healthy foods. If someone gets raped, it’s because they drank too much in the company of the wrong type of people, or they dressed provocatively and sent out the wrong vibe. If someone gets shot dead by a police officer, it’s because they were doing something that they shouldn’t have been doing, plain and simple, end of story.

Which brings me to the reaction of some to the killing of an unarmed black youth in Ferguson, Missouri this past August 9, and the unrest that followed both his killing and the decision not to indict the white police officer who cut him down in a hail of gunfire. One needn’t search for long in order to find numerous manifestations of the ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ of which I speak. The editorial pages and social media platforms and the comments sections below the online news stories are chock full of them. Sure enough, various levels of critical thinking are in evidence in these comments, but if we examine them closely we can see where critical thinking ends and ‘black and white’ thinking and the invocation of the ‘just world hypothesis’ begins.

Sadly, some needed to hear no more than the fact that a black man was shot by a police officer in order to conclude that justice was done. After all, we need to support those who stand for law and order in this increasingly violent world of gangsters and others who hold in contempt all that civilized society holds dear, don’t we? Such commentators would need only pepper their words with a racial epithet in order to remove whatever doubt might exist regarding the true nature of their feelings. Thankfully, the minds of others seemed to have remained open just a little bit longer, until such time as video emerged of Michael Brown appearing to engage in a strong-armed theft of some cigarillos at a convenience store just prior to meeting his demise. Oh, now we see who Michael Brown really was, some were to conclude at that time. He was nothing but a “thug” and now it’s clear that he had it coming to him. Still others were willing to look past Brown’s apparent petty theft in order to focus on what took place during the subsequent altercation between him and the police officer. Darren Wilson claimed that Brown struck him and went for his gun, and the forensic evidence seemed to support what he claimed (although alternative scenarios might also fit the evidence). Nobody can expect to hit a police officer and go for his gun and live to talk about it, can they? Yes, indeed, justice was served, some were to conclude.

Unfortunately, we can also see ‘black and white’ thinking and the ‘just world hypothesis’ being applied during discussion of the protests and rioting and looting that occurred after both the news of the killing and the announcement of the decision not to indict Officer Wilson. The most egregious examples are variations on the theme of considering every single protester to be a rioter and a looter and thereby deserving of whatever heavy-handed and militarized law enforcement retaliation that they might have been met with. So, if someone got wounded by a “rubber bullet” or a teargas projectile…, well, they were looters…, no, they were “domestic terrorists”, and they deserved whatever they got. If someone got arrested for not following the unlawful orders of a police officer…, well, you’ve just got to do whatever a police officer orders, that’s all. We live in a just world, and in a just world if you behave like an animal you get treated like an animal. There’s no reason to look at things any more deeply than that.

And, yet, it really doesn’t take much digging at all for one to discover that the protesters are actually comprised of a very large majority of working class individuals, professionals, students, families, church groups, community organizations, and others who are seeking to communicate their concerns and their frustrations in a non-violent way. Sure, accompanying them on occasion is a minority of others who are either too frustrated to be able to contain their destructive rage or who might actually be looking to engage in a bit of opportunistic looting. However, if we allow ourselves to see this diverse reality, if we allow ourselves to see past the ‘black and white’ conclusions we might be inclined to draw about those “looters” and “domestic terrorists”, then we must also become willing to see that perhaps injustice is being done. Perhaps injustice is being perpetuated. Perhaps we don’t live in a just world after all. Can we handle that truth?

That’s a scary thought, isn’t it – that maybe we don’t really live in a just world after all? For if we don’t really live in a just world, then maybe the good fortune that we enjoy is not really so much deserved as it is the result of a roll of the dice, a grand twist of fate. Maybe we’re just incredibly lucky to have been born into circumstances that made a good education possible, that made employment opportunities possible, that made our hopes and our dreams possible. But what if we’d been born into poverty? What if we’d been born into a neighborhood with terrible schools? What if we’d been born into a situation where people think any number of negative things about us based upon the color of our skin? What if we’d been born into circumstances where the names just keep piling up of all the people that we know who’ve ended up in jail or dead just for trying to do what they felt they had to do to survive?

If we really look at the killing of Michael Brown and its deepest causes, if we really look at the response of the community and the world, and the response of the police and the government, if we can get past our urge to wrap up Darren Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown into a neat little package with a ‘he got what he deserved’ bow on top, then we might actually be able to create something positive from what many perceive as simply the latest case of racial injustice in a long and seemingly endless string of racial injustices. In order to do so, however, we must be willing to handle the truth. And what is the truth? I don’t profess to see it all, but I’ve been paying close enough attention as these past few months have unfolded that I think I see bits and pieces of it.

There is the truth of Michael Brown struggling to graduate from a predominately African-American school district – one troubled to the point of being taken over by the state. There is the truth of the municipality of Ferguson being funded in large measure with money raised from the “crimes of poverty” of its citizenry – the piled up traffic tickets related to the inability to maintain vehicles, for instance. There is the truth of the predominately white government and police force of Ferguson overseeing the civic affairs and the policing of its majority black population, and there is the truth of the tension that resulted therefrom. There is the truth of the long and violent history of racial injustice in this country, and the contemporary truth of episode upon episode in which white police officers are perceived to be perpetuating that injustice via their apparent quickness to use overwhelmingly deadly force against unarmed black men and youth. There is the truth of the community raising its concerns that Darren Wilson would receive preferential consideration given a prosecutor with a perceived history of bias, and there is the truth of these concerns being dismissed out of hand. There is the truth that Darren Wilson did indeed receive preferential treatment in a number of ways*, just as those responsible for past civil and human rights abuses were given special treatment in the white courts of the day. There is the truth that, whether or not Darren Wilson had the law on his side when he pumped a barrage of bullets into Michael Brown’s body, there is still a question in so many people’s minds as to whether he was justified in doing so. Did he need to use force or did he just want to? Was he the provocateur in this deadly altercation? Was he so inept in his handling of this encounter that he bears responsibility for the death of Michael Brown?  Yes, the truth of these open questions (and others) hangs in the psyches of many who know all too well the names of those who’ve fallen victim to the application of overwhelmingly deadly police force, despite the larger white community having forgotten. This is the truth of our nation: that many of its citizens perceive that the apparent quickness to pull the trigger, and the willingness to keep on pulling the trigger, and the willingness of the larger white community to condone the pulling of the trigger, stems from an inherent belief that black lives don’t matter – a belief that is undergirded by the truth of the higher incarceration rates of African-Americans, the sentencing disparities between blacks and whites, and the disparities in the application of capital punishment between blacks and whites.

So, how do we even begin to address this tangle of racial and social issues? Perhaps a good place to start is to focus for a moment on the truth of Michael Brown: that no matter what he might have done he was much, much more than the worst of his deeds. He was a living and breathing human being with family and friends and the desire to be happy and free. He deserved his day in court for whatever wrongdoing he might have been accused of. His life mattered. And the fact that his life was taken away by an employee of the state while acting on our behalf should give us all pause; it should make us curious enough to look closer – much closer than we’ve looked up to this point.

But, but, but…, you might wish to take exception, Michael Brown was ultimately the victim of his very own choices. Perhaps that is the truth; but can you say with certainty that you would never have made the same choices as he did if you were faced with the same circumstances as he was? Is that the truth? Or is it really just the case that you can’t handle the truth?

* Grand jury transcripts reveal that Darren Wilson gave hours of testimony during which he was able to promulgate his explanation of the altercation between he and Brown without adversarial cross-examination. This opportunity to convey his side of the story comes on the heels of him not writing an incident report on the day of the shooting itself, thus providing him with the opportunity to become aware of what evidence existed and to tailor his story to account for it. Furthermore, the grand jury was reported to have been given a document outlining the acceptable application of deadly force that was deemed years ago to have been unconstitutional – thereby falsely lowering the standard by which Wilson’s actions would be judged, and making the decision not to indict just that much more likely. 

Image Credits

Screen shot from the film A Few Good Men manipulated by the author.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Frank


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