The New York Times packaged its profiles of Darren Wilson and Michael Brown as “Two Lives at Crossroads in Ferguson.” The stories are situated side by side on the homepage, and each features a a small, blurry photo of its subject. They share a nearly identical word count. They are, by all appearances, supposed to do the same work. To help us understand something about the lives and histories of a white cop and a young black kid whose names will forever be entwined. But Wilson is alive. Brown is dead. Nothing for these two can ever be the same.
We don’t learn much about Wilson’s teen years in his profile. He was an unremarkable hockey player, his mother was convicted of stealing and forgery while he was still quite young. We have no idea if he was rebellious at home or fought with his parents. We don’t know whom he hung out with, or what kinds of photos may exist of him at parties from that time. But such details hardly seem relevant. Ten long years separate Wilson from who he was in high school and the man he is today.
But Brown is dead, and the dead don’t change. His profile includes anecdotes about a spiritual awakening and a “rebellious streak.” Brown “occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, according to friends.” He “was not the best student,” but was also committed to graduating on time and taking classes at a local technical college. He was “no angel,” we’re told.
One response here is to point out that you’d be hard-pressed to find an 18-year-old “angel” — or an angel at any age, for that matter. To note how much we change as we enter adulthood — and the great tragedy of Brown being robbed of that opportunity to grow — is a fair but ultimately inadequate point. Brown is just the latest in a long line of black youth to be posthumously scrutinized for evidence that they caused their own deaths. It’s unspoken in the piece, but the Wilson profile encourages the reader to question what in this man’s history could have led him to shoot and kill an unarmed teenager who had his hands raised in surrender. By framing Brown’s profile as a companion piece to Wilson’s, the Times encourages the reader to perform the same calculus once again. This time, the question becomes, How did this unarmed black teenager find himself in the path of Wilson’s bullets?
The Times profile of Brown, even if this was not the intent, is part of a body of journalism that vets “good” and “bad” victims, a treatment generally reserved for dead black and brown young people and victims of sexual assault. In fact, while reading it, I couldn’t help but think of another piece the Times ran about a brutal gang rape that occurred in 2011. According to that piece, “some said” the victim — an 11-year-old girl — “dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s.” The reader is also informed that this little girl “would hang out with teenage boys at a playground.”
This information is inserted in the most neutral way imaginable, as though it’s just creating a full picture of the moment and circumstances that preceded the rape. The chosen details of Brown’s history are delivered just as innocuously. But there is no neutral in a culture that presumes black criminality and women’s share of blame in sexual assault, and the selected framing of each piece prompts the reader to imagine how these details could make each victim complicit in violence committed against them. If this little girl had dressed differently, perhaps she wouldn’t have been sexually assaulted by a group of men. If Brown had been an above average student about to leave for a four-year college, maybe Wilson wouldn’t have looked at him and immediately seen a threat. Maybe things could have been different.
These are the questions we see raised time and again. Lawyers for Theodore Wafer wanted jurors to review photos of Renisha McBride posing with money and what appeared to be drugs during the trial to establish why their client, upon find a 19-year-old black teen on his doorstep, couldn’t be blamed for shooting her through a locked door. Repeatedly we were asked to question why Trayvon Martin had his hoodie up that night. To wonder why he didn’t submit to George Zimmerman. Why did that little girl hang out with teenagers at the playground? Didn’t she know that kind of thing sends the wrong message?
All too often, the media fails to give teens like Brown, McBride and Martin the kind of humanity and sympathy it affords others. Roxane Gay, in an essay on the vast differences in how the media wrote about Trayvon Martin and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — perhaps most typified by a strong, nuanced Rolling Stone piece on Tsarnaev by Janet Reitman — writes:
Reitman’s article is a solid piece of journalism. It reveals complex truths about the life of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Imagine, though, if Rolling Stone had dedicated more than eleven thousand words and the cover to Trayvon Martin to reveal the complex truth of his life and what he was like in the years and months and hours before his death. How did he deal with the burden of being the face of danger from the moment he was born? This is a question fewer people seem to be asking.
Earlier in the piece, published in Gay’s “Bad Feminist,” she writes, “This, it would seem, is yet another example of white privilege — to retain humanity in the face of inhumanity.”
Gay’s analysis applies just as well to the scripts playing out on Wilson and Brown. We struggle to understand why a white police officer who had perviously kept such a “low profile” would shoot and kill an unarmed teenager. We demand answers because this defies how things are supposed to work, because we want to believe that law enforcement protects, rather than harms. But because of these same biases, Brown’s profile is understood in a vastly different way than his killer’s. The profile is the product of a culture that assumes black criminality, a culture that accepts, time and again, the death of young people of color as the price of “community safety.”
In this context, it’s impossible to write neutrally about the death of yet another black teenager. In response to anger over the piece, Times national editor Alison Mitchell told the Washington Post:
I think, actually, we have a nuanced story about the young man and if it had been a white young man in the same exact situation, if that’s where our reporting took us, we would have written it in the same way. The story … talks about both problems and promise.
But Brown wasn’t a white young man. We rarely have to read about white young men being shot and killed by police officers for the crime of walking in the street, wearing a hoodie, coming to a stranger’s front door and asking for help. I have little doubt that Michael Brown had “problems and promise.” He was human, after all. But writing about his death, only the most recent in a staggering number of deaths of young people of color, demands greater thought, more nuance, more context than the Times piece provided. Mitchell was defending the profile in her remarks to the Post, but actually named its problem. We don’t find many white young men “in the same exact situation” that Brown found himself in. That’s exactly the point.