Monday, August 25, 2014


I read John Eligon's New York Times profile of Mike Brown this morning and came away with the impression that it was a largely positive portrait. Then I went online and realized that I was supposed to be appalled by it.

I was supposed to overlook the description of Brown as a young man who "spoke seriously about religion and the Bible" and "was grappling with life's mysteries," who "overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time" and "was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life," and who got into one fight that anyone of his acquaintance could remember, and even then he didn't throw a punch. ("I don't think Mike ever threw a real punch," a friend told Eligon.)

This, I was told, negated all that:
Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.
"No angel," as has been endlessly pointed out online, is a phrase the Times has used to describe Whitey Bulger and Al Capone; however, it's also a phrase used to describe Angelica Pickles from Rugrats and Cherubin from The Marriage of Figaro. It's a flexible phrase; if we white readers think it damns a young black man, it's because we think a young black man must be morally flawless to be worthy of respect (whereas a young white man should be cut more slack) -- or we believe that other whites believe this.

And I suppose plenty of whites do believe this. But it doesn't mean that a portrait of Brown has to be written for the racist lowest common denominator. In the immediate aftermath of his death, it was said that he shouldn't have to be a perfect person to be someone whose shooting outrages us. Now, apparently, he does have to be perfect.

There was anger at Eligon's references to drug use and rap. I find this striking because I've been told on Twitter that this piece is in stark contrast to the flattering portrayal of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in his Rolling Stone cover story. But remember what we were told about Dzhokhar? That he was a pothead. Oh, and that his brother was, at times, an aspiring hip-hop artist and a boxer. (Imagine if we were being told that Mike Brown boxed.) These were the things that were supposed to be positive aspects (or at least benign aspects) of the Tsarnaevs' lives, before they turned to terrorism. So when we say that referencing rap and marijuana in reference to Mike Brown is a slur, that's a problem with us, not the reporter.

If we see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as a good kid in his weed years but think references to Mike Brown's weed use must be suppressed, then we've internalized the racist narrative; it's colonized our minds even if we don't want to be racist.

Here's John Eligon, by the way:

A black reporter can certainly denigrate a black subject (see: Don Lemon) -- but I see nothing like Lemon's pull-your-pants-up talk in Eligon's piece. What I see, maybe, is a belief that he had to get flaws into the story because that's what's expected -- and maybe that's his internalization of racism.

But the robbery video exists. The raps, with some violence in the lyrics, exist and have been heard and dissected. Eligon tries to put them in context. He's 31 years old -- he's too young to remember a time when rap wasn't central to American and global popular culture, so maybe he just thought readers would understand Brown's rapping as an act of creativity, not menace. And at this point, why shouldn't that be the case?

Eligon doesn't seem like a guy who's in denial about racism:
As a 31-year-old black man himself, Mr. Eligon told me, he is attentive to many of the issues in the Ferguson case. During his time covering the Midwest for The Times, he has experienced apparent racial profiling -- "I've had the cops called on me twice for looking suspicious" -- and while covering courts in Manhattan, he once was told to sit down and wait for his lawyer to arrive.
He's said that the most nerve-racking moment of his journalistic career was interviewing a white supremacist in a small town in North Dakota ("Would the sight of me, a black man, at his door startle him so much that he would shoot first and ask questions later?").

I think he's getting a raw deal. I think if we can't read that profile and still see the Mike Brown portrayed by Eligon as worthy of a long life, we're the ones who have the problem.


Jon said...

uh hi, so i spent the day yelling at you on twitter about this. i stand by the things i said, but this post is illuminating as to your thought process, and appreciated.

look: that paragraph is a nightmare, just an utter mess. what with an ongoing drumbeat of finding ways to blame the victim, nobody needs this laundry list of youthful transgressions. if you want to talk about his love of rap, well, we bring up later how he liked kendrick lamar (and call of duty). when those details are presented with the nuance they deserve, they add to the story. instead, it sounds... the way it sounds. the way this semi-introductory paragraph was framed could have been borrowed from WND and that really sucks.

my problems are with the editing more than the content: eligon might be getting a raw deal here, but the significant problems with pace and arrangement are something that the ny times (they who have perfected the problems of the wealthy upper west sider feature) could have caught. they could in general stand to wake up.

i think this piece's mistakes are just that, not anything borne from malice. but these are the kinds of mistakes that rub salt in open wounds and prevent people from reading what might be worthwhile in the rest of piece. moreover, if you're the times, you don't want to deal with this crap.

Vixen Strangely said...

Although that paragraph is troubling, I do thing the piece moves to, "at the same time" in a way to indicates he had things going for him and a lot of potential. This piece wasn't as problematic for me, anyway, as Joe Klein's piece for Time, which really seemed in the second graph to accept the "maybe this was justifiable because he wasn't a perfect victim" narrative. *That* was jarring to me.

Ken_L said...

I think these "let's analyse the victim" pieces are repugnant, regardless of John Eligon's approach. They inevitably turn the conversation into a discussion of whether the victim deserved to be killed, or at least whether we should mourn his or her death, and thus divert attention completely from what people ought to be discussing, namely the actions of the killer and whether they were justified.

Luigi said...

I read the article in question early this morning... and then went to work.

Now, it's late at night, and although I did not find the "He's no angel" phrase to be troubling, I thought the article was half-baked. It seemed overtly negative as if to say (what the NYT says all the time to people who won't ever read it) Hey, he wasn't a good guy! He didn't deserve death, sure, but he was asking for it by listening to rap music, writing rap lyrics, drinking, smoking and SHOP LIFTING. (Let's remember, folks, he didn't rob the store, he shoplifted, just like my friends used to do at Woolworth's every freaking day.)

I immediately remembered my (mostly white) friends at that age and my twenty-something kids and their peers now. Some of them smoke, some drink, some like music worse than rap. Does that make them worthy of being cut down in broad daylight by a trigger happy denizen of the safety forces?

I don't think so.

Steve M. is off on this screed, but overall, he's a right on guy.

Aunt Snow said...

Hmmm. There's an article in the WAPO that tells me that of the two people involved in the shooting incident in Ferguson, one of them had a troubled childhood, came from a broken home where one of his parents was convicted of a crime. He then went on to associate with a gang of armed thugs who the authorities eventually disbanded because of how corrupt they were.

Philo Vaihinger said...

How sure is anyone Brown was actually the guy in the video at the store? The cops say they think it was him? Really? Is that it?

Kevin Hayden said...

Good points about the internalized racism, Steve. I actually was more put off by the constant reference to him as Mr. Brown. It may be a respectful way of addressing him, but I think it subtly undermines a key point: he was just a kid (though technically, adult)

My main objection was that a similar profile so in-depth, was not done on the officer, too. To me, that's the only way to get a sense of balance.

So far, I see that Michael was very typical in many ways, to many kids. He liked popular music, sometimes struggled in school, was not a gangbanger, thought about religion, didn't go looking for trouble. He made a few kid mistakes. Big deal.

The cop may have made an adult mistake. A deadly one. So what was his upbringing like? Who was he as a person?

Will we ever get that story?

Roger said...

I've seen people who read the first two paragraphs to suggest that Brown was having religious hallucinations, and that that fact explains why Brown was acting erratically right before he was shot (the absence of evidence of such behavior notwithstanding).

When you start an article with an ambiguous description of its subject "see[ing] something" supernatural and don't explain that reference -- or at least acknowledge that Brown's intended meaning can't be further explained -- your article is in trouble.

Steve M. said...

My first thought was that that might be the point of the anecdote, though Eligon has described it as just a sign of his spiritual nature. A lot of people who aren't crazy (especially in America) think they see religious signs and portents in everyday things.