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.