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Feelings On Ferguson Reflect Deep Racial Divide


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Officer Darren Wilson has resigned from the police department in Ferguson, Missouri. His lawyer made the announcement yesterday, although the police department has not yet confirmed the resignation. Wilson had been on administrative leave since fatally shooting 18-year-old Michael Brown in August. Perceptions of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri has broken down along racial lines that have only deepened following the grand jury's decision this past week.

That's been the experience of Slate writer Jamelle Bouie, who has been reflecting on the racial dimensions of the case. When we spoke, I asked him about a recent column that generated thousands of comments. You wrote about how protesters in Ferguson were calling for justice for Michael Brown. But also, at the same time, there wasn't a whole lot of faith in the African American community that an indictment was ever going to happen. So in that case, what did justice mean? What was the expectation?

JAMELLE BOUIE: Yeah, I think the expectation was that someway, somehow the legal system would affirm the value of Michael Brown's life. I'll say, you know, I think people were not expecting any kind of conviction to happen. But there was a good number who thought that at least he would get an indictment, that at least he would be charged with manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter or something to kind of just affirm the fact that someone who is a member of the community and who mattered to the community had died.

MARTIN: There is this wide understanding that the police have a poor record in African-American communities. There is deep distrust. But there are many people right now who are questioning whether or not Michael Brown and this case is the right symbol for reform. This is a young man who can be seen being very aggressive toward the shop owner in that convenience store that he robbed. What do you say to people who put that out?

BOUIE: You know, I've actually thought about this quite a bit. And I think this was someone who was well-liked in his community, who had his problems, who was not a perfect person. But to many people and myself included didn't deserve to die because he made mistakes, didn't deserve to die because he robbed a convenience store, didn't deserve to die because he got mouthy with a police officer and got into a fight with a cop. There are plenty of people who've gotten into fights with cops who aren't killed for it. I actually think it's a little unreasonable to say, you know, you should find a better victim. No. People aren't going to try to find a better victim. They're going to rally around the family that they know and in this case, that was Michael Brown's family.

MARTIN: You've also written about how this case has unearthed racial stereotypes that have a long and painful history in this country. Specifically you talk about how Officer Darren Wilson described Michael Brown in his testimony. Can you explain what you heard under that description?

BOUIE: Sure. I feel, first and foremost, it's important to establish a very important fact about both men. Both men were large. Darren Wilson is 6 foot 4 inches and around 210 pounds. Michael Brown was 6 foot 5 inches and around 290 pounds. Eighty pounds is a big difference, but the fact of the matter is that these were two tall, larger than 200 pound men which are two big men. And so in his description of his encounter with Michael Brown, Darren Wilson says that he felt like a five-year-old being grabbed by Hulk Hogan in their initial scuffle. He says that Michael Brown looked like a demon as he was - during the encounter.

MARTIN: But wouldn't any - anyone who feels like they're being victimized by a perpetrator would describe their aggressor in aggressive terminology, right? What did you feel was - part of that description that felt racist?

BOUIE: So the part describing Michael Brown as sort of looking like a demon running into bullets. It is extremely familiar to 19th century and early 20th century depictions of, quote, black brutes - of powerful, large, black men who are impervious to damage and can only be put down through use of extreme force. And so I, you know, I am not - and I don't think I did - calling Darren Wilson a racist. But I am saying that that description of Michael Brown fits very comfortably with racist archetypes.

MARTIN: Nor are you saying that Darren Wilson wasn't authentically afraid either.

BOUIE: Right. I'm not saying that either. He is - I actually very much believe that he was authentically afraid. And if he was authentically afraid and those are the images that came to him, I think that actually speaks to how embedded the idea of the dangerous, large, angry, black man is in sort of our national subconscious.

MARTIN: So do I hear you saying that it's yet another opportunity, for lack of a better word, to reevaluate how we talk about race in this country?

BOUIE: I think that's right. Even if Michael Brown were as violent and aggressive as Darren Wilson said, and if Darren Wilson was completely justified in using lethal force against him, when this happened, people would bring - and particularly African-Americans - who'd bring their memories of young black men killed by police to bear on this. There's no separating that. And on the other end, there's a lot of deep-seated fear of crime. There's a lot of deep-seated fear of victimization - all completely reasonable. And that deep-seated fear of crime and victimization is tied tightly to race and to racism.

People are products of their society as much as they are individuals. And it would be, you know, in my mind a little unfair to say, well, stop thinking that. People can't help but think what they think. But those are the things that people are bringing to the table.

MARTIN: Jamelle Bouie writes for slate.com. Thanks so much for talking with us, Jamelle.

BOUIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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