To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown

Friday, August 15, 2014 - 5:55am
Photo by Scott Olson

To Be White and Reckon with the Death of Michael Brown

No doubt by now you have heard the news about the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. About the protests. About the police response.

You may even be one of countless Americans who has expressed your horror over what’s happened — by attending a vigil, perhaps; by retweeting #iftheygunnedmedown; over dinner with people you love. You may have shaken your head as you stated the horrifying and obvious, “It’s 2014 and this is still happening?!”

And by you, I am specifically talking to white people. When confronted with a moment like Michael Brown’s death, white America is forced to reckon with racism. We are compelled to feel something, to say something, to signal our outrage about the continued existence of deadly prejudice.

Non-white America, of course, is eternally reckoning, but for white Americans, a moment like this can feel like a time apart, an opportunity to recommit oneself to anti-racist attitudes and actions. That’s powerful, potentially courageous even.

But too often I fear that we look to express outrage, in part, so that we may perform our identity as 'one of the good ones.’ If we condemn the acts of that “evil police officer in a small, backwards town,” particularly if we do so in a public way, we feel the comfort of separateness and even a small smugness that we are positioning ourselves on the right side of history.

I don’t believe in evil and I don’t believe in good, at least not that kind, when it comes to race in this country. I believe we, white Americans, are still — 150 years after slavery ended — dabbling in racial courage, specializing in amnesia, flummoxed by the acts of our ancestors and our responsibility for the past, and continuously struggling to wrap our minds around the structural racism that is our present.

I’m reminded of Ta’nehisi Coates important words:

"Now we have half-stepped away from our long centuries of despoilment, promising, 'Never again.' But still we are haunted. It is as though we have run up a credit-card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us."

White America rarely talks to our own ghosts on this matter. We don’t unpack our own “invisible knapsacks,” in the words of Peggy McIntosh, nearly enough. It’s easier to point the finger at the truly ignorant and violent among us and call them the bad guys.

To be sure, they deserve all the shame that we can muster; they deserve their punishment. But in a country that imprisons one out of three black men at some point in their lives, even “punishment” is a strange medicine for deadly racism.

The only way to honor Michael Brown and his family, to honor all Americans who reckon with the scourges of racism every single day, is to own that we may not be murderers, but we are inheritors. We must talk to our ugliest ghosts. We must work on strategies to dismantle structural racism. We must express our outrage at what is happening out there — in Ferguson, in Staten Island, in Oakland. But, we must also investigate what is happening in here, inside every one of us — our own unexamined privilege, our own patronizing cure-alls, our own fears. We are not bad. We are not good. We are part of the tragic story and the opportunity for transformation.

About the photo: Lesley McSpadden, the mother of slain teenager Michael Brown, joins a capacity crowd of guests at Greater St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church to discuss the killing of her son and the civil unrest resulting from his death in St Louis, Missouri.

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Courtney E. Martin

is a columnist for On Being. Her column appears every Friday.

Her newest book, The New Better Off: Reinventing the American Dream, explores how people are redefining the American dream (think more fulfillment, community, and fun, less debt, status, and stuff). Courtney is the co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network and a strategist for the TED Prize. She is also co-founder and partner at Valenti Martin Media and FRESH Speakers Bureau, and editor emeritus at

Courtney has authored/edited five books, including Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists, and Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters: How the Quest for Perfection is Harming Young Women. Her work appears frequently in The New York Times and The Washington Post. Courtney has appeared on the TODAY Show, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and The O’Reilly Factor, and speaks widely at conferences and colleges. She is the recipient of the Elie Wiesel Prize in Ethics and a residency from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Centre. She lives with her partner in life and work, John Cary, in Oakland, and their daughters Maya and Stella. Read more about her work at

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Outrage is appropriate,even as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. decried "the overehelming silence of the good people." The war on drugs, racial profiling, rampant unemployment disproportionately affecting people of color, and the militarization of police are structural problems that won't be addressed by navel-gazing.

Thank you...

Very well said. Thank you.

Thank you so much for just telling the truth. Thank you. I am Black my wife is White and someday we may have a son who, to society, is Black. I don't want to worry about his life... We need to start having the uncomfortable conversations and not just say we did.

Thank you for this, as I wish for more eloquence.

more eloquence is what you wish for?. who's eloquence are you wanting/wishing for? write it down how you eloquent in your feelings --- in your rage! anger -- let your indignity overcome the racial intolerance slash violence in america , erupt out of you --in your carefully crafted words, so that one can feel it! hear it, know it. do something about it, i suggest.

Any thoughts on what some strategies for dismantling structural racism might be?

Here is a really great voice answering some of that question:

The rush to judgement is often wrong.

Assumptions that the police officer was racist and acted accordingly may or may not be correct. The recently learned fact that less than ten minutes before the incident the very large young man forcibly overpowered a clerk and took cigars from a store could suggest that there was more to the incident. It is not unlikely that Brown feared the policeman who stopped him was responding to his criminal act (the fact that he wasn't is irrelevant).

What happened next could have been initiated by a racist police officer. It could have been initiated by Brown who feared arrest. The shooting could have been a racist reaction. It also could have been complicated by the officer's wounds and likely disorientation after the fight in the car. The complications of the fight still, however, does not justify the shooting of an unarmed citizen.

Most of the people of Ferguson are non-violent and non-racist. They are just trying to live in a culturally changing small suburban town. They have been mostly successful and are to be admired. Even the firsts responses were measured. Few Ferguson residents were part of the looting and violence. These actions apparently came from opportunists rather than from Brown supporters from Ferguson. Again assumptions arose that this was a racist event. The media reinforced this through poor reporting. The white police leadership did not communicate well.

There is enough blame to go around. The police responded in a manner that made the situation worse. It looked more like Iraq than suburban St. Louis. Police looked and acted more like soldiers with their equipment and demeanor. The governor stopped that with an inspired appointment of the very successful black head of the Highway Patrol who was from Ferguson. For a short time things got much better. Then it got worse with the release of a video showing Brown assaulting the clerk. Confusion reigned afterward.

The only real facts known are the ones learned from the history of St. Louis. While the mid-western city is doing pretty well after the recession, black communities are not. Black on black violence is rampant in many parts of St. Louis City and county; protests are not being held about this. The result of public response to the white on black shooting is largely a result of pent up black resentment toward historical red-lining, past legal restrictions in many areas, and the lack of any real successful efforts to bring good education and jobs to the minorities. The emotions are valid.

Yes, the area is still a product of racism. However, it is this reality that needs to be addressed. Assumptions about a particular event do not help. Especially when all the evidence is not in. It throws gasoline on the fire.

Thanks for the ongoing discussion about racism and particularly structural/institutional racism. In July, I attended an excellent three day workshop conducted by Crossroads, P.O. Box 309, Matteson IL 60443; Tel. 708.503.0804. Title of the workshop: "Understanding & Analyzing Systemic Racism. Their purpose is to help organizations (churches/businesses/organizations) learn about structural racism and learn strategies to dismantle it in their organizations. Crossroads' website can be found at or
For info. one can also email:

Good wisdom. Thank you.

Thank you for this, it so wonderfully expresses a lot of what I have been feeling as a young, white American. As I have recently begun digging into my own family history, I've been overwhelmed with shame and grief over the actions of my white, southern ancestors. And while I do my best to be a "good", conscious white person, I also feel a tremendous amount of guilt about the prosperity that I have inherited from the sins of my ancestors.

One of the things that I find most troubling is that my own guilt and shame reinforces a different kind of racism in myself that I think might be more prevalent among white people than we want to acknowledge. I feel a tremendous amount of respect for people of color in our country and recognize that I can't begin to understand what it's like to walk in this world as a black man. At the same time, I find it difficult to be around black people because it reminds me of the ancestral shame that I carry. Some part of me expects to be the target of racial anger and hatred because to some degree I feel like I deserve it. I have an intense desire to apologize to every black person that I meet on behalf of my race, but have no idea how to do that in a socially appropriate way.

I don't yet have any idea how to resolve these issues, but I expect that I'm not the only white person that feels this way. I also think that it is absolutely essential for White America to look at and deal with our collective grief and shame over the actions of our forefathers.

Me too!

As a woman, in my country and in my church, I am second class. Until I am equal, I am second class. As long as I am limited, I am second class. But I don't have any complaints next to my Black brothers and sisters. I am familiar with the attitudes and language, but on the spectrum, I barely register when compared to people of color, black, brown or pink with purple poke dots. My job is to live and speak out and act without bias to race, creed or belief system. Words are my weapon of choice. MY opinions should be respected no more or less than the opinions of others. My rights should be help up with everyones. Ideal, but possible when we demand non-violence of ourselves. Discipline and respect. It ain't easy, but it is the only way for ALL GOD'S CHILDREN to live on this earth He provided for ALL of us.

I was too pondered our sexism this morning as I prepare to preach a sermon for tomorrow about the woman whom Jesus calls a dog. As I reflect on the reading, I pray not only will we end the scourge of racism in our country but also sexism. As a woman priest I have been second guessed, belittled and argued with because of my gender not what I offer to all people. It makes me tired.

How many blacks are incarcerated without justifiable reason? I am not burdened by the slight possibility a great great grandfather owned slaves. I AM burdened by unearned entitlements (welfare), thug behavior, illegitimate children, drug use, bad schools,etc.

Its funny that you state these social problems as if they are "black social problems" and white people aren't on welfare, behave as thugs, reproduce outside of marriage do drugs and perform poorly in school... your comment is much judgement

You assume it was racism. We don't know that! That's irresponsible to categorize it as such before we know the facts. It's a tragedy but we don't know why it happened.

Thank you.

Thank you, Courtney! You put into wordsthe confusing feelings, the grief, the guilt we feel. Thank you, Peggy McIntosh, for opening my eyes a wee bit more to my white privilege.

God help us to somehow stop these horrors!

I am white. I will not reckon with thugs...white or black. The video speaks for itself. Don't make this HUGE thug out to be a school boy getting candy at the ice cream shop. He was a thug. The rest is all assumption on your part. You are fueling the fire. I am WHITE and PROUD, and I love black people, because they are my brothers and sisters!

Paul - you should be proud because you are made in the image of God! If your skin color is white, so be it! Perhaps Michael was a thug. After being shot, according to several eyewitnesses, he said "hands up, don't shoot" yet the officer continued to walk right up to him and shoot him dead. I respect the wait and see position you've taken here, but if it is proven that Michael was in fact shot in the back and shot at least four more times after he surrendered with "hands up, don't shoot" I hope you will open your eyes to the horror of what happened to this unarmed "thug" as you called him. Perhaps shooting once or twice to render the "thug" harmless is acceptable, but four more times after he fell to the ground begging him to stop... There is something very wrong with that picture - why? And Paul, I am your sister. I am black and I love you because you are a living, breathing, human being made in the image of God who needs to be loved and accepted! My prayer is that we can all see each other through that lens rather than color! God bless you!

I am a white, educated woman- coming to this continent to work honestly made me a slave.I was always exploited and no justice found- ever. North American live style of better off people exploits the rest of the people- doesn't matter the color.
The dignity for other doesn't exist here. I feel horrible for people of different colors- but listen white indifferent Americans- the whole world is noticing and it really doesn't agree or like what you do- the main problem is hate, greed and indifference is making from you monsters and this nation is going down the hill. Change your ways asap!Your blindness just digs the grave for your pride!

Young black people have institutionalized racism into a money-making engine. Much like the institutionalized white guilt I read about here. Neither has value to the exquisite edge of the moment, and that is what each should look at. I was in the NY metro area on 9/11/2001. Three men in my church died. The following year I was in a 32nd floor conference room in the Upper West Side when the lights went off in NY. I purposely ran down the stairs and started running to the Lincoln Tunnel. I was able to board one of the last buses out of town. When I boarded that bus we did not know if this was another terrorist attack and I thought that my life could depend on my choice of with whom I would sit. I was then a 50 year old white woman. My choices were men in baseball caps, men holding beer cans in paper bags and one man in a suit with a briefcase who was the only black man on the bus. I sat next to the man like me, briefcase, suit and personal dignity. We talked about his children, our churches and then debated which was the nicest beach on the Eastern seaboard. Our job is to educate those who want a better life and encourage all to be just and kind in the moment. We must not ignore that dimension which is a way to escape institutional racism.

gives me goosebumps to hear that 1 in 3 black men spend time in jail at some point in their lives. Literally brings the bile up from my stomach. i admit that I don't know how to express this outrage other than by treating all people with the utmost respect that we all deserve and intervening when that respect is denied by ignorant and hateful people

We must also consider the behavior of Negroes towards attitudes via black-on-white crime, robbers, and looters — and if those in that community will take a look at their own behavior, and if Thomas Jefferson's observation that two different peoples could not co-exist in the same government had merit.

Ferguson is located in north St. Louis county. St. Louis county is adjacent to St. Louis city. Ferguson is less than 5 minutes away from the city. The racial problem exists in various parts of the St. Louis metro area (Cahokia, East St. Louis, north St. Louis City, South City-Dutchtown, Wellston, and other parts of north St. Louis county). We have racial problems in various areas. Please encourage as many young, Black people in St. Louis that there are better cities where they can find racial acceptance and tolerance for their age. Young and Black can succeed in other cities. They can vote with their feet and move to a city that accepts them and treats them well. Move out of St. Louis.

If I was a police officer and was injured in the face while trying to keep order by a man 6 foot 4 no matter what color, I would feel threatened enough in that small moment of time for my life, and respond in all ways necessary to stop that threat.
It has been a week...if the facts were pointed against the officer he would have already been hung to dry.
Looting and rioting...and blaming the police to be over militarized is a sham excuse.
What type of response for rioting and looting would one expect?
I am damn tired of excuses..

So sad and so well stated. As a white American I realize the many hidden opportunities afforded me simply becuase I am white. Many years ago I had a deep insight into the possibilty of America becoming a society where these "hidden opportunites" were exposed and eliminated. It was thrilling and scary at the same time. I hope that when this times comes in America I will be as brave as possible to face the challenges.

I am white and I feel for people of all color and religion. We should work together to bring love to everyone and to treat each other with respect. I haven't heard of all the evidence in this case yet. But if this young man had his hands up then he should not have been shot. We must learn to love each other and to work together for a better society and a better America. We all bleed the same color. When and injustice is done to one it is done to all. God Bless!

You must learn not to believe lies. The only injustice being done here is to the police officer.

Thanks for writing this Courtney. I took your challenge to talk "to our own ghosts" to heart. Here is my response on the JUSTListening blog...a suggested strategy for addressing structural racism.

Thank you for putting words to some undercurrents of thought that I've been struggling with for years. As a white American who grew up in the integrating south, I've always recognized that we needed a new way to think and talk about race, but haven't found ways to do that. You've given me some seeds of ideas here.

Thank you for your thoughtful posts. I've been a fan of SOF/On Being for a long time, but I felt more like an appreciative eavesdropper who was too young/inexperienced to join the conversation. Your column helps me feel included in the dialogue. It's refreshing. I'm excited and thankful for your work.

The problem is power. With a gun and a badge you have it. With bigger guns and greater authority the abuse of power is a given. It is human nature, is a fact and occurs daily the world over. It has nothing to do with being black or white. Arming police forces disproportionately in the name of public security has resulted in less security and more fear. That is the exact opposite of the life of public citizenship and liberty young Americans desire for themselves.

It's weeks after and we still have no clear facts, so I believe it is premature to decide this is a result of white privilege or racism. Bottom line, the victim did put himself in harms way by choosing to shoplift, assault the store owner (see the vid) and more.

The larger and un-PC issue is why African Americans are exterminating each other -- 90%+ of African American victims are violated by... African Americans. More than 50% of African American babies are aborted. So called leaders (Sharpton, Jackson, etc) are self-serving and a far cry from the values of MLK. Academic achievement and knowledge are largely mocked by young African American men (as a teacher I see it every day). These things need to change before progress can be made.

I cannot disagree with Carol's insistence that we "investigate what is happening here" and especially that we recognize "our unexamined privilege [and] patronizing cure-alls." I feel I have a dog in this fight having been raised in what was then a nearly all-white Ferguson. And I also find I feel real impatience with those (a majority, sadly) who write to the local paper dismissing the blacks' concerns. Accommodation is SO slow.

As an instructor (the only one of color on campus) at a school in the Blue Ridge Mountains (predominantly white), I realize that this issue of race is part of the local tradition, emblazened into the minds of my students, and, that I have tried unconsciously to adjust myself in order to do my job over the last four years. As a woman of African descent, mother of two sons and grandmother of three grandsons, I realize that I cannot breathe a sigh of relief because my own sons have lived into adulthood. We have the next generation to keep safe. This is such a part of our lives that we have moved around it, above it, but not through it. Never through it. I am so starved for these kinds of conversation that I feel a deep longing for more whenever we speak openly and in our emotional truth about this issue. It is so tragic that it takes the lives of our sons to get us here. Let us do our work and change this. The metaphor of a credit card bill is so precise, because it is through money and the charging of interest that change in this system speaks...loudest. My heart goes out to this mother and to all mothers who have lost their sons to the ignorance of racism.

People of color must get over the idea that every white person is the devil incarnate. Just as we whitey's have had to look at people of. Color one individual at a time, so must they to get the other side of racism behind us. We all have to stand against institutional racism. But to throw every paleface under the bus is no less racist than the accusers complain about

Lesley McSpadden, should had spent more time on her son, training him to be an upright man, instead of having to try to cover up who she really knew he was...
It is despicable blaming this on racism! You should be ashamed of yourselves!
I'll tell you what... If I were a cop, and I had just heard on the radio that a kid had just robbed a store, and then that kid was on top of me, beating the living daylights out of me, and trying to get my gun... I would be firing, and I wouldn't think twice about what I was firing at... and if that kid ended up dead, of course I would feel bad, because that is a human life... But, I would not feel any guilt!
Racism is at an all time high! And let's start with voting a president into office based solely on the color of his skin... The man had no credentials! And you couldn't morally agree with him less - And you know who you are!, Yet, going against everything you believe in, you voted for him. And look what he's done! He is destroying our country! And look what's he's done for the black community, and please notice I did say black, and not "African American"... let's see, black people have been in this country just as long as any one else, and they still don't have the right to be called "Americans", and somehow after all these years, they are somehow still tied with Africa? Anyway, Obama has done less than nothing for the black community... and you voted for him twice!
And then here comes Sharpton, who is less of a Rev. than lucifer, to stir the pot... When are you ever going to learn... We are all Americans - Black, white, red, yellow... You need to stop going after the ones who are trying to protect us, and get your kids off the street, so they will stop killing each other!

This, structural racism is a product of years. Fueled by a cultural divide it will not diminish simply because people talk about it. Talk will only exacerbate things.

This is such a beautiful articulation of so much of what I've been reflecting on this past year as a white, privileged, female college student. Especially you're last line: "We are not bad. We are not good. We are part of the tragic story and the opportunity for transformation."

Thank you for writing.

It's interesting reading this article a year and a half after what happened that day and learning the facts of the case, as opposed to the understandable (in the moment) public outrage which was based on "witness" testimony that was later proven to be false (in many instances reports by witnesses who didn even witness the event).

I'm just one man speaking from his own experience. A man raised in the South in a family of very modest income. A man with black friends and black relatives who I love.

America is never going to heal from polarization about race (or politics) as long as the discussion continues to include the very elements that polarized our society in the first place: hatred, blame, pointing the finger at the other side of the polarized divide. I disagree that the divide will be bridged by imposing guilt on every person who isn't black. Or by cries of 'racism' every time a black man or woman doesn't win an Oscar or Grammy ... or when a black president encounters disagreement or opposition about his agenda.

If it's true that 2/3 of men in prisons are black it isn't because some misguided (or evil) white police officer simply put them there. They did have to appear before a judge and usually also a jury of their peers.. Instead of using, for your article, the example of a man who robbed a convenience store, assaulted the store clerk and then tried to reach into a police car and grab the officer's gun. Instead of attempting to justify the illegal and accosting actions of Michael Brown by offering his story as fuel for your outrage ... and painting America as a place where every white person carries around a load of hidden prejudice ... why not promote ideals that have a chance of truly bridging the divide? Why not report on instances of inclusiveness and cooperation (which do actually exist in abundance by the way)? Instead of condoning thuggery, why not promote civility ... among all races? Instead of blame and guilt and justification of criminal acts, why not promote the ideals of brotherhood and sisterhood, of the opportunity of a good education for all our youth, of a country that can benefit from it's diversity, especially if we focus on what we have in common and make an effort (particularly within the polarized media) to begin to truly understand each other and have genuine companion for any woman or man who is wronged or who suffers from adversity (there is plenty of adversity that is experienced just by being human, without anyone having to cause it). The divide will never be bridged until we ALL embrace the reality that we are brothers and sisters of one race ... the human race. That we will never come together by pointing fingers or blaming or being obsessed with assigning guilt .... or feeling entitled (EITHER because we believe we are elite or because we feel we have been wronged). We won't come together as a people and as a human family until we begin to embrace healing over hatred, and blame, and divisiveness.