If you’ve never been black in America, then you can never fully understand what it means to be black in America. White folks like myself, regardless of our socioeconomic status, are born with the privilege of color — white privilege — and no matter how we conduct ourselves in our public and private lives, we’ll always be citizens of America in a way that black people still can’t be. To be white in America is to be a full citizen, but to be black in America is to be the perpetual outsider. When a St. Louis County grand jury failed to indict officer Darren Wilson for the August 9, 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the continued outsider status of blacks in America was laid bare for the world to see. Wilson, of course, is white, and Brown was black. If you think those facts don’t mean anything, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Following the verdict, parts of Ferguson once again exploded, as rioters set fire to multiple buildings and smashed and burned police cars. Predictably, America’s right-wing media lined up in lock-step support for the verdict and for Wilson, and reactionary Twitter feeds lit up with the usual spiel of white victimhood. But the surge of anger among many of Ferguson’s black residents is not merely the response to the Ferguson verdict: it’s also a response to the historical legacy that laid the foundations for such a verdict. Whatever really happened on the day that Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, the history of institutional racism, suburban white-flight, and racially based redlining and housing discrimination have, over the decades, culminated to create a modern environment — in both Ferguson and across the country — that designates blacks as outsiders to be feared in a culture that gives special preference to whiteness.
One way to describe the darker trajectory of U.S. history is to describe how so many of America’s laws, cultural norms, and economic practices have been geared towards the social and legal recognition of white privilege. Over time, this process has involved counting blacks as three-fifths of a person in the Constitution; enslaving them as human property for over a century; precluding them from having basic civil rights and making them the target of brutal lynchings from the end of the Civil War to the mid-twentieth century, and enacting discriminatory housing and schooling policies to relegate much of the black population to urban poverty in the contemporary era. Race is inseparable from an American history that saw the continued designation of African-Americans as outsiders impinging on the “norm” that is whiteness.
Michael Brown was an individual, but he was also a symbol of the perpetual black outsider: a menacing figure that, via his very existence, poses a threat to white safety and comfort. As sociologist Kelly Welch observes, the black outsider stands as the go-to representation of crime, and the “black male as vile and menacing street thug” mentality has manifested throughout U.S. history in fears of slave revolts, black political agency, “miscegenation,” and the now-familiar urban “thug” whose only goal is to wreck endless havoc in the peaceful society that American whites built on the backs of his ancestors. In past eras, the problem of the black outsider was generally called the “negro problem,” and while that phrase is no longer en vogue today, the sentiment remains — ever-present and ever volatile.
Black intellectuals of all stripes have long tried to reconcile the outsider status of blacks with America’s ostensible devotion to freedom and equal rights. In an 1863 speech titled “The Present and Future of the Colored Race in America,” the great abolitionist and civil rights advocate Frederick Douglass tried to frame the contours of the “negro question” in the midst of the Civil War. Even as Union soldiers were dying to free black slaves, the notion that someday blacks might attain equal rights with whites was still a form of cultural heresy, as Douglass knew all to well. “Men sneer at it as the ‘n–r question,'” Douglass stated, “but… the destiny of the nation has the Negro for its pivot, and turns upon the question as to what shall be done with him. Peace and war, union and disunion, salvation and ruin, glory and shame all crowd upon our thoughts the moment this vital word is pronounced.” By referring to blacks as the “pivot” of the nation, Douglass referenced both the duel roles that they played as a symbol of the blinding hypocrisies within American society with regard to equal rights and as a political and economic problem on which so many significant developments — especially the Civil War — hinged.
When confronted with the question of “What shall be done with the Negro?” Douglass made remarks that are eerily prescient given recent racially charged events such as the shooting of Michael Brown. “Save the Negro and you save the nation, destroy the Negro and you destroy the nation, and to save both you must have but one great law of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for all Americans without respect to color,” he stated. Douglass recognized that America could never become whole unless its commitment to equality triumphed over its commitment to racism. Despite white America’s relegating of blacks to outsider status, he knew that blacks were an integral part of the fabric of America: they had helped to (literally) build the country, and during the Civil War they donned Union blue to save it from itself. But until blacks became “insiders” — until America decided to “save the negro” and let blacks have equal status with whites, then the nation would always be on the cusp of destruction: a powder-keg of racial tension that could explode with the simple firing of, say, a white police officers’ gun.
Much like Douglass, the brilliant scholar and civil rights-activist W.E.B. Du Bois also wrestled with the “negro problem” and the question of how to deal with blacks’ outsider status in American society. In an 1897 piece titled “The Conservation of Races,” Du Bois noted that no black person in America had failed to ask himself (yes, it should be gender-neutral, but such were the times) “What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro?” Du Bois believed that this duality of black life — being a part of the nation but still a distinct outsider — was perhaps the defining characteristic of the black American experience. “Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America?” Du Bois asked. Because blackness fell outside of the accepted American experience, to strive to be an American raised the question of whether such an act required the disavowal of blackness itself. This was a problem that no white person ever had to face. To be American was (and, to a large extent, still IS) to be white. Surely no one at this moment intuitively understands this fact better than Darren Wilson.
Although I can’t speak for black people today, I suspect that many still struggle with the fundamental questions of identity raised by Douglass, Du Bois, and countless others throughout U.S. history. When a black person like Michael Brown is viewed as a potential criminal first, an American citizen second, he is forced to analyze his place in a society that, for all of its advances and success regarding the issues of race and equal rights, still considers him an outsider — and a threat. In his grand jury testimony, Darren Wilson described Brown as the ultimate outsider by claiming that Brown looked “angry” and like a “demon.” When it comes to Western culture, no one is a bigger outsider than the Devil, and Wilson’s (however unconscious) dehumanization of Brown as a “demon” follows an established historical trend in which black rage has been deemed non-human: the ultimate threat to a society where whiteness is the established norm.
The dual nature of black American identity that Douglass and Du Bois identified over a century ago continues to influence American society, dividing it along hardening racial lines and poisoning any wells of intelligent dialogue on the subject of race from which Americans might otherwise drink. So while Michael Brown is dead and Darren Wilson will walk free, the underlying tensions fostered by a society in which whiteness still constitutes Americanness and blacks are viewed as outsiders will continue to erupt, prompting yet more national discussions about race that go nowhere. Even as Ferguson burns, we just keep dousing the fires with kerosene.