The shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the choking death of Eric Garner in Staten Island have dominated the news cycle for weeks, making it almost impossible to get any other issue onto the agenda. Immigration, Ebola and ISIS have all been reduced to the status of warm-up acts.
The death of Eric Garner has riveted the nation because we have the video. A few voices on the hard right are defending Daniel Pantaleo’s use of the choke hold, arguing that it was somehow Mr. Garner’s fault for being obese and having high blood pressure. But most commentators, regardless of ideological persuasion, are baffled by the grand jury’s decision. Even when the footage is grainy, the camera doesn’t lie.
The Michael Brown story has captured the lion’s share of media attention precisely because we don’t have the video.
We know that Michael Brown stole cigarillos from a convenience story, but we don’t know if officer Darren Wilson was aware of that fact when he initiated his confrontation with Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson.
We know that Brown and Wilson had a brief, violent interaction at the door of Wilson’s vehicle, but we don’t know if Brown reached into the car or if Wilson pulled him inside (Wilson says the former; Johnson insists on the latter.)
Most significantly, we don’t know if Michael Brown was surrendering with his hands in the air when he was shot, or if he was in the process of “charging” officer Wilson with demonic fury.
St. Louis Rams players created a sensation when they performed a “hands-up-don’t-shoot” pantomime on national television. White viewers, Mike Ditka notably among them, couldn’t understand why these black athletes were clinging to a narrative that had been thoroughly debunked.
But has “hands-up-don’t-shoot” been laid to rest, or is it merely one side of an unresolved he-said-she-said between Dorian Johnson and Darren Wilson?
Why do most white Americans take Darren’s side of the story while the vast majority of black Americans side with Dorian?
The most obvious answer is that white Americans have little personal experience with abusive policing and therefore have a hard time identifying with the friends and family of Michael Brown.
But it goes deeper than that. White America is mystified by the looting and arson that came in the wake of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson. Everyone knew it was coming. But why? Why would anyone want to destroy their own community like that?
Black America denounced the violence and looting as well, but found it perfectly comprehensible, even inevitable.
The messy narrative in Ferguson has sparked a productive conversation about the militarization of American policing, the advantages of body cameras and the need for community policing strategies. It hasn’t all been a waste of time. But the gulf in perception dividing white and black America is once again front-and-center and that gulf demands an explanation.
This question is particularly salient in light of election results driven by white disaffection with America’s first black president. Non-whites are mystified. The stock market is exploding, the unemployment rate is dropping, gas prices are in free fall, far fewer American soldiers are coming home in body bags, the Benghazi “scandal” has been laid to rest, the increase in health care costs is (finally) slowing, and the crime rate has been dropping for decades. Yet America’s white voters are in revolt. Why?
White America is in full panic mode, a fact that is reshaping American politics, religion and news media.
To understand white panic, you must begin with the holy trinity of traditional American morality: hard work, personal responsibility, and self-reliance. Because these virtues are believed to shape the American character, their loss would spell the end of America. Thus, if hard working, responsible, self-reliant Americans don’t fight for their birthright, all will be lost. We have reached the moment of decision. he Great Emancipator said it best: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
This myth of Righteous America is under assault. Popular entertainments like Ken Burn’s documentary The West or movies like Twelve Years a Slave call this mythology into question.
Confidence in American institutions, like Congress and “the clergy,” is at a all-time low and falling fast.
And now we are told that global warming is a product of the unfettered economic dynamism that we have hailed as America’s gift to the world.
White people believe Darren Wilson’s version of events because, in their view, law enforcement exists to protect us from criminals, that is, those who refuse to work, those who refuse to take responsibility for their actions, those who refuse to better themselves.
Which is why the moral failings of Michael Brown and his parents figure so prominently in white American discourse about Ferguson.
The panic evident in white America is driven by the very fragility of American mythology.
In our hearts, we know American history is riddled with moral ambiguity (to put it as gently as possible).
The military adventurism of recent years has been an unmitigated disaster, and we know it.
The greed and corruption of international corporations and Wall Street speculators may be deemed a necessary evil, but it is evil all the same.
The science behind global warming is unassailable. Deep down, white folks know that too.
The self-serving flatulence of preachers and politicians is disheartening.
Most significantly, we are beginning to realize Jesus, the religious icon of America, had very little to say about hard work, personal responsibility and self-reliance. Jesus was about unconditional love, universal forgiveness and the demolition of us-them categories. It’s all there in the Gospels in black and white.
The Jesus brand has name recognition going for it, but nobody takes the man from Nazareth seriously. We trust him as a guide to the world to come, but in this world, we trust hard work, personal responsibility and self-reliance. If their sermons are anything to go by, even our preachers prefer the Myth of Righteous America to the moral vision of Jesus.
Step out of white America and, instantly and utterly, the moral panic dissipates. Non-white Americans love America dearly, but this love rarely shades into idolatry. We are comfortable with real American history, moral ambiguity and all.
Non-white America believes in hard work, personal responsibility and self-reliance, too, but we have seen how social systems and institutions often conspire against these values, sowing despair and desperation in the hearts of confused young people like Michael Brown.
Tragically, the moral vision of Jesus is rarely heard in black and Latino pulpits. For the most part, Christians in minority communities inherited their theology from white people. Conservative black preachers lament the injustice of Ferguson and Latino Pentecostals cry out for immigration reform, but they have a hard time relating the Bible to the cry of their hearts.
Only Jesus can bridge the racial divide. But who will speak for Jesus?