On the surface, a connection between the tragic deaths of Ferguson County, Mo., youth Michael Brown and UNC-Chapel Hill professor Feng Liu appears far-reaching, if nonexistent.
It is a lot easier to draw a connection between the perpetrators who are charged in the senseless murder of Professor Liu – Troy Arrington and Derrick Davis – and Michael Brown, the victim of what appears to be a brutal killing by a law enforcement officer.
These three young men – Michael, Troy and Derrick – although on opposite sides of two tragic events – share several important characteristics: they are black males; they don’t appear to come from affluent families; and none appear to have had prestigious jobs (or any job for that matter) or positions of stature in their communities. Whereas, Dr. Feng Liu – an Asian male, who from all accounts had a distinguished career, was relatively affluent and held in high esteem by his community of family, friends and colleagues. Liu, who lived in Durham, by many tangible measures lived in a world far from that known to or experienced by Arrington, Davis and Brown.
So how can the claim be made that Brown and Liu’s tragedies collide or connect in any way?
For starters, at the root of both tragedies lies the danger of perception – the way you think about or understand something or someone. The way black males collectively are perceived and the stereotypes that emerge from those perceptions besmirch the identities of black males with little regard for individual differences. Scholars across disciplines (i.e. sociology, education, public health, psychology, criminal justice) have produced voluminous findings showing black males in America, more often than not, are perceived as violent, uncivilized, predatory, hypersexual and feral by nature.
These images of black males are pervasive and overshadow as well as shade reality. The major problem with perpetuating and using these images as the main-frames for black male identities is that they become the glue that holds together a social structure whereby black males are viewed as diabolical “others,” a threat, dispensable and undeserving of equal protection under the same laws that protect “the rest of us,” more precisely white Americans. (For more on this, read Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University; Ron Mincy, Columbia University; or Duke professors Mark Anthony Neal, Sandy Darity and Eduardo Bonilla Silva, to mention a few.)
Police officers and citizen vigilantes who kill black youth – like Mike Brown, Jonathan Ferrell, Sean Bell, Trayvon Martin, and Jordan Davis for starters – do so with little fear of retribution because society has given them the green light to act based on these perceptions of the “super predatory black male.” Social structures buttress social institutions that reflect and perpetuate the idea that black males’ lives are of little significant value to the progress of society.
Both of these assumptions coalesce to create the perfect social climate where the final life outcome a young black male in Missouri can collide with the final life outcome of a distinguished research professor in North Carolina. In one case you have a young black male who became the victim of a law enforcement officer who perceived his life as having no worth or rights worth protecting. In the other case you have a professor who was the victim of young black males who no doubt internalized the perception of having no value to society and therefore saw no value in preserving the life of another.
Until we can see the social context surrounding both of these tragic cases as being interrelated and begin to seriously address the structural and systemic problems that continue to widen the gulf between the two Americas – white and affluent – colored and poor – we will continue to witness both of these sad and tragic stories play out in our local communities and on the national level.
Michelle Laws is a former president of the Chapel Hill-Carrboro NAACP.