Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic

Missouri teen Michael Brown was unarmed when police gunned him down. We don’t need to keep talking about his college plans to communicate that his killing was dead wrong. 

A protester expresses his anger at law enforcement regarding the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, during a protest outside Ferguson Police Department headquarters Aug. 11, 2014.
A protester expresses his anger at law enforcement regarding the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer, during a protest outside Ferguson Police Department headquarters Aug. 11, 2014. Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images

Another unarmed black boy has been shot down by police. Absorbing the ongoing news of the investigation Monday morning, I listened to eyewitness interviews and looked on as the media flashed pictures of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old gunned down by a Ferguson, Mo., police officer over the weekend.

The repeated refrain in so many of the accounts is, “Brown was supposed to start college on Monday.” In the photos accompanying stories from outlets more sympathetic to his plight, he’s often pictured in a high school graduation cap and gown. Social media posts use his planned next steps to underscore the tragedy of his life cut short. His educational status even makes its way into headlines, sometimes to the exclusion of his age, his name or the word “unarmed”:

“[P]olice Kill College-Bound Kid … “

“Unarmed Teen Shot By Police Days Before He Was Scheduled to Leave for College”

OK? And what if Monday was to have been his first day of standing on the corner not doing a damn thing? Would his death be less of a loss?

Let me be clear: Unarmed college hopefuls don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids heading to work or trade school don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids floundering aimlessly through life don’t deserve to be shot. Unarmed kids who have been in trouble—even those who have been nothing but trouble—don’t deserve to be shot.

The act of pinning the tragedy of a dead black teen to his potential future success, to his respectability, to his “good”-ness, is done with all the best intentions. But if you read between the lines, aren’t we really saying that had he not been on his way to college, there’d be less to mourn?

That’s dead wrong.

After reading the headlines, I logged on to social media and discovered a hashtag following this tragedy. #IfTheyGunnedMeDown had taken on a life of its own. Users frustrated by media portrayals of African-American victims that seem to intentionally make them appear unsavory to white audiences shared split-screen images of themselves in order to make a point: Here’s how I really am: Clean, professional, nonthreatening. Here’s the photo the media would dig up to make me look like a “thug.” Isn’t that terrible?

I’m sympathetic to that frustration. But I also think we’ve passed the time where we put any stock in our news media being unbiased and fair, especially in reporting the unjustified deaths of black and brown people. The more horrific part, in my opinion, is that we—people of color—have been exposed to this “thugs deserve to die” narrative so frequently that some of us seem to have embraced it ourselves. Instead of arguing that nobody deserves to be shot, we tie ourselves up in knots making the case that the latest victim of a law-enforcement officer’s bullet was a good kid, or that the photo the news media selected wasn’t the most flattering depiction of him.

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