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":
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.
Mothers of black and brown children sob to the reporters, "He was an honor roll student! He wanted to go to college." Even Brown's grieving mom bought into this: "Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many black men graduate? Not many," she told local television news station KMOV.
She and so many of us are desperately parsing out parts of the narrative in order to appeal to the humanity of those who are detached from our stories. We are saying, "Look … that brown kid had a good heart. He didn't deserve a bullet." We are, as we always have been, fighting to try to get the majority to see our worth.
In essence, this emotional appeal is a loud cry that we are good enough and our lives have value.
The way that Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin and John Crawford lived is important to the full narratives surrounding their lives, but it should not define the conversations around the wrongfulness of their deaths. We cannot and should not engage in discussions that look like black and brown people explaining that an unarmed person shouldn't have been shot because they lived in a way of which we are proud.
I wouldn't have cared if Mike, Trayvon and John all sagged their pants down to their ankles and if the only images of them depicted them smoking pot and throwing gang signs. I wouldn't have cared if they'd been high school dropouts who fought and tagged walls. Their lives would have been every bit as valuable, and their losses every bit as infuriating and sad.
So, after I absorb this latest news, I will teach my two brown sons that their skin makes others perceive them as dangerous, and that fear can mean death. But what I refuse to teach them is that, unless they're headed to college, the potential loss of their lives won't be tragic.
Also on The Root: "Black and Unarmed: Men Without Weapons Killed by Law Enforcement"