Michael Brown and the Discipline of Seeing

Since first learning about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO I’ve been thinking about different things I’ve wanted to write.  Parenting a newborn and some travel have kept me from blogging, which is probably not a bad thing: most of my initial thoughts have been articulated far better by others. If you’ve not done so, please check out these articles: The Cross and the Molotov Cocktail by Christena Cleveland; Black Bodies, White Souls by Austin C Brown; Black People are not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Please leave a comment with additional reflections you’ve found helpful.

With all of the good, insightful, and prophetic things that have been said since Michael Brown’s tragic and completely needless death, there is one small thing I’d like to explore here. I have in mind those white people who were surprised by the slowly revealed details from Ferguson as well as the reactions of grief and rage from that community.


It was impossible not to know about Robin Williams’ recent death. The outpouring of support, remembrance, and grief was everywhere. The conversations about depression and suicide that ensued were needed and important, a silver lining to a sad ending.

Credit: velo_city
Credit: velo_city

Williams died the day after the streets of Ferguson erupted in anger and fire, the “language of the unheard” as Rev. Dr. King would have explained to us. On that day and the ensuing days it was common to hear and read a version of this question: Why does the suicide of an actor command so much more of our collective attention than the murder of a young man and the lament of his community?

The question is entirely legitimate and just, though any expectation that the attention to these very different deaths could have played out any differently misses something true and wrong about America. In this country there have always been some lives that matter more than others. A white, male, celebrity like Williams occupies a place within our society that cannot be ignored. You couldn’t remain ignorant of his death even if you wanted to. Michael Brown, on the other hand, occupied a very different, almost invisible place. And yes, it’s true that Williams was a celebrity and so his death within a culture of celebrity-worshippers took on added, almost religious dimensions. But consider that even after Ferguson erupted in protest and even after the ugly facts of Brown’s death began to come to life, most white people had little understanding of the story, if they’d heard of it at all.

There’s nothing right about the death of a white actor taking precedent over the murder of another young, African American man, but there’s also nothing surprising about it. White America exists within a bubble which filters out the abuses and indignities suffered upon black and brown people. In the late 1950’s James Baldwin traveled to Charlotte, NC to document attempts at integration. He wrote, “I was told, several times, by white people, that ‘race relations’ there were excellent. I failed to find a single Negro who agreed with this, which is the usual story of ‘race relations’ in this country.” The same sentiment, with slightly different language, would be expressed by many white people today. Racial injustice is not something we think about because it’s not something we see.

If we’re honest, we’re OK with our blindness. It’s far easier to talk about Robin Williams than Michael Brown. After all, a celebrity’s death asks nothing of us while, were we to take actually see it, the epidemic of  alienation, incarceration, and murder of black men demands nothing short of a total rearrangement of the American way of life. A way of life that has benefitted some of us in tremendous ways. Better to remain blind than to give up our way of life.

Of course, this is not an option for those of us who are Christians. Jesus asked his followers, “Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear?” Well, the answer has too often been yes, but it doesn’t have to remain so. But if white Christians are to begin responding to injustice we must first develop the discipline of seeing.

What is a discipline of seeing? It begins by acknowledging that there is much that we from the majority culture will not naturally see. I recently heard Dr. Carl Ellis point out that much of the marginalization that is experienced by people of color is systemic and by default. It is a marginalization that is so tied to how our society works that it is impossible for some to avoid and almost impossible for others to see. Acknowledging that my experience of America is warped allows me to begin seeing more clearly how others experience this place and its prejudices.

Credit: Light Brigading
Credit: Light Brigading

A discipline of seeing compels me to seek new guides. I begin to understand that Michael Brown’s death doesn’t represent something aberrant but disturbingly normal. This realization, and thousands others like it, make plain the extent of my blindness. If I am to walk the narrow path in this newly-revealed reality I will need those who can point the way. Authors, pastors, and entire neighborhoods become voices I cannot live without if I am to avoid retreating into my former isolation. These women and men of color – all with distinct stories and perspectives, all standing outside the so-called privileges bestowed upon me – become the sources of wisdom I cannot do without.

As I begin to see more truthfully I can properly lament the death of a beloved celebrity while not allowing it to overshadow what is going down in Ferguson. That is, I’m able to grieve what is genuinely worthy of grief and not just what I’m told to feel badly about.

Theres a final thing about learning to see: the death of Michael Brown and the tumult that continues in Ferguson is quickly visible and important to those with eyes to see, but their sight is not limited to a series of events at a distance. A discipline of seeing means, that though my privilege works to blind me, I will notice how the injustices of Ferguson play out in my city and neighborhood. Michael Brown and Ferguson cannot become prominent but ultimately powerless symbols for those with eyes to see. Rather, the prejudices and pressures that are at work there must also be admitted to here.

Learning to see carries this great risk for those content with blindness: seeing leads us to grieve; seeing leads us to act. An enlightened sympathy for injustice at a distances bears no resemblance to Jesus’ expectation that his followers walk with those who suffer. The discipline of seeing allows me to grieve rightly a young man’s death a long ways away while stepping into the path of those same forces of death that even now wreak havoc on my neighbors.

14 thoughts on “Michael Brown and the Discipline of Seeing

  1. Thank you, David. Very well written and thought out as well as challenging! I’m reading The Third Plate, written by Dan Barber about another type of injustice in our country. One section writes about the farmers need to learn to “See What He/She Is Looking At.” Our brains use our history, experiences, known truths to tell us what our physical eyes are seeing and the conclusion isn’t always truth though we have a hard time denying what we’ve seen with our own eyes! We truly need to see with the eyes of others which adds their history, experience, known truths to ours.

  2. Yesterday morning on the way to church, after hearing the major media update of the Michael Brown and Ferguson story, I wondered to myself – what will David Swanson say? After 29 years of seeking, serving, learning, listening, and eating with the most physically, politically, economically, and spiritually disadvantaged people I can find on our planet I am often confused by the response in Black American communities. I understand that desperate people do desperate things, and that anger is a normal grief response, but as it escalates to rage and harms their neighbors it only increases their alienation. True, these same responses are common among disaffected minorities worldwide. But another notable response among these minorities is their steady migration to the US – not to vent their rage but to seize the unparalleled opportunities here. I am certainly blind to many of the injustices here in the US, but many of these minority immigrants are not and they keep coming. What do they see that Black Americans do not?

  3. The rage in Ferguson is perfectly understandable when you take a history of shunning, and shine a light on it in contrast to Robin Williams. People aren’t rioting because they have been heard and their concerns addressed or at least talked about; they are rioting because despite crying out for some semblance of equality, they are shoved to the back page so the country can lament Robin Williams. They riot because another unarmed black kid is shot dead, and the burden of proof is on the deceased while the shooter is protected and sheltered, and in this case, hidden.

    If the leaders and cops of Ferguson didn’t want a riot or the ‘Black Americans’ to rise up, then they shouldn’t have gunned down an unarmed black kid in the middle of the street and in the middle of the day. Simply stop by a message board on CNN or MSN and read the comments, and you’ll see why they are rioting. Racism is very much alive in this country. Trevon Martin, the college kid who was shot after an accident, the young woman shot in the head after she banged on a door seeking help after an accident, and now this case all prove it. What was the constant? Instead of outrage at the action of taking an unarmed life, some of the white community ‘reserve judgement’ and ‘wait for a toxicology report’ or wait for all the fact. It’s disgusting.

  4. Dave,

    I believe it is at best Intellectual Dishonest to (at this point in time) characterize the death of Michael Brown as “Murder”. Were you an eyewitness? Did you gather the all evidence, weigh the testimony, and come to an independent, unbiased conclusion? Of course not. You have judged the officer based on the limited amount of facts presented, the media reports, and the color of his skin. How is that any better? All this type of thinking does is incite anger and lessen the likelihood of an honest examination of the truth.

    The officer will be investigated and (likely) go to trial. The evidence will be presented, and he will be judged by a jury of his peers.

    Also the fact that the death Robin Williams commanded so much attention has much more to do with his celebrity than that of his race. Had Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby, Magic Johnson, died in the same time frame, the effect would have been the same. It is sad, but unfortunately you are correct, we are a country of celebrity worshipers.

    Death is always tragic, especially when it comes so soon or unnecessarily. We should pray for all the families of those who are taken prematurely.

    1. The definition of Murder is unlawful killing of a human committed with malice aforethought, characterized by deliberation or premeditation or occurring during the commission of another serious crime, as robbery or arson (first-degree murder) and murder by intent but without deliberation or premeditation (second-degree murder).

      The definition of Homicide is unlawful killing of a human being without malice aforethought.

      Isn’t the word Murder a volatile and inflammatory word to be using when at the very most it is Homicide?

    2. Allen & Don- I understand your resistance to my use of the word murder. If our nation’s history was such that I could reasonably believe that our legal definitions of killing were unaffected by race than I wouldn’t have used the word. This isn’t the case however and I believe this ugly word most closely tells the truth about the young man’s death.

    1. Hi Bruce. I thought the article you linked to was helpful, especially given the author’s firsthand experience. As for your previous comments- it’s impossible to judge any one situation affecting African American individuals and communities without keeping in mind the historic & current context. No other people has the history of forceable migration, hundreds of years of enslavement, and systemic prejudice up to our day. One example: a study released last week found that in Chicago, black & Latino drivers were 4 times more likely to have their cars searched by police despite contraband being found in white driver’s vehicles twice as often as those black & Latino drivers.

      When you get 45 spare minutes, I highly recommend this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It focuses highly on Chicago & the history of racial prejudice, but the implication are nationwide.

      Thanks Bruce. I appreciate the questions.

      1. The perspective that our problems are unique is astonishingly pervasive. African-Americans need only to look at their African brothers and sisters still in Africa for a reference point of slavery that extends centuries longer than America has existed and has been perpetuated by Africans. And this is not just an African problem. Slavery has been widespread in Arabic cultures for centuries as well, and continues today.

        This discussion reminds me of an experience our family had in Haiti. People would commonly say – Don’t go to that medical clinic. Everyone who goes there gets malaria.

        When criminals from St. Louis migrate to Ferguson to commit further criminal acts it is hard for me, and I suspect others, to understand how this can be seen as a pursuit of justice.

      2. I’m grateful for this discussion. It’s sharpening my thinking. When I was working with The Seed Company (A Wycliffe Organization) we had a brilliant young Vietnamese man on our team. Bruce, you may remember Louie Tran. He had a graduate degree in international relations and a law degree from Harvard. He came to use after working at the United Nations. He spend many evenings at my home helping me broaden my perspectives (and freaking out my sons by telling them that in his culture they ate dog meat and our 120lb boxer looked particularly appetizing). Louie taught me that a historical mortgage can never be repaid. In our attempts to repay our historical mortgages in American (Native Americans and African Americans) we had created a culture of generational blame coupled with no personal responsibility. Louie said that the hope was for one generation to be reached that would own their circumstances and well as their potential and take personal responsibility. I certainly have no clue as to how to reach that generation, but his remarks strike me as credible and worth pondering.
        The problem with trying to fix a system is that the “system” is not a personal and is not accountable to anyone as such. The system is a product of thousands of other things.

  5. As, is seeming to be a recurring theme, I’m appreciating very much your careful and honest blog posts.
    It’s hard for me to identify with this White experience of blindness to the plight of people of color in this country. I’ve so long witnessed this reality as a white person, seen how my Black, Latino/a, and Asian friends were harassed and treated differently than I and other whites, that I have a different response, I’m tempted to despair that it can or will be different. My despair I suppose is analogous to the rage we’ve seen in Ferguson, and which I witnessed in L.A. in the 1990’s. I’ve experienced some harassment by the Police (because I look like the subculture with which I identify: punk and goth). Though, as I’ve said on my own blog, I know that, as White, if I move on or do as I’m told I can avoid incident. I have always seen, never understood others blindness, never really known what do do with all this, still not sure I have done what I should. I see and still seem to be caught in the web of whiteness that seems to have no use except to perpetuate the privilege of a particular group with no real heritage, but exclusion and power.

  6. Thank you for your insightful and thought provoking comments. I really appreciate your perspective. I wondered how you could have access to the same information I have and be so decidedly one sided in your view, even accusing a police officer of murder. Then I realized that both you and I see the available information through our own bias. One of my sons chose to forgo more lucrative employment offers to move to a metro area and serve as a police officer because he saw it as a great way to impact people. I’m acutely aware that one police officer dies in the line do duty in our country every 53 hours. I hear first hand of the taunting and hatred that is hurled toward my son while he must remain professionally detached. So I read these reports and I see a young man who just roughed up a store clerk and refused to comply with an officers orders to stop walking in the middle of the street. I see him being shot as he charged to attack. But those are interpretations consistent with my bias, as are yours. As I shared with my church in my most recent blog, maybe our best response is to pray for justice and do what is necessary to be able to truly empathize with those in our culture that are very different from us. We tend to forget to listen in the midst of our rush to share our perspective.

    1. Pastor Fetterolf,

      I very much agree with your final sentences. Prayer and seeking to understand those who differ from us are critical steps during these sorts of situations. Congratulations on your son’s vocation. It can’t be easy. During our time in Ferguson we observed many officers serving under difficult circumstances who were choosing to carry out their work with kindness and care.

      I do hope my view isn’t one-sided. I think it can be possible for there to be many good police officers serving within a system that still bends toward prejudice. (See, for example, how this plays out in our city of Chicago.) It is that system that must be addressed if there is ever to be equity for all citizens.

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