In Life and Death, the Search for Order Through Flawed Narratives

Portrayals of Michael Brown in death are certainly skewed by race. But there’s something else happening here as well

This Monday the New York Times provoked a wave of social media outrage with their profile of Michael Brown. Running on the front page next to a profile of Darren Wilson, the officer who killed him, the piece tried to sift through the embers of Brown’s violently truncated life, and found — among other things — that Brown “was no angel”.

The blowback was swift and largely deserved. While there was some contextual justification for the phrase, it played into the already formed narrative that Brown’s “character” played into his death. In the paper’s response, the reporter agreed with the critics that the words were ill advised, but stood by the broader sweep of the piece, saying that he should have written “was not perfect” in place of the offending words.

That, along with the basic aim of the story, missed the point. In most instances, in society’s search for explanations to shocking events, we — and this very much includes the media — consciously and subconsciously struggle to shoehorn the facts on those involved into a coherent narrative arc. This narrative arc is usually one that places little responsibility for the event on anything relating to the observer.

In thinking about this, my mind kept coming back to this piece I stumbled upon some time ago about a teenager who died of a drug overdose at my high school close to a decade ago, three years before my freshman year there. Published in the now defunct New York Sun (a short-lived mid-2000s newspaper), that piece — and a companion that ran the next day — exists as a useful contrast to how Brown (and other black men killed by police) have been framed in the media. What caught me about that particular story was how it essentially reported out a path that I had seen among many (mostly white) students in high school, except for them the worst that happened was that they’d drop out and resurface at the same alternative school in New York where all the students who went to good high schools and got kicked out seemed to find themselves.

The teenager who died in 2004 typifies exactly the type of person who observers predict would get a sympathetic portrayal in the media were they to meet an untimely death, even under unsavory circumstances; white, affluent upbringing, good schools, and a general sense that the person was “on the right track.” And indeed, the piece does that.

“Sometimes smart people make big mistakes. That’s apparently what happened,”

This quote from a relative—well, he clearly did this to himself, but that’s not representative of what his life was, the thought suggests.

“Friends…said Lewis struggled through his first year at Bronx Science, often hanging out on the grassy hill across from school instead of attending class, and winding up in summer school after failing a few courses.
But they said he had plans this year to turn himself around.”

He was in trouble, and he tried to right his life, but was not able to. His intentions were noble, and he struggled, but ultimately succumbed to his demons.

“Although teenagers who spent time with Lewis said they were shocked and saddened by their friend’s death, they acknowledged that he had a problem with drugs.”

He was in a downward direction, and we saw it, but we thought he would change course before he crashed.

And so the piece continues, along with the companion piece, which is the mother of the child detailing how everyone in his life —in spite of her own valiant efforts, failed him, and led to his death. The conclusion, we are told, is that he was a victim of forces he tempted and ultimately could not control. He was a basically good person who found himself in a bad place because the system failed him. If we sift through profiles of school shooters, we see the same — it was the videogames, an indistinct mental disorder, bullying from others — all ways we can understand the story that don’t involve things the observer contributed to.

I’ve always disliked those violent video games.

I’ve always said we don’t do enough about bullying.

I’ve always said we need to take [insert mental illness] more seriously.

The problem is, much as with Brown, the details — even those that make it into media accounts — don’t fit cleanly into a pre-fabricated story arc. Even the Times piece makes it clear that Brown was on a relatively normal teenage path. He as on his way to college. He was “grappling with life’s mysteries”. He “showed a rebellious streak,” smoked, drank, etc. Yet somehow, in his case, these facts are assembled in a way that suggests that he was adrift, heading on the wrong path, and that something was going to catch up with him. The Times concludes with:

Mr. Brown was sometimes philosophical, as he showed in his final hours.
“Everything happen for a reason,” he posted to Facebook the night before he was shot. “Just start putting 2 n 2 together. You’ll see it.”

And there we have it, a fully completed arc. What this is about is more subtle than the idea that most people looking at this case consciously want to believe that Brown deserved to die, though many certainly believe that. What’s happening with the tragic portrayals of the affluent is similar. Consciously, people know that experimenting with hard drugs in high school is tempting fate, or (in the more striking contrast of portrayals) that committing a school shooting is wrong.

But in both cases, the reality that these incidents happened because of random and not random forces much bigger than their victims and perpetrators is one that makes people uncomfortable, for it implies a randomness and lack of internal logic to the world that we don’t like. So we write the black victim as the possible architect of their fate, and the white victim — or perpetrator — as someone who couldn’t conceivably have deserved what happened, or had “mitigating factors”.

That, satisfies an unconscious urge to have events explain themselves through clear, consistent narratives that exculpate the observer. For what it’s worth, if there was clear evidence that Darren Wilson was substantially more racist than the median American, that would likely be front and center in the narrative about him, because that similarly exculpates the observer.

Darren Wilson was an unreconstructed racist.

I’m not a racist.

This shooting therefore happened because one racist had a gun and a badge, and not because of any bigger factors I should question or that I am subject to.

The templates we have at the ready are influenced by many factors, including race (see also the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hash-tag), but the media’s tendency to use them won’t change. For a start, we can at least have them applied equally across cases.