Ferguson and Whiteness

After the tragic killing of 20 young children and seven adults (including the killer’s mother) in Sandy Hook, Connecticut at Newtown Elementary, a group decided to create T-shirts emblazoned with the logo “Newtown Strong.”

One can be certain that the idea arose as a show of solidarity and support to the many parents and family members who were touched by these children’s tragic death.

On the surface, this is an admirable intention, but after years of lived experiences as a black, woman, American and writer, I also saw the intention as part of the interconnected network, the mesh of cultural ways of knowing designed to avoid conversations on race, and which ultimately serves to shore up institutionalized anti-black racism.

I wasn’t the only person who felt this way, and the general consensus was that this was another missed opportunity to talk about the ways the construction of whiteness has made the mass shooter a young white man almost every time.

Who goes postal, mostly? Who is the “active shooter” most of the time? And why?

One can be sure that if mass shootings were routinely done by young men of color, the signature ways in which poverty, violence, desensitizing hip-hop music, missing fathers, subpar single mothers and (maybe) institutional racism create a type of black crime would be parsed ad nauseam.

But the same press machine of op eds and Solidad O’Brien-hosted documentaries doesn’t seem to arise in response to white-on-white crime.

But this article isn’t about Newtown or mass shootings. This article is about “I Love Ferguson” T-shirts. It’s about how, what on first glance looks like a community rallying in support of itself, is upon deeper inspection, a community turning away from hard conversations about its whole self and rallying together around whiteness.

On August 22, the New Yorker published an article by Paige Williams entitled “I Love Ferguson.” It includes the following: “Last night, I Love Ferguson met en masse, for the first time, at the First Baptist Church of Ferguson. The audience represented a demographic that, as one young audience member pointed out, did not exactly represent ‘the class of 2006’; more noticeably, the attendees were, overwhelmingly, white.”

Why don’t any of my African-American friends on Facebook who have been either actively (physically) involved in Ferguson protest – or have been actively intellectually involved with conversations about police brutality, race and racism – why don’t any of them also have posts indicating that they’re selling “I love Ferguson T-shirts?” Why does it seem that the majority of the pictures I’ve seen of people wearing “I love Ferguson” T-shirts are white residents?

The much-touted 67 percent black population of Ferguson doesn’t seem to want to wear the “I love Ferguson” T-shirts, even though many Ferguson residents have been seen decrying the looting that took place just days after black teen Michael Brown was killed in the street by white Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson.

One incredible piece of resident journalism by Bradley J. Rayford on MSNBC even includes a video of a longtime African-American resident, as the QuikTrip burns in the background, tears stream down his cheeks, repeating, “But we still have to live here.”

Aren’t these tears in response to the physical destruction in a community examples of an intense love for the community of Ferguson?

What about Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who spent her nights tirelessly with the protesters, being teargassed and risking being shot by rubber bullets?

She has now opened an office in Ferguson and she is actively recruiting volunteers to work in the community.

Isn’t that love?

Maybe someone needs to share with James Knowles III, the mayor of Ferguson and one of the “I love Ferguson” organizers, what Cornel West said: “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

I love my 13-year-old son and I want him to remain alive. And it is my intense love for this brown boy that continues to drive me to Ferguson to support in the small ways that I can. I don’t have to wear a T-shirt because my deep love for humanity is written on my heart.

If justice is what love looks like in public, Ferguson white residents would do well to fight for justice for Mike Brown and show that love is more than a slogan, it is an action word.