The hazard of engaging with the history of race in the United States is the difficulty of distinguishing the past from the news of the day. On Saturday afternoon, under hazy circumstances, an eighteen-year-old named Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis. Brown was unarmed. Police have confirmed that he was shot “more than just a couple of times.” The story that witnesses tell is disturbing not only in its details but in the ways in which those details blur into a longer narrative. It’s one we’re all familiar with if we have paid even passive attention, and yet, despite its redundancy, we have yet to grasp its moral. A trivial incident sparks a confrontation, followed by a disproportionate response, then the tableau of grieving parents struggling to maintain composure and the social-media verdicts rendered in absentia, many asking about the culpability of the deceased. Invariably, some self-ordained truth teller will stand up to quote non sequiturs about black-on-black violence.
Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.