Truth and myth in Ferguson
What Killed Michael Brown? suggests the power of “poetic truth” to shape cultural narratives
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Shelby Steele’s new documentary, What Killed Michael Brown?, ostensibly focuses on the tragic case of a black teenager killed by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014. But what it tells us about cultural myths—how they develop and why—goes far beyond a single flashpoint.
A widespread inaccuracy about the Brown shooting is that he had his hands up and said “Don’t shoot” just before he died. It’s one of several myths that Steele, a Hoover Institution fellow at Stanford University and long-respected race scholar, calls “poetic truth.” People believe cultural myths, he says, not because they have examined evidence and found it credible but because they align with narratives they’ve already bought into. They feel true. In Steele’s illustration, the poetic truth is that systemic racism in the Ferguson Police Department created the environment that led to Brown’s death.
While President Barack Obama’s attorney general, Eric Holder, found no evidence Officer Darren Wilson was motivated by race, he argued that because black people made up only 67 percent of Ferguson’s population but represented 85 percent of traffic stops, it was clear the police department was guilty of widespread bias. Ferguson’s mayor had another explanation: While the city may be two-thirds black, the racial makeup of the surrounding -communities is 90 to 95 percent black. “People from all over this area come to Sam’s because there are no grocery stores, no Walmarts, nothing in North St. Louis City, and every one of those people come to Ferguson to shop,” the mayor says. “Statistically, who do you think is driving down those roads?”
Steele says the danger in favoring poetic truth over objective truth (or, broad theories over specific details) is that it traps us into solving the wrong problems. For Christian viewers, it’s especially valuable how he lays out his thesis through two different churches.
The first church gave aid to out-of-town protesters and activists who descended on the city to condemn what they saw as a broad societal problem. The result, several local black -leaders explain, was that violent demonstrations in Ferguson went on longer than they otherwise might have. The city was torn apart. In the end, poor minorities who live there faced destroyed infrastructure, crashing property values, and fewer resources. “If the protesters had not a place, a home base if you will, to come and set up, the movement would not have lasted as long as it lasted,” says one leader.
Steele puts it more starkly: “Ferguson payed the price for a racist murder that was neither racist nor a murder.”
The second church is in Chicago’s South Side. Pastor Corey Brooks doesn’t talk about theories or politics. Neither does a former drug dealer who now works with him. Or the young men that young man now leads. They talk about who they were when they were lost in gangs, drugs, and jail. They talk about what life is like now that they have found Pastor Brooks’ ministry, which taught them tangible life skills.
From a bird’s-eye view, it’s easy to oversimplify every headline in favor of our neat ideologies. Humility—Christ-like humility—is found in solving the seemingly small, messy problems right in front of us: a girl without a home, a child who can’t read, a young man just out of jail without a job.
Steele wonders where Michael Brown might be today if he had encountered someone like Pastor Brooks. It’s our job to try to provide the answer to that question for the next Michael Brown.
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