It’s tempting to hold up one person’s story as emblematic of a larger social ill. But, time and time again, we see how this strategy backfires. No one is perfect, and within hours today’s media can find juicy tidbits that quickly have people reverting to their beloved stereotypes. We’ve often pointed to the story of Graeme Frost, who was held up as the deserving beneficiary of SCHIP several years ago. The media quickly pointed out “reasons” why Graeme’s family did not “deserve” public support.
The latest and far more tragic example is the story of Michael Brown, the young man whose death set off recent protests in Ferguson, Missouri. This article from Color Lines does a great job of explaining why the young man’s family and others who would like to call attention to the broader social ills at play should avoid depicting Brown as the “perfect victim.” Author Jamilah King says that after Brown’s death, the media jumped on any negative act he may have done or any rumor about him. King goes on to explain:
These tidbits are an obvious distraction from the most urgent matter: a police officer’s killing of an unarmed young man.
This is why we must be clear about the danger of the perfect victim frame. In cases like the Brown killing, this structure serves to legitimize the sometimes-lethal police brutality of people of color. Think about all of our imperfect victims: Oscar Grant did time in state prison. Trayvon Martin was suspended from school and occasionally smoked weed. Remarley Graham also smoked weed. Jordan Davis played loud hip-hop. Renisha McBride was allegedly intoxicated. Eric Garner was accused of selling unlicensed cigarettes. See how this works?
Recall how, in the painful weeks before George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, Trayvon Martin’s father reinforced his son’s humanity: “I think one of things that everybody seems to overlook is the fact that, OK, that was our child,” Tracy Martin told theGrio.com. ”…At the end of the day that was our child, and we knew our child and we loved him. And no matter what you try to say about him, [or] how you try to spin his image, or you try to assassinate his character, we know his character, we know his image, and it’s up to us to not let you smear him.”
Now, let’s join Michael Brown’s family in rejecting the perfect victim frame. Whether he was a squeaky clean, college-bound, “gentle giant” or a teenager who may have done stupid things, his life still matters.
And so does his killing.