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OPINION: Dead because of their brown skin

D. Alexander Bullock

D. Alexander Bullock

By D. Alexander Bullock

On Aug. 9, 2014, Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Mo. in broad daylight. His death and subsequent protests have reignited a national preoccupation with skin color. Plunder in the wake of his death reveal a strong national commitment to protect private property. Questions abound about the circumstances surrounding his death, but this is clear — Michael Brown is dead. He died because of his brown skin. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Aiyana Jones are all dead. They died because of their brown skin.

The role of color in the United States has been well documented. It was the color of skin that provided a clear and enforceable standard for restricting access to civil liberties and political activity. Jim Crow, the Black Codes and other similar legal instruments used colored skin as a line of demarcation for who was privileged and who was not. 

This story is often told. It is a familiar story. However, there is another related story. Color was the basis for who was property and who was not. 

“Django” and “Twelve Years a Slave” resurrected the image of the American slave. Unlike the white indentured servant, the colored slave was chattel  property often plundered from Africa or somewhere in America. Slave owners looted men, women and children, often destroying families and cultures, during a sustained war for economic dominance. Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Aiyana Jones are the sons and daughters of the looted — the progeny of the plundered. They are a part of the remaining and now obsolete descendants of chattel slaves.

W.E.B. DuBois famously characterized colored folks as a problem to white America. Daniel Patrick Moynihan reimagined the colored folks as a problem within America and to themselves. Indeed, in a globalized economy where capital has been exported and jobs have taken first class flights overseas Black folks have a problem. The value of our unskilled and semi-skilled labor has been nullified. Most people of color are similar to old American automotive manufacturing facilities — expendable.

Oddly enough, the American economic experiment has come full circle. The sons and daughters of plundered property plunder property in Ferguson, Mo. Clergy calls for peace are laudable. Civil rights icons admonitions to stay calm — predictable, but the frustration over realizing you are marginalized and expendable is uncontainable. Michael Brown reminds many of us of the truth. We are and have been marginalized. His death forces us to face the reality. We are expendable in this new economic order.

The civil rights movement could not make America into the place where people were judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character because brown skin has always been an indispensable way to mark the marginal and recently expendable. The movement to open the door for a few to economic security and political opportunity could not ultimately remove the door all together. We often forget that doors close and are locked and watched by ushers. 

Michael Brown reminds us that most people with brown skin remain locked outside the doors of economic security and political opportunity by armed ushers. Protestors demand America act justly in response to the killing of an unarmed brown man. Plunderers dramatize the failure of America to create new kinds of ownership arrangements for propertyless brown people. The question is this: Is Ferguson, Mo. another moment of cathartic crying out or the beginning of a critical challenge to systemic physical, political and economic death in colored America? 

D. Alexander Bullock is pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. He is also the founder and national spokesperson for the Change Agent Consortium — a coalition of faith, labor, civil rights organizations and active citizens. CAC combines the best of the protest tradition (direct action) with economic empowerment, community development and community organizing to effect real change and real solutions. Follow on Twitter: @actioncac 

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