Opinion » Viewpoint

Kin to Michael Brown?

Poor white kids like my brother and me grew up with attitudes, too, and a need to challenge authority.



Although he is a law-abiding grandfather today, 40-odd years ago my younger brother was on a path to incarceration. When he was just 13, our father died, and while Dad's death made me grow up overnight, my brother became angry at the world.   


For the next decade, his life was a string of altercations with authority figures of every stripe. When a thuggish kid moved into the neighborhood, my brother gravitated to him like a magnet. When stopped by a cop for speeding, my brother had to be a wiseacre. When something went missing, law enforcement rounded up "the usual suspects," one of whom was always my brother.

Ultimately, he got a probably undeserved break from a wise judge, who sensed that sending him off to prison benefited no one. That kind act probably saved my sibling's life, because he finally grew out of whatever ailed him without doing a stint in the penitentiary.

While he was doing his best to acquire a lengthy rap sheet, I was laboring feverishly to escape my impoverished circumstances by getting good grades and working full time as a supermarket checker during high school.  

When I was 16, my boss asked me to represent the store in the town beauty pageant, which necessitated having an evening dress. Even new clothes at Sears were a luxury for us, and the duds I wore then were what we would today call "pre-owned." What I definitely didn't possess was a long, fancy gown — new or otherwise.  

On our shopping errand, I must have been seized by momentary insanity, because when my mother and I walked past the most elegant and expensive boutique in town, I suggested we go in. Perhaps she figured it couldn't hurt to indulge me, so she agreed. She might even have wanted me to imagine a better future in the shimmering fabrics of those expensive frocks.

The reception to our presence was, to put it mildly, less than warm. For the few minutes that we dared to look at things far beyond our means, we were followed around as if we might snatch something and run for the door. Remember the scene in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts is told she can't afford anything in the snooty shop where Richard Gere sends her? It was like that, only I never got to go back with a fistful of shopping bags from pricey boutiques to inform those broads that they had made a "big, big mistake." 

We got the message and left, but not without feeling like the proverbial fecal deposit in the punch bowl. We ended up borrowing a dress from my cousin. And I won — so maybe I did have the last word.

I hadn't thought about that day in years, until I read Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's recent essay arguing that the events in Ferguson, MS, are more about poverty than race. After that, I could not help but think about my own childhood and the "profiling" I endured for no reason but my appearance.  

I found myself thinking about my brother's tangles with police and their suspicion of him, regardless of circumstances. I thanked providence that at least we had a loving mother at home and that those early experiences did not permanently embitter us.  

That's why it's not a big stretch for me to understand why Michael Brown might have developed an attitude. It would be a pretty easy thing to do if every time you went somewhere, a store employee or a police officer hassled you. At some point, you might even make the calculation that if you're going to be treated like a criminal, you might as well act like one.

Smarting off to a cop is just plain stupid — as I often tried to explain to my brother. For one, they have the power to arrest you, and then there's the fact that they carry a gun and are licensed to use it. If Michael Brown had just gotten back on the sidewalk, he'd probably be alive today. But he'd still be an interloper in a society that has pretty much declared war on the poor — of any hue.

I'm about as white as white gets, and so is my brother, and so were my parents. But I cringe to think that when I was that teenager daring to assume that even poor, white kids were entitled to dignified treatment, how much worse it must have been for black and brown kids.

And 40 years later... it continues to be.

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