I’m black, my brother’s white … and he’s a cop who shot a black man on duty
I never thought that my brother would be one of those police officers. He was supposed to be different because of me
Monday 25 August 2014 12.30 BST
My white brother loved black people more than I did when we were growing up. As a black interracial child of the south – one who lived in a homogenous white town – I struggled with my own blackness. I struggled even more with loving that blackness. But my brother, Mitch, didn’t. He loved me unapologetically. He loved me loudly.
He also loved screwing with other people’s expectations. Whenever we met new people or I joined a social situation he was in, Mitch would make sure I was standing right next to him for introductions and say, “This is Zach, my brother” – and then go silent with a smirk.
These new acquaintances would then scan back and forth with such intensity – black, white, white, black – that our faces became a kind of tennis court, with strangers waiting for someone to fault. Eventually someone would awkwardly laugh and say something like: “Oh, adopted brother,” immediately looking relieved to have figured it out. My brother would deny that and push the line further, “No, like, my brother. We have the same mom. We are blood.”
That would lead to someone questioning me intensely, and, each time, my white brother would stand next to me, proud: prouder than me of my own skin. And over the years, as he continued playing this game, I became prouder … with his help.
And then, years later and far away in Chicago, I got the phone call: my brother, now a cop, had shot an unarmed black man back in Tennessee.
Hearing about black men dying is never exactly a surprise. Every day, you see the news stories: On the news, black men die while getting Skittles. On the news, black men die in choke-holds. On the news, black men die for playing their music too loud. It seems black men die on the news more than they do almost anything else on the news, even with a black president in office. Every 28 hours, a black man is killed by a police officer in America.
I just never imagined that the police officer in that scenario would ever be my brother. Mitch was supposed to be different than all the rest. He was supposed to be different because of me.
The first thing I did after I got the phone call was Google my brother’s name. I saw a mix of headlines; some outlets were more sympathetic toward the unarmed 22-year-old victim, while other coverage was more favorable to my brother, the cop who “accidentally” killed someone. Articles kept using that word – “accidental” – over and over, and it felt like aloe on a burn.
Watching the first press conference later that day, the police spokesman talked about how my brother was just doing his job, that he followed protocol and that this was just a tragic accident for everyone involved. After the press conference, one of the local news stations in Nashville aired a more in-depth look at the case and reported that the victim had a family member who had been shot by someone on the same police force years earlier – also, apparently, “by accident”.
Accident seemed like an odd word to me for this situation. When I hear the word “accident”, I usually think about spilled milk or the dog urinating on the carpet or even bumper scratch. Accidents were things that you respond to with, “Whoops, sorry!” But with this accident, I wondered: to whom could we even say “sorry” now that a man lay dead?
While I watched, I kept thinking about why these accidents always seemed to happen to black people. And why they were called accidents, when it seemed so clearly to be much more than an accident – when it seemed to be a flaw in a system that called things accidents.
I stared at my computer after my screen went black and prayed that it was an accident. Because calling it that didn’t make me feel I had to choose my race over my blood – the strangers who asked me questions over the brother who wanted them to.
I went home to Tennessee a few years later, after the media coverage of the case had calmed down, and sat in one of the chairs in my mother’s living room and let the argument happen. My mother, with her smooth milk skin, stared at me with eyes that would not unlock from my own.
“Do you actually think he shot him because he was black?” she asked, tearing up.
“Yes, I do. I really do.”
“But how can you say that? Honestly, he is blacker than you!”
I winced at her backwards compliment, the racism veiled as praise, the description I’d heard since I could write my name.
“Mom, that is simply not true. He is white. This will never change, no matter what he does. Never. And because I am black, I know that if that man would have been white he would be alive today.”
My mom finally unlocked eyes with me and stared down at her glass. I could see that she wanted to agree with me, but couldn’t this time, because it was an indictment of her other son. She had probably never imagined having to argue with her black son about her white son shooting and killing an unarmed black man while on duty.
But that’s also when I began to see just how much racism isn’t really about a single act or a single person, but rather a much larger system. A system that calls the recurring death of black male bodies “accidents”.
No matter how my mom had raised us, no matter how much my brother loved my blackness and was so proud of me for who I was, it still didn’t stop another black man from losing his life.
My white brother isn’t a racist – and he didn’t intentionally kill that man because he was black – but that’s not the point. In his case – in Ferguson and in so many other cases – we see the deaths of unarmed black men as “accidents”. And until the day we all recognize them as casualties of something much bigger, we will continue to see black men dead on the news.
We will continue to see brothers killing brothers.
This is a cartoon by Matt Bors about how corporate media in the USA react to police or other violence.