It's Been 2 Years Since Michael Brown Was Killed. Have White People Learned Nothing?


Ten days after Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown and left his body in a humid cul-de-sac for four hours, James Knowles III — the white mayor of Ferguson, Missouri — went on national TV to defend his hometown.

In an interview with MSNBC News' Tamron Hall on Aug. 19, 2014, the 34-year-old dismissed the notion that Ferguson had a problem with racism.

"There is not a racial divide in the city of Ferguson," Knowles insisted. "That is the perspective of all residents in our city. Absolutely."

It was a ridiculous thing to say. At the time, Ferguson was 67% black, but had just three black officers on its 53-person force. Black residents accounted for a staggering 86% of motorists stopped by police despite being 12% less likely to be caught with contraband than their white counterparts. An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice would later find the Ferguson Police Department had engaged in a pattern of racialized graft: They'd targeted black people for traffic citations and court fines to help bankroll the city's operating budget.

Tuesday marks the two-year anniversary of Brown's death. Black organizers and their allies have spent that time building the biggest American anti-racism movement in over half a century. But like Ferguson's mayor, a huge portion of white Americans still refuse to acknowledge that racial inequality persists. Why does this dogged denial persist, despite all evidence to the contrary? 

Jeff Roberson/AP

The disparities between blacks and whites in the US have been stark since well before Wilson pulled the trigger. They are particularly apparent in the criminal justice system. Black people are 13% of America's general population, but represent 40% of those incarcerated. The most recent data available indicate 1 in 3 black men will face imprisonment in his lifetime. 

In city after city, black people are more likely to be stopped, searched and arrested by law enforcement than their white counterparts. The Guardian and the Washington Post have been tracking police killings in the United States for the past year and a half. Both have documented that black people are far more likely to be killed than whites.

In spite of this, many white Americans remain convinced that racism is over and inequality is a nonissue. A pair of surveys from the Pew Research Center — one released just weeks after Brown's death, another two years later, in June — illustrate just how deep this denial runs.

38% of white Americans say the country has done all it can to ensure blacks have equal rights.

In August 2014 — shortly after protests in Ferguson that saw tear gas and rubber bullets launched at black bodies with reckless abandon — Pew and USA Today found that 71% of white respondents had either a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of confidence that police treated black and white people equally. Only 36% of black people felt the same way. 

Such denial persists even after two years in which black deaths at the hands of police dominated headlines. In the second survey, only half of white respondents conceded that police treated blacks unfairly when compared with whites, versus 84% of black respondents. Meanwhile, 38% of white respondents went so far as to say the U.S. has made all the changes it needs to give blacks equal rights. Just 8% of black respondents agreed.

Joshua Lott/Getty Images

study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in July 2015 illustrates why getting white Americans to admit racism exists is such an uphill battle. When faced with evidence of their privilege, like higher earnings and better healthcare access, whites didn't just fail to acknowledge they had a leg up — they found the very suggestion that they had an advantage to be a threat to their sense of earned success. Many participants responded by talking about hardships they had faced as evidence that they, too, had suffered.

Brian Lowery, a professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-author of the study, gave a succinct explanation for why this was so.

"You like to have nice things," he told the Insights by Stanford Business. "But you don't want to think you got those things as a result of unearned advantages."

Some white Americans have taken their denial a step further. Recent research suggests that whites are more likely than ever to see racism as a zero-sum game in which black progress directly corresponds to white disadvantage and growing anti-white bias.

"Whites have now come to view anti-white bias as a bigger societal problem than anti-black bias," wrote researchers Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers in a recent study published in the journal Perspectives on Sociological Science.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

It should be perfectly OK, in a vacuum, for white people to lie to themselves and others about the disparities between black and white people in America. But ignorance has consequences. Black people are being killed by police at epidemic rates — more than twice as often as whites in 2015, according to the Guardian —  and the United States of America is an election away from handing the White House keys to a white supremacist demagogue who's been lauded by the Ku Klux Klan and buoyed by hordes of resentful whites.

Months after Brown's death, Knowles, like the people in the aforementioned studies acknowledged he may have been wrong about race in Ferguson.

"I was defensive," Knowles admitted in November 2014. "I took the stand that I felt somebody was attacking what I knew to be a good community who embraced diversity, who loved our neighbors."

Yet he remained convinced that his version of the city — the version where racial inequality wasn't a problem and citizens of all backgrounds convened in a spirit of goodwill — was the real Ferguson at its core.

"I think people, again, need to recognize that those divides, those differences [doesn't] mean this community didn't have good race relations before this happened," he said.

But what Knowles considered "good" was clearly not good for Ferguson's black residents. It's no wonder, then, that problems of racial inequality continue to plague the United States: How can you fix problem if you refuse to acknowledge it exists?

Aug. 11, 2016, 12:41 p.m. Eastern: This story has been updated.

Correction: Aug. 11, 2016