The Crimson White

Michael Brown and Joan Rivers offer glimpses into racial status quo

Samaria Johnson

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Joan Rivers died two Thursdays ago, an event that barely registered as I continued to scroll down my Tumblr dashboard. It was barely mentioned, noted one post that criticized TIME magazine for hailing the late Rivers as a feminist icon when she’d been anti-feminist, by personal claim and by her actions. My dashboard looked a far cry different from how it did when Michael Brown was murdered or Robin Williams committed suicide, when for two weeks the entire website, or at least my blogroll, was in a state of deep mourning.

I thought this difference was well deserved. Joan Rivers held absolutely vile views about people and because she disguised them as witty quips, she was able to get away with them. She argued that Palestinian civilians deserved to be murdered, made a career of destroying other women’s self-esteem and demonizing them for their bodies and used transphobic slurs in reference to Michelle Obama. She did all of this by hiding behind the excuse that her racism, her transphobia and her misogyny were “funny.” Her admirers claimed that she was a trailblazer, and the rest of society accepted her offensive “jokes” because she was a conventionally attractive rich white lady.

Contrast this with Michael Brown, a soft-spoken kid whose only crimes were being large, black and poor in a St. Louis, Missouri, suburb with a white supremacist police force. A month later and there’s every bit of evidence that Darren Wilson murdered him in cold blood and no evidence at all that Michael Brown did anything that Wilson’s coworkers accused him of. He didn’t fight Wilson; he surrendered willingly and without being told to do so. Yet the Ferguson Police Department falsified evidence and concealed Wilson’s identity until they could erase his Internet presence. They’ve terrorized peaceful protesters and civilian bystanders with military equipment too excessive for the situation; almost $500,000 has been raised in support of Wilson. The comments on the fundraisers’ GoFundMe pages were virulently anti-black, going beyond Michael’s death to celebrate and advocate for law enforcement’s brutality against the black community.

In Rivers’ case, Lena Dunham and Melissa McCarthy, who have spoken much about how Hollywood contributes to society’s destructive views of women’s bodies, uplifted her as a legend who did much in the way for women’s sociocultural progress. In Brown’s, there was utter silence from white performers such as Iggy Azalea, for instance, who has made millions profiting off black American culture. The mainstream news behaved as if Michael’s not-so-stellar childhood somehow excused a white officer killing him for no reason, and it portrayed the Ferguson protesters as belligerents equally as formidable as the police’s tanks and machine guns. The differences in reactions to these deaths speak much about how deeply entrenched ignorant racial sentiments are and how hard people will fight for the preservation of institutions that uphold the racial status quo. This world needs to do better, but I doubt that it wants to.

Samaria Johnson is a senior majoring in history. Her column runs biweekly on Mondays.

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Michael Brown and Joan Rivers offer glimpses into racial status quo