Quick Hit: Race, respectability, and the murder of Jonathan Ferrell

Our own Mychal Denzel Smith has an excellent and, at some points, heartbreaking, piece on the murder of Jonathan Ferrell, the unarmed 24 year-old shot by police on Saturday for, essentially, looking for help while being black.

Mychal explains,

Ferrell had been a car crash and then ran to the nearest house to find help. The woman inside answered the door, believing it to be her husband on the other side. When she realized it wasn’t, she immediately closed the door, hit her panic alarm and callled 911. She reported a man attempting to break into her home. When the police arrived, Ferrell approached them, presumably still trying to get help, at which point one of the officers fired his stun gun, which was “unsuccessful.” That’s when Kerrick fired his weapon, hitting Ferrell multiple times, and killed him.

The tragic aspect of this is, as a young black man in America, Ferrell probably knew in that moment he couldn’t expect anyone to help him. He was likely very aware that knocking on a stranger’s door might backfire. But he took the risk anyway because he needed help. For that, he was killed.

Denzel Smith looks at Ferrell’s death in light of comments made by Bill Cosby and Don Lemon, who discussed Cosby’s success as a legendary black comedian from a low-income background. At one point in the segment, Cosby says to Lemon, “It is not what they weren’t doing to me, it’s what I wasn’t doing. It’s a very simple thing.” Statements like this only reinforce the misconception that racism is something we can overcome through individual persistence and hard work. 

When the Lemons and Cosbys and Rices and Obamas of the world dole out this “tough love” to black communities about education, hard work, being better parents, pulling up your pants, or what have you, they’re not only reinforcing racist stereotypes of black people but feeding the narrative that racism is either not as prevalent or not as vicious as others are making it out to be. Black people can achieve all that they want if they’re willing to work for it, the thinking goes. We just have to dedicate ourselves to the “right” things.

Jonathan Ferrell did everything “right.” He got an education. He worked hard. He was engaged to be married. His crime was being in a car crash and seeking help. In the process, he was profiled as a burglar, shot and killed. No one sought to protect, serve, or even listen to him. He had his humanity erased even after doing it all the “right” way.

So yes, you can go into debt to get an education, or play college football, wear a suit and tie to work in corporate America, or serve this country in the armed forces, but so long as you are black you will be subject to racism and white supremacy. You will constantly have to answer questions about your existence and prove that you belong. And in some instances, like that of Jonathan Ferrell, you may not even be given the opportunity to explain.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four young black girls. I can’t imagine Lemon and Cosby arguing that they died due to their lack of ambition. Now how was Jonathan Ferrell any different?


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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