For all we social scientists like to talk about structural privilege, it might be this social-psychological privilege that is the most valuable. Imagine the productivity of your laptop when all the background programs are closed. Now imagine your life when those background processes are rarely if ever activated, simply because of the social position your genetic characteristics afford you.
The death of Jonathan Ferrell reminds us that stereotyping in daily interactions can be aided and abetted by organizational processes (like the characterization of a police call to 911) and structural legitimacy (like the authority of the police to shoot first and ask questions later). I am choosing to ignore how that process was set in motion. Perhaps better feminist scholars than myself can explore the historical, cultural, gendered fear that legitimizes the unconscious bias toward black men as sexual and criminal predators. I find I do not have the stomach for it today.
I just read an article that quotes Ferrell’s family at length. His family’s attorney did not just want us to know that Ferrell was a friend and son but that:
“He’s engaged to be married, he has a dog and a cat, he was driving a Toyota Camry, he survived an accident, had 3.7 GPA, a chemistry major. This is not someone who posed a threat to the officers or anyone else, this is an everyday American.”
A 3.7 GPA. They want us to know that their dead friend, son, brother, and cousin had a 3.7 GPA.
Ferrell may have been too hurt, too in shock to whistle Vivaldi to all the people he encountered the night he was shot. It may not have helped if he had, through slammed doors, over police sirens and gunfire. But even in death his family is whistling Vivaldi on Ferrell’s behalf, signaling to us and our adjudication of justice that he was a student, and, by extension, a human being whose death should matter.
Tressie McMillan Cottom is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at Emory University.