“No Angel”

by Dish Staff

Yesterday, the NYT took heat for using those words to describe Michael Brown. Yglesias fired back by recalling an experience he had when he was around Brown’s age:

I suppose that, when an undercover officer came upon me and two friends smoking cigarettes and drinking beer on a park bench that night, he could have shot us dead and then the Times could have reported that we were no angels. We weren’t.

But he didn’t shoot us. He wrote us citations for drinking alcohol in a New York City park. … We were teenagers. But since the officer who apprehended us managed to handle the situation without killing us, the NYPD and the New York Times never felt the need to air our dirty laundry in public. And, indeed, though I know plenty of white kids from fancy prep schools who did illegal stuff in high school — who even got caught doing it by the police — I don’t think I’ve ever heard a story where someone like me was killed and then proclaimed to the world to have been no angel. Angels, it turns out, are pretty rare. But if you look the right way, you don’t need to be one to survive into adulthood.

Ta-Nehisi Coates piled on:

[I]f Michael Brown was not angelic, I was practically demonic. I had my first drink when I was 11. I once brawled in the cafeteria after getting hit in the head with a steel trash can. In my junior year I failed five out of seven classes. By the time I graduated from high school, I had been arrested for assaulting a teacher and been kicked out of school (twice.) And yet no one who knew me thought I had the least bit of thug in me. That is because I also read a lot of books, loved my Commodore 64, and ghostwrote love notes for my friends. In other words, I was a human being. A large number of American teenagers live exactly like Michael Brown. Very few of them are shot in the head and left to bake on the pavement.

The NYT admitted that the choice of words was a mistake. But Alyssa Rosenberg was frustrated by another part of the piece, “the idea that dabbling in hip-hop represented something about Brown’s character”:

The Times could have published a different profile of Michael Brown, one that portrayed him as someone hopeful enough to imagine a career in hip-hop but practical enough to pursue technical courses that could give him more stable work. This could have been a story about a boy whose artistic interests were proof that his soul was sensitive, rather than coarse, whatever words rolled off his tongue. But an environment in which these were the associations that came easily to us would be one that saw Michael Brown very differently all along.