At 18, Michael Brown had overcome learning difficulties to graduate this month from high school in St Louis, Missouri, and he was about to start at a local technical school, learning how to fix furnaces and air conditioners. But last Saturday afternoon, as he was walking from a convenience store towards his grandmother's apartment, Brown was shot dead by a uniformed police officer. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is investigating exactly what happened but two facts are beyond dispute: Brown was unarmed and he was black. The shooting sparked three nights of violent clashes between police and protesters, some of whom marched with their hands in the air chanting "Don't shoot, my hands are up", as Brown is reported to have said before he died.
Like the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black Florida teenager, by a neighbourhood watch volunteer in 2012, Brown’s killing has highlighted the risks faced by young African-American men on account of prejudice and fear. It has also brought attention to the specific circumstances of Ferguson, the St Louis suburb where Brown was shot. Long an overwhelmingly white town, “white flight” to other suburbs meant that by 2010 two-thirds of Ferguson’s population was black. This change is not reflected in political representation, however, and five out of the town’s six city council members are white, there are no African-Americans on the local school board, and just three of Ferguson’s 53 police officers are black.
President Barack Obama has called for "reflection and understanding" following Brown's death. But as African-Americans reflect on their condition, six years after the election of America's first black president, they see that they continue to fall behind in terms of employment, wealth and opportunity. Young black men like Brown are much more likely to be stopped by police, arrested, charged, convicted and imprisoned than their white counterparts. And more likely to be killed by the police who are supposed to protect them.