How Far Down Do You Define Deviancy in Ferguson?

The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's celebrated phrase "defining deviancy down" first appeared in a 1993 essay in The American Scholar. "I proffer the thesis," wrote Moynihan, "that, over the past generation...the amount of deviant behavior in American society has increased beyond the levels the community can 'afford to recognize' and that, accordingly, we have been re-defining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized."

What used to be a civil rights movement has drawn a bright line behind the late Michael Brown, whose guilt in two violent felonies (robbing a convenience store while assaulting a store clerk, and assaulting a police officer) is not in dispute. It is sad, to be sure, that Brown died in a confrontation with a police officer, but no legal case can be made that the police officer rather than Brown chose to make the confrontation deadly.

Two generations ago the NAACP chose Rosa Parks as the subject of its anti-segregation lawsuit in Montgomery, AL, because she was a woman of unexceptionable character and reputation. Today the NAACP and its allies have chosen Michael Brown as their poster-boy, precisely because he was a violent criminal. The argument of what now might be termed a "criminals' rights movement" is that the police should not have the right to use force against felons whose crimes do not reach a certain threshold. What that threshold might be seems clear from the repeated characterization of Brown as an "unarmed black teenager." Unless violent felons use deadly weapons, it appears, the police should not be allowed to use force.

To restate the "civil rights" argument in a clearer way: Young black men are disproportionately imprisoned. One in three black men have gone to prison at some time in their life. According to the ACLU, one in fifteen black men are incarcerated, vs. one in 106 white men. That by itself is proof of racism; the fact that these individuals were individually prosecuted for individual crimes has no bearing on the matter. All that matters is the outcome. Because the behavior of young black men is not likely to change, what must change is the way that society recognizes crime itself. The answer is to remove stigma of crime attached to certain behavior, for example, physical altercations, petty theft, and drug-dealing on a certain scale. The former civil rights movement no longer focuses its attention on supposedly ameliorative social spending, for example, preschool programs for minority children, although these remain somewhere down the list in the litany of demands. What energizes and motivates the movement is the demand that society redefine deviancy to exclude certain classes of violent as well as non-violent felonies.