Now Famous Ferguson, Missouri
The first thing to strike me about the dust-up over the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson was the ineptitude of the police reaction. Let’s all agree that the actions and decisions both of the police and the city government left a lot to be desired. But our focus on Ferguson as anything beyond an illustration runs the risk of disguising a broader truth.
Repeated examples of overt racism in the past 18 months make it painfully obvious we haven’t come nearly as far as we’d like to think. African-American distrust of police in particular & government in general is well-earned. And this is true across our land…which goes a long way toward explaining our horrified fascination with events in Ferguson.
Race & Repression
Across America, there are many examples of inherently unfair treatment of minorities in general, but African-Americans in particular. This isn’t news, but if you need a refresher, here you go:
- Illustrative are the stop & frisk statistics in New York, 2003 to present. During this period, black men are between 4 & 5 times more likely to be stopped than white men.
- Black men are disproportionately incarcerated. (nearly 6 times the rate of white men)
- The evidence with respect to the racial component in poverty is equally damning. (The poverty rate for black people is more than double that for white people)
- And we continue to hallow these injustices in statutory law. Restrictive voting rights laws were recently been enabled when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Not six months later, 13 states had either passed or had pending restrictive voter registration legislation.
In the majority opinion, Justice Roberts stated Section 4
had been stricken because it was based on “40 year old facts having no logical relationship to the current day.” (Really?) Taken together, the trends aren’t difficult to read. It’s not in the protesters’ imagination in Ferguson or elsewhere that minorities in general & black people in particular continue to be stymied by systemic roadblocks to the American dream.
Repression & Fear
But why? If you’re white, you probably won’t like my conclusion. Throughout history, repressive policies and the measures used to make them stick tend to be grounded in fear. We can argue interminably the sources of that fear but not about the evidence or the outcome. But before we can make durable progress, we must confront our fears at both the personal and institutional level. We all need to look deep, where many of us would rather not. But we might as well cop now, because our black brothers and sisters figured it out a long time ago.
The Ferguson example is illustrative of that fear at work. Does Ferguson have a reputation for violence commensurate with the police reaction? No, it turns out. Crime statistics for Ferguson place it a little below the national median for violent crime and well below that of Missouri as a whole.
Knowledge—The Natural Enemy of Fear
Growing up white in the sheltered mid-west, I absorbed this unreasoning fear without knowing it, never mind recognizing it. It went unrecognized until I stepped in front my platoon as a young lieutenant. More than half of my platoon was Black, Hispanic, Native American or Asian. I had no real understanding, good or bad, of how to relate to “minorities.” I’m sure my Marines sensed my trepidation & took advantage of it in minor ways.
But their behavior also showed a willingness to give me a chance. Did they have fears of their own about my competence? If they didn’t they should have. It took great courage for them to trust me, despite my inexperience, just as I had to reach deep to move past my culturally inherited fears of “difference” to discover our kinship as Marines and humans.
For me, those differences remained. But they became part of what I loved & valued about them. It was awkward and scary at times & I screwed up repeatedly. But I owed it to them as their leader to overcome it. To do less dishonored the chance they gave me.
Justice & Stewardship.
Comparing my experiences as a young Marine officer to our national track record with diversity leads me to conclude we’re still trapped in those same culturally inherited fears. At moments of crisis, it’s so much easier to react viscerally, than to question unreasoning fear.
And that fear isn’t just of black people, though the statistics above show they’re the most visibly & consistently repressed. But it really is any group we don’t know…or worse, groups we think we know by myths we accept as truth.
We can and must be better than this. The first duty of leadership & governance is stewardship…stewardship that takes the form of service to the best interests of all. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to fall short of our highest expression of freedom because we are afraid. We…all of us…must accept our measure of responsibility for Ferguson. Shaking our fingers at flawed leadership in one small city in Missouri masks the uncomfortable truth. A persistent, collective cultural bias against “minorities” remains. It is time to re-energize ourselves to complete the work Dr. King & so many other great American heroes began.
If you are white and reading this, accept that this is not the black man or brown man or the red man’s problem. They are affected by it, but the problem is ours. The political, social and economic system repressing the less fortunate is of our making and we must help fix it. As Congressman Cummings has observed, “inclusion is our promise, not our problem.”
It won’t happen overnight, even if justice is served in Ferguson. The list of Michael Browns, Travon Martins & Eric Garners grows daily. It must end and we all must help. We can start by voting in ways promoting inclusion and equality for all. But it doesn’t end there. Above all, get over your fears, white America. We owe it to them. As importantly, we owe it to ourselves.