First off, let’s make something clear. This post is not about the actual shooting of Michael Brown, nor the validity of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. This post is about the deeper issue that has tacitly pervaded American culture for decades, revealing itself to public scrutiny only in phasic culminations of racial tension.
The shootings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamari Rice, and countless others constitute a pattern of events that are neither random nor statistically isolated. They represent the climax of racial imbalance, the tip of the iceberg wherein the other nine tenths of the issue, illustrated by decades of discrimination, racial steering, and intergenerational poverty, remain submerged under the facade of equality and an intact justice system. Most of us, blinded by privilege and comforted by the sense of grandeur and inherent superiority instantiated in the American identity, are taught to embrace the system in the honest belief that we belong to a free and just society. And we are nothing but complicit, if not eager, to accept this as the unquestionable truth. We champion our courts of law and upstanding democracy while resting blissfully ignorant under its paternalistic enforcement of our privilege. But every time events like Ferguson occur we are forced to confront the disillusioning reality that otherwise eludes the veil of privilege and patriotism.
America is one of the most racially diverse demographic nations in the world and yet racial disparity is epitomized in its criminal justice system. African Americans constitute 12% of the U.S. population and concurrently represent nearly 40% of the incarcerated population. Coupled with the widespread declining rate of crime, these statistics illustrate the profound impact of racial biasing in America. The discrimination seen in Ferguson’s law enforcement history alone is cause for outrage. The racial profiling is simply not justified in light of the statistical evidence. Last year in Ferguson, 92% of searches and 86% of car searches involved black citizens, but the majority of contraband, illegal guns, and drugs, were carried by white citizens – 1 in 3 whites to 1 in 5 blacks. Given this polarized reality, the growing public distrust expressed toward the justice system and its enforcers is quite understandable. After all, the jury’s decision, as infuriating as it was, came as a surprise to no one – and that cynicism perfectly articulates the inherent corruption of the American justice system and its role in enabling the racial divide that precludes justice.
The racial tension in Ferguson transcends the cold blooded murder of a young college prospect; the decision of a predominantly white jury not to indict a fellow white man accused of murdering a black man in a predominantly black city is indicative of a greater injustice. Ferguson typifies the rampant systemic corruption that manifests in the aftermath of demographic transition: the collapse of fragile race relations in a black majority governed by white municipal institutions. Not to mention the completely unwarranted militarized police response to the protests, complete with M-16s and armored vehicles, which only exacerbated the existing adversarial police-civilan relations by enacting a war zone. What little credibility Ferguson’s police force maintained following Darren Wilson’s carelessness was quickly squandered by this abuse of power, adding a further dimension to the criticism of American law enforcement protocol.
In the aftermath of the grand jury’s verdict and the anticipated flood of emotions that were incarnated by mass protests and property damage in Ferguson, many commentators took to social media to disseminate the civil unrest. Predictably, the dialogue surrounding the issue remains as segregated as Ferguson itself.
Most responses were beneficial to the cause.
Some downright racist and idiotic.
Others depicted the situation under the guise of pseudo-neutrality and constructive rhetoric, citing the rebellion and the type of behavior exemplified in the riots as the inherent cause for racial marginalization in (white) society – a conflation that personifies the racism operating within American culture.
Some individuals, including black people, offered a more direct criticism of black culture and attributed the apparent racial disempowerment to political disinterest and lack of involvement in “the system”. This type of attitude, condescending at its best and blatantly racist at its worst, is contentious to the pursuit of racial equality.
It is evident that the overall conversation remains fragmented, these polarized views have succeeded only in conveying a distortion of the truth, an incomplete assessment of race relations in America, and a misidentification of the fundamental problem at the core of the American justice system. Though the absence of blacks from municipal institutions is evident and appalling, existing to the extent of a very real segregation, the overall message of these statements is false. No one is disputing the lack of uniform demographic representation in American government, but to simply chalk this up to a lack of ambition is iniquitous. The issue runs much deeper, entrenched in a longstanding historical tradition and implicitly upheld by a cultural mindset that has infiltrated even the most upstanding institutions of the law: a contemporary racism, socially preened to fit within the legal boundaries of the law while still expertly exploiting the oppressed.
Racism has been systematically cultivated and culturally encrypted since the country’s origins in slavery such that it is now largely inconspicuous, and often manifesting below awareness as implicit stereotypes even in those who do not identify as racist. Substituting moral inadequacy for biological inferiority, this new form of prejudice covertly resembles the dominant ideology that formerly legitimized racism. The fear and discrimination characterizing the Jim Crow mentality simply evolved toward a subtler prejudice among the privileged, the power differential shifting from explicit racism to implicit classist elitism. Cotton plantations and congested slaves’ quarters were replaced with profit prisons and overcrowded welfare offices. Racial zoning laws were exchanged for redlining and mortgage discrimination. Racial segregation was simply operationalized by white flight rather than constitutional validation. The motives of the Klu Klux Klan enacted by the actions of self-proclaimed vigilantes like George Zimmerman. And yet, the symbolic racism implicated by these transgressions is reliably upheld by the very system built to serve justice and equality. What we see happening in Ferguson is simply a frustrated response to a corrupt system, a system founded on a shameful history and the conservative American beliefs it protects.
Though an integral aspect of the American civil rights legacy, abolition did little for the socioeconomic enslavement that would permeate generations to come. In the wake of liberation, emancipated slaves constituted a new class of socioeconomically compromised citizens, but by no means were these individuals equitably integrated into society.
Segregation, exclusionary covenants, racial steering, and aggravated urban decay all predicated the development trap that would dictate their racial austerity. These marginalizing policies were designed to ensure black culture would not infiltrate white society, to impede productivity and education by limiting income and infrastructure. The current effects of which, viciously self-propagating and seemingly inescapable, are seen on either side: the prolonged marginalization of African-Americans, and the subsequent criticism of the illegitimate activity that occurs as result. No doubt the latter belongs to the modern prejudicial contempt that endured the demise of the “separate but equal” era to be reified by the same conservative folk who condemn public welfare and affirmative action.
The criticism, citing gang crime and black-on-black violence, drug use, unemployment and government dependence, etc., is unwarranted in that it ignores the transgenerational effects of historical oppression. These people were denied basic human rights for so long and then suddenly expected to compete in a job market they had no experience in, a schooling system they had not been educated in, and an economic climate they had no resources in. How could they be expected to thrive in a system that was never built for their success?
Though for some it has become prosaic, perhaps even tautological, to correlate racial injustice with the lack of racial diversity seen in the justice system, it is not in any way justified to suggest simply modifying the African-American work ethic as a viable solution. The fallacy lies in the conflation of race and crime, a misattribution that is confounded by the effect of poverty. In such cases poverty has been inflicted on a racial minority for historical reasons, which is correlated with an increased propensity for crime.
Contentious assumptions of race and degeneracy allow for racial biasing to transcend the burgeoning socioeconomic gap and pervade society through social interactions, employment opportunities, educational standards, policy-making, policing protocol, racial profiling, incarceration rates, urban infrastructure development, etc.
So while you may argue, sitting atop your tall white horse, that black people need only be more active members of society to see change, whether it be by registering to vote and increasing representation in juries or becoming directly involved in the judicial system or political hierarchies, you may first want to consider a more circumspect perspective. The question is not whether there needs to be stronger diversity in these systems to allow for a more accurate representation of the population – this is obvious, rather the question is why there is such a blatant lack of diversity and how can this be rectified, because the answer is not a simple one, and the solution even less so.
Power – real power, the kind we see dominating courtrooms, running bureaucracies, and corrupting the justice system – belongs to the upper echelons of the sociopolitical gambit, the financially elite. These are the ones with a vested interest in politics because the government works for their benefit – it’s their system. The socially and politically alienated on the other hand, are often reluctant to constructively participate in a society that has already forgotten them.
Thus, the eruptive anger demonstrated by protesters in Ferguson is an inevitable response to a longstanding racial imbalance and social inequality. That is why Michael Brown’s death represents much more than a case of racial profiling or police brutality, it is a reflection of the failed assimilation of an oppressed people into an oppressive culture. Similarly, the failure to indict Darren Wilson is more than a case of bureaucratic incompetence, it is a reflection of a skewed system protecting a class of elites. You don’t have to condone the chaos that has ensued in Ferguson to understand it. That being said, addressing both the acute and long term factors contributing to widespread racial inequality is critical to enhancing the accountability and credibility of the American justice system and therefore critical to public safety and social justice everywhere.
So to all those criticizing the people of Ferguson: stop correlating black culture with a lack of values and degenerate morality and recognize these riots as a desperate effort to be acknowledged in a broken system. Drop the pseudo-egalatarian bullshit if you concurrently admonish the welfare state; learn that equal opportunity does not ensure equal outcome. Stop undermining constructive racial dialogue with accusations of race baiting and realize that we do not live in a post-racial society, sometimes race is relevant to a crime and the color-blind approach is neither pragmatic nor conducive to social change. And to everyone else: stop being apathetic and understand that a justice system that tolerates injustice is a nation’s greatest enemy.