What does justice look like in the winter of Ferguson?
Ferguson is Everywhere
We’re all caught in the floodlights of Ferguson, Missouri, still reeling from the death of Michael Brown and the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the man who shot him. We seem to be seeing American society down to every fragile, moving part.
There were signs this summer, from the chief of police and the top highway cop, that the signs in might point to progress. But in the end Brown’s family and their supporters were met by a prosecutor, with deep ties to the police, playing defense on live television, and a president preaching restraint to a world that didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to be listening.
Since then we’ve watched a new outbreak of anger around the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland police and the non-indictment, too, of the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death on Staten Island this summer.
In all this it was the comedian Chris Rock who broke through, in interview with Frank Rich in New York magazine:
When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before… To say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress…
There have been smart, educated, beautiful, polite black children for hundreds of years. The advantage that my children have is that my children are encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let’s hope America keeps producing nicer white people.
It’s about white people adjusting to a new reality?
Owning their actions. Not even their actions. The actions of your dad. Yeah, it’s unfair that you can get judged by something you didn’t do, but it’s also unfair that you can inherit money that you didn’t work for.
So if the story began in Ferguson, its roots in racism and its structures are national and historical. Michael Brown embodies a generation of young black men who are living poorer lives, nearer to violence and crime, with an exaggerated danger of wrongful death by cop, “wasted“, in many ways, by the country they call home.
The protests carry on and for now, as the protestors say, Ferguson is everywhere — not just in the news, but in our institutions, our interactions, and our ideas. We know Ferguson when we see it: another killing, another lost life, another city inflamed. But what does justice look like, and when will we — all of us — be satisfied?
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The Divide by the Numbers
In the so-called “age of colorblindness” there are still ways to detect racial bias everywhere nationally — the American division into what the Kerner Commission called “two societies… separate and unequal” almost 50 years ago.
One is visceral, visual and individual: to watch the videos that have surfaced of, for example, the killing of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice by police, and to wonder whether race might have played a role in the killings. But another is analytical — to look at the experience of black people nationwide in terms of encounters with police and the justice system, and within the American economy.
The current ratio of the black unemployment rate to the white one, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — meaning that where the white unemployment rate hits 4.8%, among black Americans it’s 9.7%. (This number has been startlingly consistent since 1970, never dropping below 1.75.)
Number of Americans killed by police in 2013, according to the FBI’s annual tally.
That number including cases reported by police departments but not included in the final FBI tally. (It’s very difficult to know how many people are killed police each year.)
The number of police homicides reported in the UK in 2013.
Percentage of the U.S. population that is ‘black or African-American alone’, according to the Census Bureau.
Percentage of victims of arrest-related homicides by police, between 2003 and 2009, who were black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Percentage by which white Americans were found to overestimate the amount of overall crime that is committed by people of color (in a 2010 study).
Ratio of black men who end up imprisoned at some point over their lifetime, according to a 2003 Bureau of Justice Statistics report.
a prize fellow and assistant professor at Harvard University, and author of a forthcoming book, tentatively entitled The Tragic Vision of the Civil Rights Movement.
a sociologist and author, with an essay forthcoming in The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth.
Michelle Alexander, The New York Times
Yet another story of a black mother talking with her son — this one from the star law professor who identified the persistence of racism in our legal institutions:
I open my mouth to speak, look into my son’s eyes, and hear myself begin to lie: “Don’t worry, honey, you have nothing to worry about. Nothing like this could ever happen to you.” His face brightens as he tells me that he likes the police, and that he always waves at the cops in our neighborhood and they always wave back. His innocence is radiating from him now; he’s all lit up with relief and gladness that he lives in a world where he can take for granted that the police can be trusted to serve and protect him with a wave and a smile. My face is flushing red. I am embarrassed that I have lied. And I am angry.
Arne Kallenberg, Lisa Broidy, and Wayne Santoro, Oxford University Press blog
An academic discussion of what makes Ferguson unique, in spite of the fact that the town "is more typical than atypical." It is unique in two respects — how quickly it went from being majority white to majority black (between 1990 and 2010), and the extent to which its administration depends on court fees and late fines for revenue.
Nancy Gertner, The Boston Globe
The retired federal judge Nancy Gertner makes clear how the law is shaped to spare police from fear, hanging on the logic of a "reasonable" fear of violence:
The touchstone for evaluating police conduct was its “reasonableness,” a balance between a defendant’s rights and public safety. But “reasonableness” is notoriously imprecise. And courts can tip the balance: In Plumhoff, the Supreme Court gave special deference to the officer’s version of what happened, because officers make split second judgments, under tense circumstances. The message: Shoot first, think later, and you can count on being exonerated.
Cornel West, The Philadelphia Inquirer (1991)
An early piece of criticism from Cornel West, appearing first in Dissent, on the "major enemy of black survival in America" — mournful, urgent criticism of the black experience in America, still speaking:
We must delve into the murky waters of despair and dread that now flood the streets of black America. To talk about the depressing statistics of unemployment, infant mortality, incarceration, teenage pregnancy and violent crime is one thing. But to face up to the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning, the incredible disregard for human (especially black) life and property in much of black America is something else...
Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
Coates responds to the criticism of looting in Ferguson with a lesson in tactics and history, with a view that violence and nonviolence exist side-by-side, and that one method hasn't historically worked 'better' than the other:
Violence, lingering on the outside, often backed nonviolence during the civil-rights movement. "We could go into meetings and say, 'Well, either deal with us or you will have Malcolm X coming into here,'" said SNCC organizer Gloria Richardson. "They would get just hysterical. The police chief would say, 'Oh no!'"