25 August 2014

An Honest Conversation About Ferguson

Believe me, I have been thinking for some time now about writing a post about the events that have been unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri. (In case you have been living without benefit of news outlets, you can catch up by reading a fairly good, if sparse, timeline of the events here.) The basics: on Saturday, August 9, shortly before noon, a police officer in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis, responding to a call about a suspected shoplifting, shot and killed an 18-year-old unarmed African-American man named Michael Brown. The exact events leading up to the shooting were not made immediately clear, and they still haven't been, but the community, the nation, and the world erupted in outrage, with the people of Ferguson rioting and the governor of Missouri calling in the National Guard for help. Things have quieted down somewhat, but I think it would be inaccurate to say that peace has been restored and that all is well.

Peace has not been restored, and all is not well in America. As Mother Jones recently reported, at least five unarmed black men, including Brown, were killed by the police from mid-July to mid-August of 2014. No one knows for sure how many unarmed people are killed by the police each year; because of inconsistencies in reporting, estimates vary widely (source). But the issue is one of great concern to just about all observers, particularly those who, like myself, take more than a passing interest in the issues of gun violence and race relations.

Why haven't I written about it? Well, first of all, it seems to me irresponsible to write unless I have solidly educated myself about the issues, and that takes time. I've read everything I could get my hands on, from news reports to blog posts to first-person accounts of the Brown killing and several other, similar incidents. I have been struck, though not particularly surprised, at the anger - most of it justified - coming to the surface in reaction to the incident. The conversation seems to be in part about the use of force and the militarization of the police, but most of it centers around the age-old problem of race in America. Why are the young men being shot to death on the street primarily black? What is it that makes the racial divide one of the defining features of our society, and why can't we rise above that divide?

Smarter people than myself have tried and failed for two hundred years to answer these questions, so I won't attempt to solve society's evils in a glib blog post. But I am not going to be afraid to enter the conversation. I am aware that many commentators have hesitated to venture into these waters because they are afraid that, not being "people of color," they will be viewed as unqualified to opine. They have been told, or led to believe, that the color of their skin somehow invalidates their thoughts on the subject, or makes them incapable of understanding the depth and horror of the situation. But anyone can understand the depth and horror of the loss of a loved one (a son or otherwise) for no good reason.

We cannot be quiet, and we cannot sit on the sidelines and allow the color of our skin to determine the validity of our opinions. The idea that only people of a certain racial background are qualified to talk about the problem of race in America is not only polarizing, but also renders a solution to the problem - if a solution exists - nearly impossible. We cannot hope to unite ourselves under a banner of equality, and to eliminate racially-based violence, if our first instinct is to define ourselves as black, white, or other, to separate ourselves accordingly, and assign a value to our thoughts based on nothing more than pigmentation.

I had thought that our parents' generation, those who lived through the Civil Rights era, who fought a hands-on battle against segregation and prejudice in American society, had made some progress. I had thought the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts had made a difference. I had thought that the summary execution of young people on the street had become anathema to a country of laws. But as I read the news and the conversations it engenders, I see no progress being made. We are treading water in a poisoned pool. We may never reach the other side, because we are pulling each other down under the surface.

Let us talk, but let us also listen. Let us come up with constructive suggestions for forward progress. Can we have an honest dialogue about the relationship between our law enforcement and our civilian population? Can we talk about violence and its prevalence in our society, state-sanctioned or otherwise?  Can we get to the root of and address the disproportionate numbers of African-Americans living below the poverty line, spending their lives incarcerated, and dying on the streets? Can we separate our opinions of each other from the many shades of skin color our ancestors gave us and instead focus on the ideals they left us as their legacy?

I am willing to try, and I hope you are too.

1 comment:

Heidi Sloss said...

It has been a wild week reading about the awful events in Ferguson as they are unfolding. Of course I read the one about Michael Brown with shock and sadness. But the ones that I am drawn to at this point are the ones about white privilege and one about people trying to make a difference to improve the sad state of affairs.

NPR ran a story yesterday about a former student of my husband working at a program to help Africaericans being hassled by unreasonable court fines and fees. The url to the story is: http://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-fines-and-fees-fuel-anger