I haven’t come across any new, dispositive facts to change my mind about the complicated specifics in the Michael Brown tragedy. But there is one dispositive fact that is hard to miss and that keeps impressing itself upon me every time I read about Ferguson and its meaning. There is a near-universal consensus among African-American men that there is a crisis about their role in American society, and particularly about their interaction with the police. You can cavil, or criticize or feign shock or refer back to the specifics of the Ferguson case. But it’s there and it’s real and any crisis between any segment of the population with respect to law enforcement is a crisis for the entire society.
Here’s what strikes me – the range of black voices telling us that this is a moment for despair. The rhetoric has gone to eleven. TNC:
Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land. This plunder has not been exclusive to black people. But black people, the community to which both Michael Brown and Barack Obama belong, have the distinct fortune of having survived in significant numbers. For a creedal country like America, this poses a problem—in nearly every major American city one can find a population of people whose very existence, whose very history, whose very traditions, are an assault upon this country’s nationalist instincts. Black people are the chastener of their own country. Their experience says to America, “You wear the mask.”
Here’s Colbert King, one of the sharpest columnists at the Washington Post, with long credentials in the civil rights movement:
We are in a bad place. My 20-year-old grandson, Will, the most gentle and respectful young man you would ever want to meet, posted this on his Facebook page:
“Regarding the recent events in Ferguson: I’ve always wanted to believe my country was free. But today’s grand jury decision tells me this cannot be the case. No country that refuses to hold the police, those so-called ‘defenders of the law,’ accountable for its unjust brutality — and yes, it is often very brutal — can be free. When the grand jury declined to charge Darren Wilson for his actions, what kind of a message does that send? . . . It doesn’t seem fair that police can commit brutal acts against innocent people and get away with it.”
It’s not, Will. Not today. Not in your great-grandmother’s day when that Mississippi grand jury let that white farmer get away with murder. Not ever.
John McWhorter shares my view of the murkiness of the actual incident, but is emphatic nonetheless about the broader problem:
The right-wing take on Brown, that he was simply a “thug,” is a know-nothing position. The question we must ask is: What is the situation that makes two young black men comfortable dismissing a police officer’s request to step aside?
These men were expressing a community-wide sense that the official keepers of order are morally bankrupt. What America owes communities like Ferguson — and black America in general — is a sincere grappling with that take on law enforcement that is so endemic in black communities nationwide. As Northwestern philosopher Charles Mills has put it, “Black citizens are still differentially vulnerable to police violence, thereby illustrating their second class citizenship.”
This is true. It is most of what makes so many black people of all classes sense racism as a key element of black life, and even identity.
What we’re talking about here is not prejudice exhibited by other members of civil society – the kind of prejudice you can argue should be ignored or proven wrong. It is prejudice exhibited by the representatives of the entire system – the police – and its expression is too often violence, even fatal violence. At first, I simply wondered how so many people I respect see no progress at all since the 1930s or earlier. But it is perfectly possible, it now seems clear, for there to be considerable social progress and integration even as police forces – especially in poor, urban areas – come to associate criminality with black men, and treat them as a different class of people – guilty until proven innocent, violent unless proven peaceful.
I can see why this happens, can’t you? Cops are not superhuman. High rates of violence and crime in neighborhoods with large numbers of young black men make a certain kind of prejudice almost impossible to avoid for a fallible human cop – but that makes training to counteract these impulses all the more important to enforce. A cop like Wilson, with clearly minimal finesse in these matters, come across as afraid, unprofessional, and reckless. Ditto this jumpy fool in a much clearer case:
I cannot imagine that happening to a white man. Period. The officer in that case has been fired and charged with assault. But what are the odds that would have happened without a dash-cam video?
The truth is: there are too many eerie parallels between today’s world and yesterday’s.
Although the formal structures are immeasurably better than in the darkest days of slavery and formal segregation, the informal patterns of mind created by history can stay the same. And I sense it is this unchanging attitude – and what it says about the core moral imagination of many non-blacks – that drives reasonable men to sputtering rage and frustration. We are not what we once were – but we remain deeply formed by what we once were. How hard is that nuance to understand?
Will we ever be different? I suspect so. Again from Chris Rock’s interview:
Grown people, people over 30, they’re not changing. But you’ve got kids growing up … I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy … It’s partly generational, but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.
But that may be too sunny a view – and for too many right now a distant prospect. Which is why I favor body cams for cops in these neighborhoods; aggressive attempts to improve schooling in poor black neighborhoods; the end of stop-and-frisk and of the revenue-creating abuses that Radley Balko highlighted. More to the point: I don’t think this should be viewed as some kind of attack on the police. Body cams can protect them from false charges as well as provide an incentive for more civil interactions with black men; and the dragnet criminalization of black men for possessing a joint is a bizarre waste of cops’ time. Their impulses are often understandable – if a huge proportion of criminals in your neighborhood are young black men, you can slide very easily into stereotypes that fatally undermine the rule of law. But that cannot excuse a set of different standards of justice for different types of people.
That’s not a minor bug in a democratic system. It’s a fatal illness. And we need to start treating it like one.
Update from a reader, who rightly keeps our attention on the outrageous killing of a 12-year-old black kid in Cleveland:
We learn more and more horrific details every day (I just saw a story about how the officers who killed him didn’t give CPR for nearly four minutes, essentially killing him once more). While the Ferguson incident was obviously complicated and demands at least some nuance in our response, the Tamir Rice killing, it seems to me, demands communal, shared outrage and pain and anger, the kind that can perhaps genuinely contribute to a meaningful response and to change.
At the very least, it seems to me to be as extreme and grotesque and worth extended attention as any story that has received multi-post, follow-up and conversation kinds of attention on the Dish. And since the Dish is the kind of space that can genuinely push the national conversation forward, I think doing so could help with those broader effects and impacts as well. So I wanted to see if it might not be able to get more of that kind of coverage. Tamir deserves it, and I’d say we all need it.
If you haven’t seen the disturbing footage already, showing the cops giving the kid who made a dumb decision no real time to surrender before shooting him dead, it pretty much says it all: