I wasn’t surprised by the news this morning that the Grand Jury in Ferguson, Missouri decided not to charge the police officer who shot and killed teenager Michael Brown several weeks ago. In fact I don’t think anyone I know would have been surprised. It was expected.
Despite my writing what I thought was a pretty good article back in December of 2010 about the improvement in race relations in America, that nation and its racial issues still is a charged situation that is not through exploding.
I can see a number of reasons for ongoing trouble.
The racism of the fifties and sixties is far from dead. There are a lot of people, particularly in the southern states, who were taught at the kitchen table that Black people are inferior, and who lived through a time when Blacks were definitely treated as inferior, and whose opinions on the topic have changed very little—though they might keep it from the public eye. I would imagine there are millions of houses in America where the N-word is still in the vocabulary of the family table—make no mistake about it. We might yet be generations away from that fading.
Tied strongly to that is the fact that in too many cities in America, Black people have fallen into a cycle of poverty, lack of opportunity, and lack of power. I read a recent article that exposed the myth that Blacks moving into the northern states in the fifties and earlier suddenly found welcome, reasonable housing, and dream-fulfilling opportunity. In many northern cities, they were immediately taken advantage of by white financiers, property scammers, and other low-lifes, so that instead of realizing their dreams many blacks found themselves locked into financial ruin and endless debt, pushed into neighbourhoods that soon became ghettos under the thumb of crooked white businessmen. Systemic racism has worked over the last decades to restrict the power of Black people over their own lives, as a form of abuse perhaps only less obvious than the segregation of the last century. In Ferguson today, for example, Blacks make up the majority of the population, but are strongly cut out of city administration and law enforcement. The situation hits most harshly on the young men growing up in this situation—education is a struggle, employment is limited, and too many find the lure of gangs or drugs more appealing than the almost impossible fight to achieve their dreams under the white-controlled structure forced on them. Ferguson officials this morning bragged about the fine job that the police had done last night in containing much of the violence, and labelled the rioters as “criminals”. Certainly there were those from outside Ferguson adding to the trouble, there were many taking advantage of smashed stores, of crowd frenzy, of violence for its own sake. But, regardless of how lawless it was, it was a symptom of what happens when it’s shoved in their faces that others with power will make the decisions. People get the opportunity, and they just let their anger flare.
A major factor in racism today is the clash of cultures between Blacks and too many Whites. It seems in the nature of us to not understand, even to fear people who do not behave as we do. Perhaps a different culture calls into question our own values, our own traditions. We cannot relate. Only a few venture into that other culture and explore it, seeking to be exposed to something new. Most of us feel threatened. Why to they dress like that? What’s with those pants? Their hair? Why do they listen to that music? Why do they behave that way? What’s wrong with them?
What do we want? We want them to be like us, of course. The Blacks, the Aboriginals, the Muslims, the Asians, the whatever—they should be like us. Then we would all get along fine.
Never does even a faint notion that they might be thinking the same thing about us enter our heads, of course. As the only people on the planet who speak English without an accent, why, oh why can’t the rest of them learn?
There have been great improvements in race relations in America, we can’t let the gains I highlighted in my other article pass unheralded. But there is obviously still far to go. Ferguson was not the first situation to flare up, and, of course, it won’t be the last.
Langston Hughes said it best from Harlem in the early ‘50’s:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Further reading if you have the time:
Emmett and Jeanie article, December 2010
Corrupt court system in St. Louis County today:
Washington Post Article
Long, but significant article on the experience of Blacks in the US:
Case for Reparations