Ferguson, Racism, and Economics

I’ve been following circumstances in Ferguson with a lot of interest, but I’ve been reluctant to comment much on it. Admittedly, this is largely because I’m not comfortable talking about racism. But that discomfort is, in large part, what allows systemic racism to thrive. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said:

And it may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

I think it’s worth noting how strong that impulse to slow down is, even now. Maybe especially now. An example from the NYT:

Possibly the most widely held sentiment among whites is the hope that it all simply goes away. “I feel for everyone involved,” said Shannon Shaw, a jeweler in Mehlville. But, she added, “I think the protesters just need to go home.”

In America race and class issues are completely intertwined. Look closely enough and you can see one or the other, but it’s impossible to take a broader look at one without seeing the other. In a recent article in Time, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote:

Of course, to many in America, being a person of color is synonymous with being poor, and being poor is synonymous with being a criminal. Ironically, this misperception is true even among the poor.

Why is that? As the civil rights movement progressed, overt racism became socially unacceptable. But people didn’t change as fast as society, so many people silently held on to racist beliefs, feelings, and attitudes. And of course that racism still came out in public, just more subtly. Racist statements would be vague enough that if challenged there was plausible deniability. Perhaps the least subtle example of this is economics, where the language of race was often simply replaced with class. Instead of talking about black people politicians would talk about the poor, or the inner city, or urban culture.

This had two effects. One is that it created a kind of code. People could once again express overtly racist ideas but still maintain plausible deniability. The other effect was both more subtle and more harmful. People who heard these statements but didn’t recognize their intent took them at face value, sometimes accepting the idea that the poor are, essentially, an inferior race. Even the people who were using class as code started to internalize the idea that race and class were interchangeable.

Lately, looking at the coverage of the events in Ferguson, I think the most striking difference between the protesters and their critics is the scope of the issue. The critics say that we can’t know what happened, that we must wait and find out if the shooting was justified. But this is to entirely misunderstand the protesters. Michael Brown’s death is a symbol to them, and regardless of what happened in the moments before his death they will still feel as powerless and abused as before. The problem isn’t any individual incident, it is the attitudes and the patterns.

If you are unconvinced, look at nearly any decision by the police and government since the shooting. More than a lack of respect, they have shown disdain for the community. From the repeated decision to use tear gas on peaceful protesters to the arrest of journalists to the imposition of curfew, at every turn the police have chosen to treat the community as an enemy.

Which brings me to my final point: escalation. I feel like that is the key theme that runs through all of the problems that have hit the news in Ferguson. Not just since the death of Michael Brown, but before it too. The authorities seem to welcome the chance to escalate situations, to the point that very few of the people in power seem to even see any other options. It creates a cycle of escalation.

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