Ferguson, police, and race

Here I am writing my first public thoughts about Ferguson. Awfully late, you say. Fair enough. But I had my reasons. Race is complicated and delicate, of course, and it’s not something I study consistently, so I was inclined to wait for the Justice Department reports and read other commentary. Also, let me say this: when it comes to these issues, I know what’s expected of me by some of my liberal and leftist friends, and I’m not sure I can deliver. “Where you stand depends on where you sit,” of course. And while I’m a liberal (which any leftist will tell you is not much of a lefty at all, no matter what conservatives say), I am also a middle-aged white guy, raised in a certain amount – and certainly living in a certain amount – of privilege. That brings certain reactions and preconceptions, not all of which I will go into here.  But I have attempted to put those reactions and preconceptions into context and to learn. I guess in the end what I’m trying to do here is clarify my own thinking. You can judge, praise, or condemn at your pleasure. Here we go:

Recently, the U.S. Department of Justice released twin reports on the events in Ferguson.

For the record, I agree with the conclusions reached by the Department of Justice and the state grand jury about Darren Wilson. Eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable, even under the best of conditions. And I am sympathetic toward police. They get to see the worst sides of humanity and have to somehow deal with it, rather than look away (although it’s important to note that policing is not specially dangerous). Also, as a practical matter – unless we want to go down into some libertarian or survivalist fantasy land – I believe we all want to know that there is someone to call when things get bad. And yes, I want the police to protect my property, if necessary. And I refuse to endorse the use of the word “pigs” for the police that I’ve seen used in places lately. Police can serve and protect when – and this is the key – they are policed themselves.

And that’s where things are breaking down. Police are given wide latitude, discretion, and power in our society. And with those should come strict accountability. But this is very difficult to do, given the way police are generally treated preferentially by the justice system. Body cameras might someday help with accountability. Police training needs to change. And we need to definitely stand down from the militarization of our police (and certainly of our entire society).

I see these as all good directions to go, but of course, sometimes police just get out of control. And that’s why I also agree with the other report from the Department of Justice regarding the Ferguson Police Department. It’s a terrible list of offenses – made all the uglier by the pattern of racism that’s evident in them. Any community targeted by its police force like this would be primed for violence – even if it was an ethnicity that gets defined as white. (I’m thinking of the Irish or Italians in my immediate ethnic circle. They were both viewed unfavorably at one time, to say the least.) That’s why I agree with characterizing the protests as a rebellion or an uprising and not a riot. Incidentally, the pattern of using police citations as a way to fund the local government sure strikes me as a variation of taxation without representation, and when has that ever pissed people off before? (Sadly, this practice seems to be widespread in the St. Louis area.)

Regarding the larger issue of race in the United States, I’ll say something obvious: racism is real; it is pervasive; and it effects people’s behavior, even when they don’t realize it. (Incidentally, it’s also worldwide. Singapore, where I live now, became an independent country in part because of severe racial and religious tensions.) Be honest with yourself: even if you don’t consider yourself a racist, have you ever felt even the slightest bit uncomfortable around a person of another color? Maybe it was just because you wondered what that person thought of you because of your color? Or maybe you were wondering if they would perceive you as racist in some way? I’ll bite the bullet: I have. That’s racism hard at work.

So, racism is ubiquitous, but it’s effects are not felt equally. The danger comes when racism gets connected to power. And there are few examples of power that are quite as clear as the criminal justice system. The justice system literally holds power over freedom and incarceration, life and death. And what we find here when we look for racial patterns is profoundly disturbing, with minorities being disproportionately subjected to criminal justice power – even to the point of death.

So what’s to be done? I don’t know. My opinion on that is for a future post (or dozens) after more reading. All I’ve tried to say is where I’m coming from. I guess doing that – talking about racism – is a start, at least for me. Of course, sometimes that conversation will be uncomfortable and will get hot – perhaps even bleed over into the streets. But that’s just like any conversation that’s about something that actually matters.

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