Ferguson, Race and Economic Justice


There is no use in whining about what a tragedy it was that happened in Ferguson, nor is there any point in lining up and shouting at each other about what is just or not and what is lawful or not. The important questions are: What can be learned from the incident, and Why did it set off such a widespread emotional conflagration? The answer is full of pain, sadness, disappointment and dimming hope.

Michael Brown
Michael Brown

The protests were by no means all about the Michael Brown case. Young Brown’s death simply opened up the festering wounds of race in America. They had to do with 400 years of oppression and the life predicament of most young men of color in America.

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Let’s look at that, and let’s try to see it from two sides. White people are full of advice for poor black people.  Work hard, play it straight, get married, go to college, invest your money, blah, blah. In sum, cast off your background, use social tricks and financial wiles I won’t share with you, stop being poor and be like me.

A young black man has some responses to all this free and abundant advice, whether he utters it or not. First, he might say: This will surprise you, but I like being black and I don’t much want to be like you. I may envy your money, but otherwise I don’t find much to admire. There is a burden to my blackness, though. It never occurs to you to spend any time on the matter of being white, but being black is the central fact of my existence, and it requires attention and effort. Quite a lot of both.

Second: I know you’re talking, but all I hear is blah, blah. There’s a subtext to your sermonizing, though, and it comes through a lot like this:

* If you screw up in school, we’ll put you on Ritalin or some such. Don’t do drugs yourself, though, or we’ll put you in your place – which is a cell. If you sell the stuff to people who want to buy it, our hospitality is unlimited. The free market does have some limits, after all.

* You have to endure some pain to grow into the parts of society you think are denied to you. We don’t, but you do.

* If we find you in our neighborhood, we’ll call the guard at the gate and make sure you’re there to rake the leaves. If you’re not, we’ll do all we can to put you in your place.

* You’ve got some ways out of here. Take the lottery, for example. But if we find you running numbers in competition with our lottery, we’ll put you in your place. Nothing is more feared and reviled in a capitalist economy than competition.

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* Then there’s football, a thuggish game, If you behave thuggishly off the field, of course, you’re going to your place. If you are a superb athlete, but not quite NFL material, you’re just another loser.

* If you don’t have a lucrative career, it’s because you didn’t try. If you do have such a career, it’s because of affirmative action, and you didn’t deserve it – never mind that I got my job because of social connections. And white skin.

* Your people were freed in 1865. It didn’t take, so we did it again a century later. It’s not our fault that you got invited into the middle class at the same time the middle class froze, then started shrinking. The timing was perfect, as always, that’s all.

* My folks used to own your folks. It’s not so different these days, now, is it? This one comes with the involuntary shadow of a smirk.

So when I hear all this, the young black man thinks, I understand that Michael Brown was messed up. He was angry. Maybe he made some trouble. Maybe I would have, too.

Darren Wilson
Darren Wilson

Now let’s look at it from the cop’s perspective. Not at the incident, but at life on the Ferguson police force.

* You accuse me of racial profiling? Let me ask you something. You see a black kid, 18 years old, all blinged out, on the street. Do you step a little bit wide of him? Be honest. You do? Okay, who’s racially profiling?

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* Our police force is mostly white. That’s not of my doing, but I suspect it has something to do with the availability of qualified candidates. If you think that’s not true, then post a job, at our salaries, with our requirements for qualifications, in a place like Ferguson. Good luck getting black applicants.

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* The city is 60 per cent African-American. It’s the white community that actually gets less police protection. Why? Because we spend our time where the crime is, and that means the underprivileged neighborhoods. They’re black. And it’s not my fault the housing is not more thoroughly integrated. It does, though, help us keep them corralled.

* You’re black. When you’re in trouble, when there’s a criminal nearby, whom do you call?

* Am I a racist? Are my colleagues on the force a bunch of racists? The question is relative, but in my honest moments, I can tell you that my attitudes are informed by my experience, just like yours. Does that help?

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There’s a gulf here, isn’t there? A great, wide chasm of belief, attitude and behavior. Everyone knows it, and everyone wants to do something about it. Over and over, we hear, “We need to have a national conversation about race.”

Do we ever. But not just a conversation. Discussing this mess one more time isn’t going to get us anywhere – unless this time, the discussion is about money.

Poverty Chart
US Census Chart

Black Americans overall are making little, if any, progress toward economic equality. Those who do are encountering intense resentment, some of it undeniably tied to Republican politics and the presidency of Barack Obama.

It’s fine to celebrate diversity, but only if, at bottom, we’re really celebrating our common humanity. If we can do that, and do it sincerely, then we can begin to get to the real issue, which is equal opportunity. Equality of opportunity begins with opportunity itself, and this necessarily implies a growing economy. Then we have to talk about justice. Capitalism as it is practiced in America has nothing to do with justice, and you cannot credibly claim that the market results in justice of any kind. In fact, it is pretty much uncontrolled and resulting in gross injustices – and this contributes heavily to racial inequities.

We can’t turn the economic clock back to 1965 and the full flush of the postwar boom. We could, however, revive a moribund labor movement, restore progressivism to the tax system, employ people in public works, adopt living wage standards and demand fair trade policy.

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We’re not about to do any of that.