After Ferguson: no, the US is not ‘congenitally racist’

The shooting was terrible. But so is the fatalism of much of the response.

Sean Collins
US correspondent

Topics USA

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Following the news that a grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for a crime related to the shooting of Michael Brown, many people in Ferguson, Missouri took to the streets to protest and riot. Demonstrations also followed in cities around the US and internationally, including Toronto and London. Protesters carried placards that read ‘Hands up: don’t shoot’ and ‘Black lives matter’.

In the aftermath, Americans expressed a wide range of opinions as to whether justice was carried out, and what Ferguson means for race relations in the country. It seems like the only thing we agree on is that Brown’s death is a tragedy.

America’s race problem

Ferguson cast a spotlight on race in America, and has made clear that this country has a problem. It has been a reminder that, for all of its progress, the US still has unfinished business.

In light of Ferguson, many have noted that blacks are more likely to be killed by police. A ProPublica investigation found that young black males faced a 21 times greater risk of being shot dead by police than whites. Blacks make up 13 per cent of the US population, but 39 per cent of prison inmates. African-Americans are more likely to face longer jail sentences than whites for the same crimes. Behind this disparity in treatment by the police and legal system is a disparity in economic standing: black unemployment is more than twice that for whites, and black poverty is about double that for the US as a whole.

The reaction to the Ferguson shooting itself has revealed that blacks and whites can hold widely divergent views. According to a Pew Research Center survey in August, about two thirds of blacks said the police response in Ferguson went too far, compared to one third of whites. About half of whites said they were confident in the investigation, compared to only 18 per cent of blacks. As President Obama said after the grand jury decision: ‘The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of colour.’ Such distrust is less likely to be found among whites.

Of course, recognition of such differences in views and outcomes between blacks and whites does not, in itself, prove one way or another that traditional racism (with features such as assumed inferiority, thorough social discrimination and a coherent ideology from the top down) is at work. But it does indicate that there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

The Brown-Wilson altercation: a faulty prism

Although Ferguson certainly raises important questions, this single event, in itself, was never going to be a useful lens through which to assess the extent of racial discrimination in America.

Supporters of Michael Brown were quick to slot the Ferguson shooting into a narrative about racism, and said this tragedy was symbolic of all that was wrong. Much of the media selected certain evidence and testimony to fit this narrative.

The early reports sought to present Brown as a passive victim, a ‘gentle giant’; but we now know that he was actively engaged, and perhaps hostile, in his altercation with Wilson. The shooting was said to have been unprovoked; but we now know that Brown reached into Wilson’s car and tried to grab his gun. We were told that Brown was shot multiple times in the back; but we now know that was untrue. The most famous detail – Brown putting his hands up, to plead ‘don’t shoot’ – is disputed among eyewitnesses. Do we know everything about the confrontation that day? No, and despite the evidence released by the prosecutor, we may never know the full story. But it is more complicated than the media and campaigners led us to believe.

Writer and Columbia professor John McWhorter, who sympathises with the Ferguson protests, admits ‘I’m not sure that what happened to Michael Brown – and the indictment that did not happen to Officer Darren Wilson – is going to be useful as a rallying cry about police brutality and racism in America’. After describing how the evidence didn’t fit the original narrative, McWhorter says he fears that ‘the facts on this specific incident are too knotted to coax a critical mass of America into seeing a civil rights icon in Brown and an institutionally racist devil in Wilson’. He worries ‘that we have chosen the wrong tragedy to wake this country up,’ and suggests perhaps others – like John Crawford, who was killed for handling a BB gun in an Ohio Wal-Mart – would make a better example.

But maybe the search for single events that can be ‘teachable moments’ that will ‘wake up’ people is misguided. It certainly didn’t work with another would-be symbol, Trayvon Martin, where similarly a simplistic story didn’t hold up after scrutiny. By claiming that one case is a microcosm of a larger problem, there is a temptation to jump to the conclusion that the accused is guilty. And there is a risk it will backfire: the unconvinced might conclude that, if this particular case wasn’t clear-cut racial discrimination, then maybe the campaigners are also exaggerating about the extent of racial inequality. Perhaps it would be better to assume that people can appreciate extended arguments, not just morality tales.

Justice without an indictment?

By the time the grand jury convened, many were already convinced of Wilson’s guilt. Some believed anything less than putting Wilson behind bars would show the system is racist and unjust. This point of view is similar to the one you hear expressed with respect to accusations of rape today: we don’t need to have a trial; we already know the accused is guilty.

In this regard, it is disappointing that the case will not go to trial. A trial would have led to the sifting through of evidence and testimony, held people to cross-examination, and so on. For our public discussion of Ferguson, it would be more transparent and superior to the prosecutor’s dump of materials afterwards.

That’s why I have some sympathy with criticisms of the prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, and how the grand jury operated. This view is not necessarily allied with the ‘we know Wilson is guilty’ crowd; it simply seeks a fair process. As many have pointed out, there were anomalies with this grand-jury process compared with a typical one: it was longer, had more witnesses and evidence, included defendant testimony, and the prosecutor did not recommend a specific charge. It seems pretty clear that McCulloch didn’t think he had a strong case, and took it to the grand jury rather than make a unilateral non-indictment decision, because of the high-profile nature of the case. In providing the full evidence, and releasing it afterwards, McCulloch also seemed to be covering his back.

At the same time, most legal experts I’ve read who have reviewed the materials – with their ambiguous evidence and conflicting accounts – have concluded that it would be hard to imagine that the prosecutor could have proved the case beyond a reasonable doubt. It appears that the jurists had grounds to conclude that the case did not rise to a ‘probable cause’ for a trial. Furthermore, it is important to note that the original principle behind grand juries (leaving aside how they work in practice) is a good one: they are meant to protect the accused from having to endure an unnecessary trial. The aims of public education or soothing community unrest over a controversial case like Ferguson shouldn’t trump an individual defendant’s rights. Perhaps a better demand is to ensure that black defendants have their rights as thoroughly upheld as Darren Wilson did.

It should also be recognised that the absence of a trial and guilty verdict does not make it right. The shooting may not have been a crime, but many would agree that, if the outcome is a dead citizen, then the police have not handled the situation properly. Especially if it’s happening too often across the country. Furthermore, if you don’t hinge the entire argument on this one case, then the lack of indictment doesn’t mean that there aren’t broader problems of policing and race relations in the US.

The myth of America as irredeemably racist

In response to the grand-jury decision, many seem to want to squeeze events in Ferguson into pre-existing narratives. Some focus only on the rioting and looting, and blame blacks for criminal behaviour. Others believe Ferguson shows an unbroken continuity of racism, in a country built on slavery and Jim Crow. Such a divide was found in analysis of 200,000 tweets about Ferguson in the run-up to the grand-jury announcement. The most retweeted comment from the ‘red’, or conservative, side was: ‘#Ferguson I would feel safer, any day, to encounter #DarrenWilson on the street, than to meet #MichaelBrown or half of those now protesting!’ From the ‘blue’, or liberal, side, the most popular was: ‘Governor calls State Of Emergency. National Guard waiting. FBI giving warnings. KKK issuing threats. What ’effing year is this? #ferguson.’

As it happens, neither of these views is accurate. Many black Americans face real socioeconomic hurdles. And as black communities are more likely to be at the sharp end of heavyhanded police tactics, they have good reason to distrust law enforcement. Complaints cannot be waved away as victim-mongering or apologies for criminal behaviour.

But the idea that America is irredeemably racist – a view that seems very popular among demonstrators nationwide and internationally – is also wrong. In the aftermath of the Ferguson grand-jury decision, Ta-Nahesi Coates called the US a ‘congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labour, and land’. This outlook ignores the real progress that has been made. The US is far more tolerant than it was 50 years ago; it takes historical amnesia to think today is anything like the pre-civil rights era. Since that time we’ve seen the creation of a black middle class in the US, and there are now seven black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. There are many more black elected officials than before, including, today, 47 black members of Congress, and of course a black president, which was unimaginable not that long ago. Not enough? Yes, but it hasn’t been one sorry slog of ‘congenital’ racism from the days of slavery to today.

Those who point to Ferguson to argue that America is therefore soaked with prejudice from coast to coast also overlook the specifics in that Missouri town that have made race relations particularly antagonistic. As I have pointed out on spiked before, Ferguson has a distinctive history, shifting from being a predominantly white to predominantly black suburb in recent years, while having a mostly white police force in a mostly black town. For years, poor black people in Ferguson have been routinely harassed by police who charge them with petty offences that produce fines to fill local coffers.

There has also been a notable vacuum of political and community leadership – both white and black – in the area; as one commentator put it: ‘Civil society made up of churches and volunteer groups works with local government, which gets help from the state government, which itself works in concert with and sometimes independent of the federal government. But in Ferguson, nothing seemed to be working. Indeed, the poor local civil society response to Ferguson was one of the reasons why Brown’s tragic death and the subsequent social unrest occurred.’ Ferguson is not one of a kind, especially when it comes to police shootings; but it is not the typical community that black Americans live in either.

The view of America as incorrigibly racist not only ignores history and the local particularities – it is also deeply pessimistic. Indeed, many anti-racists after Ferguson are imbued with fatalism. Writing in the Guardian, Syreeta McFadden sighs: ‘Today, Mike Brown is still dead, and Darren Wilson has not been indicted for his murder. And who among us can say anything but: “I am not surprised”?’ For too many of today’s protesters, racial divisions are not so much the result of specific economic circumstances, state policies or police methods. Instead, disparities are understood to arise from deep-seated prejudice in the hearts of whites, an inability to confess ‘white privilege’, and radically divergent cultural experiences of white and black people. Rather than address specific social improvements, they blame the masses for being inhumane towards blacks, for not believing that ‘black lives matter’. And, of course, if that’s how the problem is conceived, then it is no wonder that the possibility of bridging divisions among races appears hopeless.

Given wider recognition of racial disparities, and the sea change in attitudes in recent decades, there is no need to be pessimistic. Already, a consensus for criminal-justice reforms seems to be emerging between certain Democrats and the more libertarian-minded Republicans like Rand Paul. But progress will take more than reforms. The only way to break through the current impasse is to embark on rip-roaring economic growth and transformation that will open up opportunities for working people of all colours. Both blacks and whites would benefit from more jobs, better education, better homes – not just as a way of improving living standards, but as a way of delivering a greater sense of autonomy, too. But unfortunately we don’t see a lot of leadership and big ideas for growth today (if anything, we’re more likely to see the brakes being put on growth in the name of ‘sustainability’).

Indeed, too much of today’s race discussion takes for granted that we must make do with a stagnant, rather than dynamic, economy and society. That backdrop is why the discussion often displays an inward, self-flagellating quality: it ends up being a zero-sum fight over scarce resources, and a blame game for why we don’t get along.

Ferguson could be the start of a better debate about race in America. But for such a debate to take place, we have to get over a big obstacle: today’s belief that universality is impossible. We also need to assume that people can disagree and still be of good faith, and to allow all to speak freely and challenge orthodoxies, both old and new.

Sean Collins is a writer based in New York. Visit his blog, The American Situation.

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Topics USA


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