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“A Nation Of Cultural Illiterates”: What’s Next In Ferguson? Let’s Try A Little Education

What next?

That’s what should concern us now. When the nightly dance of angry protesters, opportunistic criminals, and inept police clashing over the shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown finally ends, what steps should civic-minded people take to address the ongoing abuse of African-Americans by the criminal injustice system? Not just in Ferguson, Missouri, but in America?

There will be no shortage of good ideas: dashboard cameras, community policing, the hiring of more black cops, the removal of military hardware from police arsenals, sensitivity training. To these, I would add a suggestion that is admittedly less “sexy” than any of those, but which I think has greater potential to make fundamental change in the long term. In a word: education.

Beginning as early as the latter elementary years, schools should offer — no, require — age-appropriate cross-cultural studies that would, in effect, introduce us to us. Meaning not some airy-fairy curriculum of achievements and accomplishments designed to impart some vague intra-cultural pride, but a hard-headed, warts and all American history designed to impart understanding of who we are, where we’re from and the forces that have made us — inner-city black, Appalachian white, barrio Mexican, whatever.

You might consider this a utopian idea. Maybe it is. But I’ve never been able to shake a conviction that if you walk the proverbial mile in another man’s shoes, you inoculate yourself against your biases toward him. I believe empathy follows understanding.

Surely we could use some empathy just now. As America races toward a future in which no one race is numerically dominant, it remains largely a nation of cultural illiterates content to interpret various Others through lenses of stereotype and canard. If this has been a bonanza for certain politicians (“Elect me and I’ll keep you safe from the gays/the Mexicans/the blacks!”), let us never forget that this ignorance, these unconscious biases for and against, have real-world impact.

Michael Brown lying dead in the street is seemingly one image thereof. Here’s another:

Last Thursday at 2:30 in the morning, seven teenagers, ages 18 and 19, broke into the home of basketball star Ray Allen. Allen, who played last season for the Miami Heat, was not home, but his wife was. Waking to find strangers in her bedroom, she screamed and they ran.

Police say the teenagers, who had been at a party at a house near Allen’s in the tony South Florida suburb of Coral Gables, didn’t think anybody was home and simply wanted to see what it looked like inside. The kids were questioned and released. Authorities have thus far declined to prosecute, saying — incredibly — that under Florida law, there was no crime with which the group could be charged.

It ought not surprise you to learn that these kids were white Hispanics. And I challenge you — I double-dog dare you — to tell me seven black kids who invaded a home in a wealthy neighborhood in the middle of the night would have likewise gotten off with a good talking-to. Black kids are strangers to such lavish benefit of the doubt.

And we have been too sanguine for too long about such inequality of treatment in a nation whose birth certificate says, “all men are created equal.” We have only the one country. And we can either tear it apart or figure out a way we can all live in it in justice and thus, in peace.

To do that, we must stop being moral cowards, stop embracing the idea that somehow, our racial and cultural challenges will resolve themselves if we just don’t talk about them. Ignore it and it will go away. Take a good look at the carnage in Ferguson and ask yourself:

How’s that working out so far?

 

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist, The Miami Herald; The National Memo, August 20, 2014

 

August 22, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Ferguson Missouri, Racial Segregation | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“What’s Exceptional About Ferguson, Missouri?”: Not The Heart Of The Crisis So Much As A Capillary That Finally Broke

“This whole area, this city is a racial powder keg,” one man at a protest in Ferguson, Missouri told the LA Times, two days after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown. In an attempt to explain why the St. Louis suburb has been filled with demonstrators, showered in tear gas and rubber bullets, and patrolled by armored vehicles in the days since, reporters have unearthed a “history of racial segregation, economic inequality and overbearing law enforcement” that, editors of The New York Times wrote, “produced so much of the tension now evident on the streets.”

The racial disparities that define Ferguson are indeed shocking. More than two-thirds of the town’s residents are black, but almost all of the officials and police officers are white: the mayor and the police chief, five of six city council members, all but one of the members of the school board, 50 of 53 police officers.

Most of the time, those officers search and arrest people who don’t look like them. In 2013, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people. The skewed numbers don’t correspond at all to the levels of crime. While one out of every three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, only one in five blacks had contraband.

But is Ferguson really exceptional? The town is just north of one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the country, St. Louis. Most cities in America, however, are still highly segregated when it comes to their black and white populations. The high percentage of black Ferguson residents below the poverty line—28 percent—is in fact consistent with the percentage of black Americans who live in poverty throughout the country. The point is not that Ferguson’s particular history and statistics don’t matter; rather, it is that whatever shock, outrage, and action they inspire should be amplified exponentially. It’s easier to accept ugliness, though, by pretending a mirror is a window to somewhere else.

The unequal application of the force of the law is also well documented across the country. Five times as many whites use illegal drugs as black Americans, and yet black people are sent to prison on drug charges at ten times the rate of whites. And disparity is evident in other police forces; for example, only 10 percent of the New York Police Department’s recruits in 2013 were black.

The whiteness of Ferguson’s political leadership is a national trait, too. Since Reconstruction, only four states have elected black senators: Illinois, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and New Jersey. Voters in 25 states still have never elected a black representative to the House.

We know also that the killing of a young, unarmed black person isn’t unique to Ferguson. It wasn’t unique to Sanford or Jacksonville; nor to Staten Island; Beavercreek, Ohio; Dearborn Heights, Michigan;  Pasadena, California; or any of the other cities that, as Jelani Cobb writes, now bleed together in “the race-tinged death story” that “has become a genre itself.”

There’s a crisis all right. But Ferguson is not its heart so much as a capillary finally burst. That many find the sadness and rage in Ferguson more needing of explanation than the militarized response is particularly telling.

 

By: Zoe Carpenter, The Nation, August 13, 2014

August 14, 2014 Posted by | Economic Inequality, Poverty, Racial Segregation | , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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