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“The True Foment Is Deeper And Broader”: Ferguson’s Schools Are Just As Troubling As Its Police Force

A day after his visit to Ferguson, Missouri, Attorney General Eric H. Holder stated in a press conference that, “History simmers beneath the surface in more communities than just Ferguson.” To what history was he referring? Many assumed General Holder meant the longstanding tensions between the mostly black residents of Ferguson and the mostly white police force, but I believe General Holder meant a deeper and broader history that goes well beyond policing. The anger in Ferguson is not just in reaction to shabby treatment by the police, but also the city’s housing, educational, and other civic institutions.

The history of racial mistrust in Ferguson can be found in the legacy of residential segregation in the St. Louis metropolitan area, enforced from the early to the middle twentieth century through mechanisms such as racially restrictive covenants, zoning laws, realtors agreements, and assessors ratings, as research by Professor Colin Gordon demonstrates. Because of these longstanding policies, black Ferguson residents today are disproportionately renters without a strong political stake in the town’s governance and geographically concentrated in areas without economic power.

The broader perspective can be found by looking to recent events surrounding the school district that serves Ferguson residents. Michael Brown graduated from Normandy High School, which was located, until recently, in the Normandy School District. The facts here are a bit complex, but note that I said “until recently.”  That is because the Normandy School district lost its accreditation in 2012 due to dismal standardized test scores. (Normandy was one of only three out of 500 school districts in Missouri to lose its accreditation.) The state school board took over the Normandy School District and renamed it the “Normandy School Collaborative.” By 2013, though, the new district also had lost its accreditation. Missouri law allows students of failed districts to transfer to higher-performing schools in surrounding suburbs, but the failing school district has to pay tuition and transportation costs to get the kids to their new schools. The 1,000 transfer students of Normandy obviously had no desire to remain in the “new” failed district, but the cost was high, so, incredibly, the state board voted to waive accreditation of the Collaborative rather than classify the new district as unaccredited. Ferguson’s teenagers were therefore trapped in a failed school because state politicians didn’t want to pay for them to transfer out.

These kinds of shenanigans put the policing of Ferguson into context.  The protests we have watched unfold there are not simply about unfair policing in that town; rather, they are the result of a deep and broad collection of official decisions that residents, not surprisingly, interpret as demeaning to them. Viewed in this light the analogies that some have drawn to the riots of the sixties make more sense. The Kerner Commission, charged with investigating urban unrest, hypothesized that conditions in slum living such as poor housing, schools, and jobs fueled the violent reactions of residents, but the reporters also fingered as a prime cause of every riot during the period tensions between police and residents of so-called racial ghettoes. The Commission noted specifically that public confrontations between law enforcement personnel and residents of segregated urban neighborhoods, usually ordinary arrests or stops, as opposed to extraordinary and tragic events like the one in Fergsuon, specifically sparked many riots. Policing incidents may trigger social unrest, but the true foment is deeper and broader.

The lessons that police can learn to prevent incidents such as these also have broader application. My colleague Tom Tyler and I have written that police legitimacy is a key to promoting compliance with the law and better cooperation between police and the public. Decades of social psychological research shows that the foundation of legitimacy is in four components of procedural justice. Legal authorities such as police promote legitimacy by (1) treating people with dignity and respect; (2) making decisions fairly, based on fact and not on illegitimate factors such as race; (3) giving people a chance to tell their side of the story, what psychologists call “voice;” (4) and acting in a way that encourages those with whom authorities deal to believe that they will be treated benevolently in the future. The research is quite clear. People care more about these factors than outcomes. That is, it is often more important to them to be treated with dignity and respect while receiving a negative outcome, such as a traffic ticket, than it is to be treated poorly and not receive a ticket even in a situation where they clearly violated the law. The bottom line? The citizens of Ferguson want to believe that the authorities they interact with believe that they, Ferguson residents, count. Instead, again and again the message the Ferguson residents have received through official action, word and deed is that they do not.

Those of us outside of Ferguson received a lesson in what I have sketched out here when Captain Ron Johnson of the Missouri Highway Patrol came to Ferguson. It is true that his race and the fact that he grew up in the town helped smooth the way for him. It is also true that the fact that he went out and spoke to the demonstrators, listened to them, and explained what he was doing and why are all textbook components of procedural justice.  When police authorities act in this way, if a tragic incident such as the shooting of Michael Brown occurs, police executives get a “moment of pause” rather than a riot.

City leaders and the Normandy School board can benefit from a greater commitment to legitimacy in their decision-making as well. Transparency and inclusiveness are keys. I believe that the citizens of Ferguson simply want to be treated as just thatcitizens. It is far past time to provide them with what they deserve.

 

By: Tracey Meares, The New Republic, August 22, 2014

August 23, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Missouri, Missouri Legislature | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oppressive Lethargy Of Choicelessness”: What Is The Kerner Commission And Why It Should Be Revisited In Light of Ferguson

What we must remember always — and something I have told many juries in the past — is that the most powerful person in the world, on a day-to-day basis, is not the president of the United States. No, it is a police officer. Your local police officer can engage you — one-on-one, every day of the week, anywhere and any place. Your local police officer has the authority and power to take your life; and more often than not, get away with it; particularly if you happen to be a black or brown male in our society.

And how does it, all too often occur, that a police officer — most often a white police office — happens to shoot and kill or otherwise brutalize a black or brown male? Because by doing nothing when our local police officers engage in everyday minor, but insidious wrongdoing — most often directed at black and brown community residents, we enable and embolden all law enforcement personnel to believe that any wrongful conduct is acceptable simply because they wear a badge. They assume and too many in our society accept that, because they are police officers, our Constitutional constraints, under which they are sworn to perform, do not also apply to them even though they apply to each and every other American citizen.

So when I discuss the civil rights issues we tackled yesterday and the civil rights issues we confront today, including those that focus on law enforcement, I constantly advance the position that, while everything has changed, nothing has changed.

When the race riots of the 1960s occurred in communities across the nation, President Lyndon Baines Johnson appointed a commission, chaired by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner. My mentor, the Honorable Nathaniel R. Jones, served as an Assistant Counsel on the staff of this commission before he assumed the position of General Counsel of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and then was appointed by former President Jimmy Carter to the federal Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The Kerner Commission Report concluded that the trigger for the riots — throughout the country — invariably derived from confrontations between the local police and members of local African-American communities. It also concluded that the residents’ held an often justified perception of the largely white police as an occupying force which was in the community to serve and protect the interests of the privileged white communities rather than to serve and protect the legitimate interests of the local minority residents and that the police inherently harbored racist attitudes toward residents of minority communities that they were also charged to serve.

Moreover, the Commission found that the underlying conditions in the making over decades — in fact, over centuries — in African-American communities provided the context for the precipitating trigger incidents of the unrest in the 1960s: racially segregated communities, inferior schools, high unemployment, and insufficient or inadequate governmental responses and attention to community needs leading those who resided in minority communities to suffer from a societal-imposed color “cast” status. They became victims of what the Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her award-winning novel, Americanah, more recently described as the “oppressive lethargy of choicelessness” — a choicelessness growing out of government sanctioned inequality and second-class citizenship and a choicelessness that was waiting to explode.

Do these findings of the 1968 Kerner Commission sound familiar in 2014?

So, I urge President Barack Obama to revisit the Kerner Commission, some 50 years later; and to ascertain where — if anywhere — we have come since the founding of our nation with its original sin (slavery and its ongoing legacy); and where we have yet to go, since we are far, far from having arrived at a “more perfect union.”

What to do?

I propose that President Obama appoint a Commission, chaired by not one governor, but by two former presidents — Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush, under the auspices of the Carter Center and the George W. Bush Library; and comprised of distinguished and diverse members such as Governor Deval Patrick, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Cisneros, Retired Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, John Paul Stevens, David Souter, former Attorney General Janet Reno, to be supported by a staff of highly respected and renown professionals from all walks of life to address and to courageously face our past and our present in order to plot our course forward.

While everything changes, the one constant that has not changed is the deeply embedded institutional and individual attitudinal racism that pervades our country. The fact remains that the impetus for local community explosions — racism — almost always is triggered by a confrontation between police officers (most often white) and black and brown males — youth and men, alike.

In 1852, at the Friends House in Rochester, NY, Fredrick Douglass stated in his historic address entitled, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, that “We must do with the past only as we make it useful to the present and the future.” Such is as true today as it was in 1852. And it is as true today as it was in the 1960s.

 

By: James I. Meyerson, Assistant General Counsel in the Office of the NAACP General Counsel, 1970-1981; The Huffington Post Blog, August 18, 2014

August 19, 2014 Posted by | Law Enforcement, Police Officers, Racism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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