The Meaning of Ferguson

The Meaning of Ferguson
November 26, 2014

Anyone who cares about the future of this country has probably been watching the news, or in some cases, participating in the aftermath of the police shooting of a young black man, and now following the announcement that the Grand Jury has not found cause to indict the policeman.

Rotating back and forth between MSNBC and Fox news, one can get a sense of the two extremes in points of view:

  • Michael Brown was murdered by the white policeman in yet another example of law enforcement racial profiling and prejudice against young men of color. He was unarmed and was trying to comply when he was shot repeatedly. This would not have happened if the young man had been white.

Or

  • A young man robbed a convenience store, threatened the proprietor in the process, caught on videotape, and a few minutes later aggressively challenged and then threatened a white policeman who was simply doing his job, ultimately causing the policeman, in fear of his own life, following prescribed procedures resulting in killing the young man. Color had nothing to do with it. 
The second version above is essentially what the Grand Jury concluded. There are protests taking place in Ferguson and in other major cities across the US, some causing damage to buildings and vehicles. Tensions are high.
What is the truth, and what does all this mean?
First, I don’t pretend to know exactly what happened. Granted, at the moment, it appears the weight of evidence is mostly in support of the Grand Jury conclusion. But there may be other lawsuits and other findings.

However, these conclusions are also evident from this incident and it’s aftermath:

  1. Many Americans strongly believe this was a terrible injustice.
  2. Many also see this as a critical opportunity to protest and appeal the continuing injustice imposed on young men of color by white law enforcement.
  3. It is certainly possible that media on the Left is stoking protest and potential damage to the innocent, whether intended, or in good faith to their beliefs.
  4. Whatever is the truth of this incident, the response is reflective of a deeper sense of disenfranchisement among young men of color and all Americans of color. 
    • Reflecting the reality that there has been a history of racial prejudice among some elements of white law enforcement, and some of it continues.
    • There is also a high crime rate among young men of color.
    • There is a high unemployment rate among these young men.
    • It is not hard to understand why many in this population feel there is prejudice, not only in law enforcement, but in education and employment–essentially in all forms of opportunity. There is truth to this feeling.
    • There is justified anger among these people.
It is perplexing why this particular incident has taken on the role of galvanizing the concerned and affected to try to move the needle of justice to the left, considering that the deceased was caught on tape stealing and roughing up a convenience store owner, only a few minutes before his encounter with the policeman. Yet, we all acknowledge that this behavior does not justify his death.

Regardless of the merits of the catalyst, I argue that a significant portion of the dilemma is the result of our allowance of a high level of inequality: gender inequality, age inequality, religious prejudice, national and cultural prejudice, and especially racial prejudice. All of this is intertwined with income and wealth inequality, which in turn is exacerbated by our prejudices.

Establishing equality of opportunity is the starting place for our fixing the justified anger of young men of color. 
In previous posts, I have argued that equality of opportunity has been steadily diminishing across the last 30 years, has now reached alarming levels. Our public schools have been starved by the tax cutting strategies of Republicans, while children of the wealthy go to well funded and expensive private schools. Opportunities to provide employment for lesser educated citizens in our vast desperately needed infrastructure upgrades have been denied by Republican resistance to spending. Legal protections to workers have been withdrawn in favor of greater “flexibility” for employers, argued to improve economic growth. Compensation to entertainers, athletes, and C Class executives has skyrocketed, while wages for the middle class and below have stagnated.
The net result is that inequality of both wealth and income has advanced to a level equal to the worst in our history, reversing all the improvements gained between 1925 and 1980. We are rapidly approaching a plutocracy, where wealth controls all important outcomes.

And at the bottom of this increasingly steep pyramid of wealth and opportunity are young men of color. Some say there is no need for action to help, that this is a land of great opportunity. They single out the few examples among young black men who have somehow navigated the gauntlet from poverty and made it to a level of success. The rest of us sympathize, recognizing that for the vast majority, the deck is still stacked against them.

Here in my part of the country, there are a few organizations which have raised enough to help several hundred of the youth of color annually, providing same sex mentors to supplement single or no parents, and to help them qualify for decent colleges, proving there is lots of intelligence and talent there–just the need for a helping hand, the kind most of us had at least four of, during our growing years, not counting grandparents’ hands.

If the protesters can prevent damage to the innocent, if they can stay peaceful and avoid violence, these protests can raise awareness of the problems. If not, the protests may convince skeptics that young men of color do not abide by the law and do not deserve help.

I challenge anyone to dispute this: If these young men felt they had equal opportunity, equal access to education and jobs, we would experience far less of the incidents which lead to the altercations. Young men would not be stealing cigarillos. They’d be home with their families, preparing for work the next day, walking the dog, just like you and me.

It is our responsibility to assure equal opportunity.  If we do a good job of that, we won’t have to talk about redistribution, and we won’t need so much money for social support programs, such as welfare.
Let’s get started!

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