Monday, November 24, 2014

Thoughts on Ferguson

There is a definite racial imbalance in this country. Most of us who don't have overt racial biases or tendencies, especially those of us who are white, don't notice it as much as those who are in the minority. Unfortunately, there is often a negative interaction between some minorities and law enforcement. In the vast majority of these cases, race isn't driving the issue, but poor decisions by people. Race, too often, is claimed as the cause. Usually these interactions occur in economically disadvantage areas that are overwhelmingly African American. The economic conditions of these minorities in many cases are the result of the past's institutionalized racism. Find a way to invigorate these communities economically and crime will drop. If we can drop crime, these types of interactions will decrease. 

Riots in Ferguson are not merely a sideshow cause by a few nut jobs. It's much larger than that. This involves thousands of people taking advantage of the situation in order to steal and commit further violent acts. There are individuals and groups that gain from fanning the racial flames beyond what is necessary or helpful. Going after a cop and an institution before getting the facts of what happened doesn't help a bad situation. When the truth came out about what happened, it merely made people angrier when things didn't turn out the way they demanded. They made a terrible situation much worse. Instead of heightening the awareness of racial problems among other parts of society, they instead have drowned out the voices of those with reasonable concerns. There is a massive gap in the methods and purposes of today's protesters as compared to those in the days of Martin Luther King, Jr.

If these same "concerned" citizens focused on the issues that are having a widespread and devastating impact on the black community, then the rest of the world would take them more seriously.

Institutional racism exists today, but it is largely the result of what happened in the past. Fixing economic imbalance isn't an easy thing. Both parties have failed at it. Many would argue that Johnson's War on Poverty did as much to maintain and exacerbate the imbalance as anything that Reagan attempted. But, it's important to understand that neither of these presidents implemented policies with the intent to disadvantage the minorities. Simply, it's a complex problem with no easy fixes.

Somehow poverty rates among minorities have worsened under President Obama and a Democrat controlled Congress. Should we assume that he is racist? Absolutely not. Rather we should realize that the problem is beyond his scope of abilities and understanding, just as it has been for so many other presidents. Large government programs, tough new laws, or billions of dollars won’t fix this problem. It can only be fixed in individual homes.

Here's my biggest problem with the terrible death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the terrible death of Trayvon Martin in Florida--two young men died who shouldn't have and those deaths brought down the condemnation of millions of people in this country, people with good and some with bad intentions. But, when young black men are killing other young black men nearly indiscriminately in places like Chicago, those same voices are largely silent. That is where we see the true cost of institutionalized racism, not in these handfuls of sensationalized cases where the media and people on both sides of the racial equation distort the truth. What are Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, President Obama, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Mitch McConnell and others doing to stop the type of violence that is killing hundreds and thousands of young black people? Instead, everyone goes crazy when an isolated incident occurs. We pat ourselves on the back and convince others and ourselves that these are the real issues and that by tackling these issues we're going to impact the problem. We're not; we're making the problem worse.

At the same time we can't dismiss the reaction of protesters.  For some this simply is a reason to run rampant, be violent, and steal a few items they may want.  For many they are reacting to a situation that symbolizes the oppressive reality of their economic condition and their interaction with authority.  People, at all levels of society, must use this unfortunate event and the needless fallout, as an impetus for meaningful dialogue.  This issue is a behemoth, something that will not be fixed quickly or easily.  

Addendum - The Day After
 As I was driving home from work last night, I was listening to local talk radio as the nation waited for the results of the grand jury decision.  One of the callers hit the nail on the head with his description of what is happening at the street level, where law enforcement and minorities interact.  The caller described himself as a large, black man.  He said he weighs around 260 lbs and has several tattoos.  Each time he's been pulled over he can sense the nervousness of the officer making the stop.  As he said, here is an officer who deals with terrible things and terrible people every day.  Unfortunately, too many of those criminals happen to be young African American males.  The caller expressed his understanding of the source of the officers nervousness.  Society's economic and criminal realities are what they are--that officer on the street is not responsible for making them what they are and in most cases doesn't want the interaction to be about race, but about protecting and serving the public by enforcing laws fairly.  

The caller wasn't trying to justify this type of interaction at a societal level, but at an individual level.  Neither that caller nor the officers that pulled him over created the current situation.  They are dealing with an unfortunate reality that sometimes negatively impacts good and honest people.  The caller went on to explain how he acts in situations where he has interacted with police officers.  First, he recognizes that they deal with terrible people and terrible things on a daily basis.  Second, he does his best to show respect to the officer for two reasons--one good and one bad in my opinion, but both make sense.  He respects the officer and the job he is doing and he wants the officer to respect him as a person.  He also shows respect out of fear because he, the caller, doesn't want to be a victim of an escalating situation.

Our citizens and our law enforcement agencies can do a much better job of communicating and interacting.  Citizens of all social backgrounds need to feel ownership for the legal system.  They need to know that their voices will be heard on issues important to them.  By bringing those on the fringes of the system in to participate, law enforcement will gain greater support which is invaluable when terrible tragedies occur.

Many of those who feel disenfranchised in our country don't realize it, but we do have one of the best legal systems in the world.  It's not perfect, but it works better than almost anything else being used.  It works better when everyone understands it, supports it, and is engaged with it.  The reaction to Ferguson shouldn't be to further marginalize either side.  Instead we should find a way to have a deeper, more meaningful dialogue.

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