by Cadi Cliff
When a celebrity says something explicitly racist, we make a noisy ritual of shunning them. We’re able to do this because the multiculturalism movement changed the rules of civility. It has taught us what not to say to each other, but not what to say next.
Michael Brown, 18, was shot on August 9 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. The black teenager was fatally shot by Darren Wilson, 28, a white Ferguson police officer. The disputed circumstances of the shooting and the subsequent protests have ignited debate about law enforcement’s relationship with African-Americans and use of force by the police. The grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer over the death of Eric Garner came ten days after a grand jury in Missouri decided that Darren Wilson should not face criminal charges. The failure of any prosecution in both the Brown, Martin, and Garner cases highlights a trend in the American judicial system; once is a tragedy, twice is a pattern.
Every time toxic, tragic events reveal the unequal ways that different Americans experience re-segregation and state violence, we talk about having a productive discussion, but we never really have it. Instead, we’ve regressed a half-century in our racial progress.
Any person who looks at Ferguson, or to the masses assembling in New York, and doesn’t recognize the root cause of it, is not interested in confronting America’s institutionalized racism. They’re committed to upholding the current social order that was built to oppress and degrade black life. They’re an opponent of justice and an advocate of white supremacy.
If we want to ensure these atrocities aren’t swallowed up by history, we have to address the situation not just as another act of systemic racism, but also as one of class warfare.
The fist-shaking of everyone’s racial agenda – a recent Pew research poll found that 80% of African American and 50% of Hispanic Americans felt the Michael Brown killing raised important issues worthy of discussion, and by contrast, only 37% of white people agreed, while almost half felt race was receiving too much attention; one group’s invitation to a conversation is still another’s cue to exit the room it would seem – distracts America from the issue that the victims of recent police overreaction are based not just on skin colour, but also on being poor. To many in America, being a person of colour is synonymous with being poor. Being poor is, in turn, synonymous with being a criminal, a confusion which is true even amongst the poor themselves. But that is exactly how the status quo wants it.
And so with each of these killings, the police and the judicial system are seen as enforcers of an unfair status quo, anger rises, and riots demanding justice ensue. The news channels interview away and ‘experts’ assign blame. Then what?
Well the poor must be joined by the middle class, and African-Americans must be joined by whites, in a movement of change – mass demonstrations, ejecting corrupt politicians, tackling exploitative businesses, and passing legislation that encourages economic equality and opportunity. A precise agenda must be found, detailing exactly what must change and how, otherwise people will simple gather again and again and again by the bodies of the dead. Silence is not an option; silence only gets filled by those who profit from the politics of division.
The question still lingers though, will the rioting in Ferguson be a tipping point in the fight against racial prejudice, or will it be a footnote in some future graduate student’s thesis on civil unrest?
There was hope, when Obama was elected, for some sort of racial peace; instead there has been a revival of the culture wars. Left with do-nothing politics, change on most racial justice issues seems unconceivable. However the Obama years have also been characterised by a return to community and cultural organising. The young people on the streets have sparked a moment of potential; they have made it their calling to not let a single murder go unnoticed and no name forgotten. The Ferguson protestors, and those beyond, are already making history by restarting ‘the race conversation’ for real.
We’ve seen Missouri governor, Jay Nixon, officially launch the so-called ‘Ferguson commission’ made up of 16 people (three under 30 and nine African Americans) to ‘conduct a thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the underlying social and economic conditions’. We’ve seen Attorney general Eric Holder announce that he will hold city-by-city meetings to discuss race relations and issues of policing.
For any of these commissions to have any impact, and if we insist that the politics of racial division will no longer work, then some honest and empathetic discussion is needed ourselves, about the long-term impact of re-segregation and inequality. It’s not enough anymore for events to be caught on video, for you to hold up your hands, be unarmed, for the chokehold to banned, or for a coroner to rule it a homicide. None of this appears to matter. We can’t just await the next toxic, tragic event. We need to start this conversation, properly, in households and streets and in government buildings, and start it now.