What many seem to miss regarding the Ferguson situation is that this is not simply about the “facts” of the case involving teenager Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson. People who care about the future of this country must start looking more attentively at the bigger picture. This includes a long history of black communities and individuals being treated as second-class citizens. While it is true that some African-Americans were able for a variety of reasons to overcome the severe limitations that they encountered, the successes of some should never be used to ignore the plight of the many. What we face today is not simply whether, in this particular case, the police officer was acting in self-defense; maybe he was or maybe he wasn’t. What we face today however is the accumulation of frustrations and disappointments of a whole community and its members with a system that makes them experience America in a significantly different way from the majority. This is both an institutional and cultural problem.
Despite all the progress achieved in recent decades, black communities and individuals are still seen through the prism of a racist lens. The racism is not as overt as in the past, partly because of the success of the “political correctness” frame. It manifests itself in indirect ways, but it is unmistakably there. Black people are dealt with as a threat that must be contained instead of being approached as equals worthy of being respectfully engaged. This does not mean that African-American communities are free of internal problems; throughout their histories, intense debates, even conflicts, shaped the trajectories of many of these communities over a variety of issues and practices. It seems to me however, that our role as outsiders and as fellow Americans is to hold ourselves accountable about the multiple ways in which we participate in maintaining conditions that oppress communities of color and push some of their members into harmful directions.
It is extremely short-sided to focus on recent acts of vandalism and violence that, while they must be condemned, are far from being the most important element in the current situation. I would argue that neither the violence nor the legal case in Ferguson ought to define the moment (without downplaying the pain and anger involved in all these processes). What ought to be our biggest concern is our failure as Americans to effectively challenge and change a morally repugnant reality in which the lives of some of our fellow citizens are routinely treated as less worthy than the rest. Perhaps, no image is more haunting in the American setting than that of an African-American mother saying goodbye to her child in the morning with a fear in her stomach that she might not see him again, simply because his skin color makes him more likely to “get in trouble.”
In our social memory, a young black man is suspicious and is thus approached in a highly distrustful fashion. Even a man like President Obama, who made it to the top of the political hierarchy, has been portrayed over the years in ways that remind us that his “blackness” made him by definition suspicious and untrustworthy. It is thus no surprise that young black men are routinely and disproportionately the victims of police brutality and uneven implementation of justice. This is the case not because all police officers and other authorities are racist and unprincipled; such a myopic view is extremely unfair to many hard-working and honest officers. In my opinion, this is rather the result of the aforementioned cultural and institutional failures that continue to shape our interaction with African-Americans. Importantly, the common feeling that what is occurring in front of our eyes is “no surprise” is itself the biggest testament that it is time for all of us to pause and deeply reflect about where we are today as a nation. We are certainly not in a post-racial world, as some have prematurely assumed. There is a lot of work to do America!